I’m Seeking Freedom From the Organized Jewish Community This Passover

Preparing this column, I thought of many “profound” things to say about Passover. I’m a rabbi, after all, as well as an ex-lawyer, writer, speaker, teacher — I know how to gab. And the holiday is a goldmine of inspiration: themes of liberation, kinesthetic rituals, DIY Jewish observances, fascinating texts and histories.

But everything I thought of sounded fake. Even before this week’s tragic news from Jerusalem, the despair on Israel/Palestine has darkened everything. It’s bad enough that the cycle of terrorism and reprisal has begun again, with no prospect for hope. But lately the self-appointed voices of the American Jewish community — funded by our version of “the 1%” — have been acting so deplorably, pushing a vicious brand of Jewish McCarthyism on the Israel/Palestine issue, that it feels like false consciousness to mine the veins of the Jewish tradition for gems of inspiration. Worse than rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, “doing Jewish” right now feels like siding with the iceberg.

But then I thought some more. Over the last few months, as a scholar in residence, I’ve visited Jewish communities in Toronto, Chicago, South Florida — even my neighboring midsize town of Poughkeepsie, New York. I’ve visited small synagogues and large ones; Reform, Conservative and others.

And in every one, I’ve found vital communities doing authentically inspiring Jewish work. All are struggling with the same demographic trends that threaten mainstream American Judaism. And all are struggling with how to talk, or not talk, about Israel/Palestine. But all have dedicated professionals, a core of sincere and intelligent lay leaders, and groups of people blessedly unaware of the community’s Institutional Israel Insanity and interested in Jewish text, spirituality, culture, community, whatever.

It’s a curious phenomenon. The IJC, the Institutional Jewish Community, makes me want to renounce Judaism and run in the other direction, but actual Jewish communities make me love Judaism afresh.

So I find myself with an unusual intention as we approach this year’s Season of Liberation: to be liberated from the IJC.

Part of this, I admit, is a yen for blissful ignorance. I wish I hadn’t read about what’s just happened to Simone Zimmerman, the target of a right-wing hit job, who was vilified not because of one careless Facebook post but because of her devoted, progressive Zionism. I wish I hadn’t read the Forward’s analysis of alleged anti-Semitism at CUNY, which unsurprisingly found hardly any anti-Semitism at all. I wish I hadn’t read the right-wing comments on the Facebook post of a Jewish communal leader who dared to share that he had attended both AIPAC and J Street conferences.

Of course, that kind of ignorance isn’t the important kind. The real ignorance I wish for is the kind that many American Jews willfully embrace every day. I wish I’d never seen a checkpoint in the West Bank, or the Har Homa settlement cutting off Bethlehem from Abu Dis, or the overt racism now tolerated in Israeli politics. I wish I didn’t know that the current Israeli government has rejected the two-state solution, sent an extremist to represent it at the U.N. and supported anti-democratic laws eroding Israel’s very soul. I wish I knew only about Palestinian violence, extremism and rejectionism, and didn’t also know about the Israeli kinds.

That kind of ignorance is morally irresponsible, however, even if it is practiced all the time in my community.

So, no, I can’t wish for ignorance. But I can wish for, and try to practice, freedom.

Freedom from the boundaries laid down by neo-conservative-funded Jewish publications, conservative-funded Hillels and conservative-dominated federation boards. I don’t run a Jewish not-for-profit anymore, I don’t have a pulpit, I’m already treyf, so I’ve got nothing to lose anyway. I am extremely fortunate in that regard, unlike my many friends in professional Jewish roles. I commit to using that freedom to calling out McCarthyism and ignorance where I see it.

Freedom from the tacit assumption that American Judaism is what happens at federation galas and conferences like the GA, rather than at progressive activist events by the likes of JFREJ, Hazon, Bend the Arc and AJWS, and even by groups I disagree with, like Jewish Voice for Peace. I would like to liberate my mind from valuing Judaism by the amount of money someone has spent on it. (You’d think after all the multi-million dollar wastes of money I’ve seen, not to mention the epic levels of graft at places like the Met Council, I’d have learned this lesson already — but money does have a way of talking.) I want to achieve freedom from the assumption that what the IJC values is what is relevant to the Jewish future; freedom from its failing, flailing nativism.

After all, I live in this parallel world already. I am so fortunate to be able to live in a vital Jewish subculture — my Seder this year includes pasture-raised kosher meat from Grow & Behold, and ethical (i.e. non-Haredi) shmura matzo from the Yiddish Farm. I commit to using that freedom to ignoring the high-priced narshkeit of the Jewish mainstream, and focusing this Passover on what’s awesome, innovative and inspiring in the Jewish world instead.

And freedom, finally, from the way the IJC’s warped perspective on Israel has poisoned everything else in Judaism. A lot of that poison is objectively out there; if someone wants to talk meaningfully about Israel/Palestine at a non-Open Hillel Seder, they are not free to do so. But for me, that poison is mostly internal. It’s in my head.

For example, when Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that the sweetness of the charoset evokes the sweetness of the erotic kisses from Song of Songs, I can love that teaching without reservation. I don’t have to think “Yes-But” because I know the bitterness of the Institutional Israel Insanity. I can enjoy his charoset without their maror.

But I have to say, that takes work. That kind of freedom requires an accommodation of cognitive dissonance, a suspension of cynicism. On the one hand, I know that the American Jewish community is becoming more ethnocentric, stupid and small-c conservative each day. I can’t and won’t ignore it. On the other hand, I am fortunate to be living in a time of unparalleled Jewish creativity and innovation, and I don’t have to allow the bad to dominate the good.

So I commit to cultivating this freedom from the Institutional Jewish Community, to not letting it infect and embitter my Seders this year. Despite all it does to push me away from Judaism, I refuse to allow it to do so. In my own small way, I commit to pursuing this freedom as an act of rebellion.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

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