Understanding American Jewry

Citizen or Consumer? A mandate for American Jewish involvement in Israel's religion and state affairs

Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kansas shares his 5772/2002 Rosh Hashanah drasha about American Jewry's obligation to get involved in Israeli affairs- specifically regarding religion and state.

Rabbi Mark LevinRabbi Mark Levin

A friend of mine was reciting kaddish for his brother. One afternoon he went to see a movie, and he'd forgotten to say kaddish. So after the movie he stood up in front of the movie theater, in a high Jewish population college town, and announced in a loud voice, "I wonder if any of you could help me out. I am saying kaddish for my brother and need a minyan." Nine guys stepped forward and stayed to honor a Jew and his brother that they didn't even know.

What would you do if someone were standing right outside the COSTCO exit saying, "I need a minyan?" Would you be one of the 9 other Jews setting their carts aside, turning eastward, reciting kaddish, saying goodbye and returning to their separate lives?

Here's a different scenario: suppose the COSTCO store manager stood outside. He stops you and says, "Listen, our profits are down. We need for you to buy more items."

I suspect you'd look at him like he was nuts, and move on. Why? Because at Costco you're a consumer. Consumers make decisions to benefit themselves. But among the Jewish people, you are a citizen. The minyan guys stood up and said, "As citizens we have responsibilities." Consumers act for personal advantage. Citizens act for mutual gain. Citizenship often involves short term sacrifice for long term gain, like interrupting your schedule for kaddish or coming together for Rosh Hashanah worship.

When a person dies, we say, "He was a Jew; or an American." We don't say, "She was a COSTCO member." Citzenship defines our values, who we claim to be. So now my question for you tonight: Are you a citizen of the Jewish world, or are you a consumer?

Everywhere in the world, except among North America's liberal Jews, Israel defines the attitude toward Jews. Half the world's Jewish population lives there. More Jewish children are born in Israel today than in the rest of the world combined. Israel plays on history's stage. Israel dramatically affects your life as Jews, and if your personal narrative does not include Israel as a force you are denying reality.

But liberal Jews often either reject Israel's politics and choose to turn their back to it, or don't feel sufficiently invested to want to change it. And disengaging, we abandon the destiny of the central force in determining the direction of world Jewry to those who define themselves as citizens of the Jewish people. We desert the game before it is played. And without us, we are abandoning the fate of our children and our people.

Israel impacts your life positively, your children growing up in a world in which Jews are viewed with respect as strong men and women, not victims. What are you doing to strengthen Israel in return?

Israeli philosophy Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger in Haaretz newspaper recently wrote:

"Today, very few [Israeli] coalition members would be able to sign the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence … the promise of completely equal opportunities regardless of religion, race or gender has been buried."

The new reality is: As Israel, because of a political surrender to Orthodox politicians, becomes less democratic, more insistently Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, denying rights to minorities and even religious rights to the majority of Jews, it increasingly loses the support of the Jews of North America. Jews like you are simply walking away, ignoring our destiny.

The government trend in Israel is increasingly anti-democratic. But that's not what the Israeli people want. Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel, found that among Israelis:

• Over 75% support ensuring freedom of religion and conscience and are dissatisfied with how the government handles issues of religion and state.

• Half of non-ultra-Orthodox women refuse to ride the segregated bus lines.

• 2/3 of the Jewish public supports civil marriage.

Yet, in religion and many respects in human rights, Israel's direction is deeply anti-democratic. Israel has rebirthed Judaism in so many ways. Imagine a future generation of liberal Jews divorcing Israel over politics.

A non-democratic Israel, an Israel that accepts only Ultra-Orthodox Jews as fully Jewish, will ultimately be rejected by all but the zealots and Orthodox among North American Jewry. This could be our future, without a democratic Israel. That’s why I personally support returning Israel to its original non-sectarian, all inclusive, democratic, Jewish vision.

Israel impacts your life positively, your children growing up in a world in which Jews are viewed with respect as strong men and women, not victims. What are you doing to strengthen Israel in return?

I don't blame the Ulta-Orthodox for seeking to control the politics of Israel on impose their world view on the Jewish world;

I don't blame Israeli politicians for pandering to the right wing in order to achieve their goals;

I blame North America's liberal Jews for allowing the greatest event in 2,000 years of Jewish history to become just another commodity, just another consumer item, like an iPad, just another place. Israel presents the greatest possibility in the last 2,000 years and the greatest crisis, without exaggeration, and most of us live as though it does not exist.

Israel sets the image of a Jew worldwide: that both pleases us and makes us anxious, but it's reality. And let me tell you: future historians will not be kind to the generation that allowed Israel to become Ultra-Orthodox and non-democratic. Israel is the responsibility of citizens of the Jewish people. History confronts you, and the choice is entirely yours.

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