And Social Justice for All

THE HOUR

By Leonard Fein

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In case you haven’t noticed — but of course, you have — these are not the best of times. There are even those who assert they are the worst of times, but on the perfectly reasonable supposition that things can always get still worse, I won’t go that far. Actually, rather than review the mountain of evidence of just how bad things are, I will summarize with just one word: Ashcroft.

You’ve also noticed that Pesach is rushing up to meet us — or we it — and with it the real, not the chronological, spring. And spring, as is well known, hopes eternal. Accordingly, then, a column on the reasonableness of hope, the bad times notwithstanding.

But first, two items to set the stage: Nearly half of all entering college freshmen this year favored an increase in military spending. That’s more than double the percentage in 1993, and almost surely reflects a post-September 11 sensibility. The same cannot quite be said of the television program I chanced upon the other night, ABC’s “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People.” (Don’t ask.) For an example of utter mindlessness, it would be hard to top this. A nearly hysterical audience, a host who was all foam and no beer, and eight finalists — four well-built but watery men and four well-built but vapid women — this while several television channels away their age peers were killing and dying in Iraq.

It is against that general background that I reviewed 24 applications for “social justice fellowships” at Shatil, the Israel-based capacity-building arm of the New Israel Fund.

The fellowships, named in memory of Richard J. Israel, late Hillel rabbi extraordinaire, and Nomi Fein, my daughter, come to my desk as a courtesy; I am not on the selection committee. But what an absolute delight to read through them! I was dazzled, inspired, even awed, and most of all, reassured: At the very least, a saving remnant is intact.

The program is principally directed at recent college graduates, and the fellowships enable their winners to work for a year at a social change organization in Israel. This year’s applicants come from Harvard and Yale, Columbia; the Universities of Michigan, Texas, Kansas and Wisconsin; from Wesleyan and SUNY Buffalo and the University of Melbourne; from UCLA, Goucher, Washington U., Hunter, the Sorbonne, Loyola, Queens, Claremont, and also from Northern Arizona U. and the University of Western Ontario.

They are a stunning mix of academic high-achievers, lovers of Zion and social justice advocates. Most are proficient in Hebrew, and seven have at least some Arabic. One “picked up” Japanese along the way, at a level of proficiency that has enabled him to hold his conversations with his undergraduate thesis advisor — his thesis is on “accent patters of different dialects of Japanese” — in Japanese. He can also sign in Japanese. (Not to worry: His Hebrew is excellent, his French is fluent and he can get along in Italian and Spanish as well.)

They want to work on coexistence, or on the environment, or on women’s issues, or on human rights, or on religious pluralism, or on all of the above. Several count themselves observant Jews, and most have taught Hebrew school or Sunday school along the way. They’ve been in NFTY, USY, BBYO and Habonim; they’ve attended Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Ramaz in New York, sundry yeshivot. Seventeen have spent a semester or more studying in Israel and five are Birthright graduates.

One applicant, not from an observant background, met each week during three years of his university career with a rabbi and a group of five other students to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. Several have been volunteers for American Jewish World Service or for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. One has been a speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the United States, another a press officer in Israel’s Washington embassy.

Their essays, explaining their reasons for applying — which inevitably means their relationship to Israel — would gladden the hearts of the crustiest Zionist. They have defended Israel on their campuses, but know that Israel needs defense of a different kind from within. One, recounting an episode in Israel in which one of her friends walked out of a room when he disagreed with the speaker, concludes that “No matter what the circumstances, never slam the door and walk out. You have to stay in the room to make a difference.”

So maybe there is a dumbing down in America, and maybe — no, for sure — young people don’t by and large relate to Israel as those of us “of a certain age” do. Maybe the sky is falling, maybe turmoil and terror are our destiny.

But for sure all is not lost: If we seek to pass the torch, there are those who will eagerly take it up. They will take it up not out of courtesy to their elders, and not as a burden, but because of how they see the world: As one of them writes, “My belief in social justice has always been certain and fundamental.… [this fellowship] would be the ideal merging of my commitment to social justice and my personal connection with being Jewish.”

Why, then, is this year the same as all other years? Because, in the words of the old song, od lo nutkah hashalshelet, the chain is not yet broken.

Chag same’ach.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).






Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.