Peace Reigns In Meeting of Establishment Honcho and Orthodox Anarchist

Debate: Dan Sieradski, a self-styled Orthodox anarchist, and John Ruskay, the CEO of UJA- Federation of New York, appeared in New York to discuss the state of the Jewish world.
gAl BECkERMAN
Debate: Dan Sieradski, a self-styled Orthodox anarchist, and John Ruskay, the CEO of UJA- Federation of New York, appeared in New York to discuss the state of the Jewish world.

By Gal Beckerman

Published December 22, 2009, issue of January 01, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

An event billed by some as a “celebrity death match” between a representative of the Jewish establishment and a self-proclaimed Orthodox anarchist turned instead into a chummy all-male evening laced with schnapps.

The program, a “dialogue” between John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York and Daniel Sieradski, who started the popular liberal blog Jewschool, took place December 19 in the basement of B’nai Jeshurun, the 150-year-old synagogue that has become the darling of the Manhattan’s Upper West Side intelligentsia.

Having been organized by its men’s havurah (fellowship), the evening had a clubhouse feeling. Most of those present wore sweaters, a table full of hard liquor — including some quality Scotch — sat at the back of the room and a snowstorm raged outside.

When it came to substance, though, for all the talk of generational clash and insiders vs. outsiders, there was surprisingly little friction between the two men.

In part this had to do with Ruskay, an unusual figure in Jewish life, having emerged from what could be called the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. He helped organize the havurah movement and was friendly with many of the young people who occupied Jewish federations in protest over their funding priorities — including, he said pointedly, the federation he runs today. This history seemed to make him sympathetic to Sieradski, who defined his anarchism as “nonhierarchicalism.” Ruskay said that young Jews should not wait for the “system” to produce anything for them, they should do it themselves. He used the Vietnam protest movement to illustrate his point.

“If we would have waited for people to create the havurah movement or the Heschel schools, it would have never happened,” Ruskay said, referring also to the pluralistic Jewish day schools he helped found.

Sieradski’s complaint about the establishment — and the crux of the criticism he lobbed at Ruskay — was that the price of admission for having a say in Jewish life is now too high.

“The reins of power are in the hands of the few,” Sieradski said. “And those are very wealthy people.”

He included UJA-Federation in this complaint, wondering if his voice would have any weight if he didn’t donate more than a few hundred dollars. He even referred to a particular example of sitting on the federation’s Web committee a few years ago and having his ideas — which he said are now widely accepted — ignored. Ruskay patted Sieradski’s arm and urged him to try again, saying that the federation was not a “fortress” but that to be involved, one would need a “willingness to get engaged, to drop your individual agenda at the door.”

They did have some other points of agreement, including what they both called the wrongheaded way that Israeli advocacy has been conducted in the community — but this portion of the evening, Ruskay said, referring to the sensitivity of the subject and to the Scotch, was off the record.

The event ended with an exchange that may have best captured what was more a father-son conversation than one between insider and outsider.

Sieradski talked about the frustration he felt in trying to get the establishment to acknowledge the efforts he and his cohort were undertaking to make Jewish life attractive to his generation.

“We’re looking for your approval because this is what you’ve asked of us,” Sieradski said.

“Screw our approval,” Ruskay said. “Create Jewish life that you think will work for you and your hevreh [friends]. Hopefully we’ll find ways to, at a minimum, not get in the way, and maybe we’ll even help you.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.