I grew up in a pretty progressive synagogue. We had a gay clergy member, and some of the others smoked pot. We were taught that there were few strict requirements to be a Jew and that Judaism was more about continuing traditions, keeping a community, and repairing the world (the principle known as “tikkun olam”). We were taught that you could be a member of this community even if you had a gay interfaith marriage, even if you’d enjoy shrimp on occasion, or even if you didn’t believe in G-d.
My community would read the Torah as a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, but it was not at all a literal set of laws to us. My mom believed in G-d but didn’t fast on Yom Kippur, and my dad was an atheist but would lie hungry in bed until the break-fast. The interpretation of the Jewish rules and traditions is personal and always changing, and nobody else can tell you the right way to be Jewish.
As a child, I mostly met my synagogue community with reluctance (try bringing any 10-year-old to Sunday school to learn Hebrew), but there were ways that my family got me to appreciate it. One of these ways was going to an overnight summer camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism every year.
Summer camp became my favorite week and a half out of the year. I made friends who would later travel across the country for each other’s B’nai Mitzvah (coming-of-age) ceremonies. We played Gaga ball and Capture the Flag all day, we sang songs in both English and Hebrew, and we had Shabbat services that felt relevant to a 12-year-old.
But, in hindsight, I am realizing now that so much of the institutions that keep Reform Judaism alive are the same ones that are propagandizing my community into support for the Israeli state.
The camp intertwined Jewish culture and Israeli culture. We would celebrate two “Israel Days” every session, where we would learn Israeli slang and how to cook falafel, a food with origins that have drawn immense controversy. We had a large group of Israeli camp counselors.
I took an elective called “Start Up Nation” to learn about business and innovations. The week consisted of learning about how the Israelis invented flash drives and Waze and drip irrigation. I took a model rocketry elective led by engineers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). We learned how the Israelis “made the desert bloom” with their innovations of agriculture and water management. We played card games about “Israeli landmarks” — from the Western Wall to the Golan Heights to the West Bank barrier.
The word “Palestinian” was never said in any presentation, and any mention of Palestine was always glossed over. That, of course, would be “too political.” You could question any Jewish value you wanted — except for the Jewish connection to Israel.
As I became a teenager, I started to attend some North American Federation for Temple Youth (NFTY, pronounced “nifty”) events. These were a couple hundred Jewish teenagers renting out the local Jewish summer camp for a weekend retreat. They never stuck with me as much as summer camp did, but they were a fun way for teenagers to stay involved with Judaism after our B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies.
The Friday nights were spent singing nostalgic camp songs, and the Saturday mornings were very filled by short and sweet Shabbat services. Again, the Israeli pride never stopped, and so much of the messaging from NFTY was advertising birthright trips.
Here’s the thing about the Israeli pride that was pushed down my throat, though: I am not Israeli. My ancestors, and the ancestors of most of the people at these summer camps, are ethnically Ashkenazi. They were from eastern Europe, not the middle east. They did not eat falafel or engage in any other part of Israeli culture. My great-grandparents did not speak Hebrew; they spoke Yiddish. While there are Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who may have a more nuanced connection and history in this land, I do not hold a claim to this heritage. And yet, as an American Ashkenazi Jew, I have more of a “right” to go to Israel than the Palestinian families who have been kicked out of their land.
I am not only eligible for a free birthright trip: Organizations like the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) are begging me to go on it. For free, I can spend 10 days touring the land, visiting the museums, swimming in the Dead Sea, and drinking my heart away. Maybe after that trip, I’d feel such a connection to the land I’m “indigenous” to that I could apply for Israeli citizenship and steal someone’s house in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians who have spent their entire lives in the West Bank or Gaza — who have a direct, multi-generational family lineage there — require bureaucratic permission just to go to an Israeli hospital or to visit their family in another zone. They are victims of a US-supported occupation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, all under the guise of establishing and protecting a Jewish state. In what world is this fair? In what world does this align with the progressive views that I was taught in my family and community?
When I was a teenager, I went with my grandparents and cousins to the Yiddish New York festival. My grandpa speaks a little bit of Yiddish, but his parents didn’t fully pass it down to him. We took Yiddish language classes in the mornings and learned to play Klezmer music in the afternoon. The violin I grew up learning to play became a fiddle, and I played it alongside my cousins’ band, The Pachechies (Yiddish for “complainers”).
The experience felt drastically different than going to a URJ event or something run by its affiliates. This is the culture that belongs to my family, this is the culture that I am proud of, and this is the culture that I want to pass on from generation to generation.
I am not Israeli, nor do I claim to be. After Oct. 7, I received more support and sympathy from this University than the Palestinian students who have family in Gaza or the West Bank ever will. It makes me sick that the University would sneak secret Public Safety officers into their space to grieve. It makes me sick that the University thinks I need protection from my fellow students. It makes me sick that the oppression of Palestinians, both on campus and abroad, has been done with the manufactured consent of my community.
I hope to see more Jewish spaces at this University that actually host honest discussions about the apartheid and ethnic cleansing, spaces that are honest about the history of our people and culture, and spaces that actually care about tikkun olam.
This article was published as part of the Campus Times’ Nov. 21, 2023 Special Edition on Israel-Palestine.