I have often found myself repeating a popular refrain, that fealty to Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust were the core beliefs of the reform Jewish community in which I came of age. As a teen, I struggled to connect these beliefs to my lived experiences, and consequently felt disconnected from Judaism and the Jewish people. The Jewish life of my affluent suburb was lacking in substance, and repeatedly emphasized an implicit message: that Judaism happened elsewhere, (in Israel, at camp, in the European past), and never here and now. As an adult, I first experienced Judaism in real-time when I participated in a three month Jewish Environmental Fellowship called ADAMAH. This became my first step on a journey to discover my Jewish self and to fight for Judaism in spite of the grievances and disconnects that characterized my upbringing.
After ADAMAH I moved to Detroit, where understanding indigenous struggles, marginalized histories, and white privilege were common themes in my daily life. I was quick to adopt language that was critical of Israeli policy, and felt comfortable amongst friends who felt like the Israel education they had received had been indoctrination, and left no room for dissension and critique. By and large, myself and my peers rebelled against the oversimplification that had characterized our past by researching alternative narratives of modern Israel and Palestine, and by avoiding Jewish spaces. For a long time, because of the interplay between my positive ADAMAH experience and my sense of having been lied to by the Jewish mainstream, I took refuge in the parts of my Jewish identity that had nothing to do with Israel or zionism. I focused on the bundist notion of doikayt, “hereness,” and strove to improve the world from the standpoint of my urban Detroit Jewish community.
But I still maintained an embattled relationship with Israel. I found myself frustrated and angry when I observed Israel education that did not acknowledge contemporary Israel’s complexities, that centered Israel as the core of diaspora American Jewish identity, and that ignored the histories of zionism as a colonial movement, and as part of a once diverse array of social & political ideologies. But instead of taking ownership of my feelings, I fell into a pattern of walking out on and avoiding the spaces where I didn’t like the way Israel was being taught, and opting for those spaces where I felt safe expressing my critical views; spaces which, I observed, mostly existed outside the Jewish mainstream.
The deeper I went on my own Jewish journey, the more fascinated I became with the various political movements of 20th century Eastern European Jewery, and the more I came to feel that my Jewish education had done me a great disservice. I also found that the questions my ancestors had asked, about zionism and bundism, about democracy, idealism, and colonialism, only served to deepen and complicate my relationship with Judaism. I found a richness and texture in the Yiddish speaking Jewish world of my ancestors, and rather than feeling as though this world had been eradicated by Hitler, I found that parts of this world lived on, in me.
The oversimplification of the story of Israel has done great damage to my generation of Jews. Those with a critical conscience are all too often turning their backs on Judaism because they see the values of complexity and question-asking as unwelcome at the Jewish table. It is my hope that, as a Jewish educator, I will be able to reframe Israel as part of a much bigger picture of Jewish diaspora history, while uplifting the Jewish rhythms of daily life that can serve as grounding for our Jewish identities. I hope that the next generation of Jewish young adults feel empowered to voice their grievances, to explore with an eye for multiple truths rather than cold hard facts, and, most importantly, to have meaningful and complex enough Jewish identities that Judaism will persist with or without a Jewish state.