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Why I’m leaving The Forward to become a rabbi

My grandparents were concerned for my safety amidst a steady rise in attacks. My parents worried about long hours with little gratitude. My brother warned of trends indicating I was entering an unstable and shrinking job market.

I decided to become a journalist anyway.

Working at The Forward was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, ever since I did a fourth-grade book report on a collection of letters to “A Bintel Brief.” That book sat in a place of honor on my desk – back when I still had a desk, when we still had an office, when we didn’t fully understand how much our actions affect each other, and how much we need community.

Now, after three and a half years at The Forward and seven in the business, I’m leaving journalism to go to rabbinical school. I start next week as one of 17 members of the Jewish Theological Seminary class of 2025.

I began exploring the idea of becoming a rabbi after two profound spiritual experiences I had on assignment: at morning minyan in Pittsburgh the day after the synagogue shooting that killed 11 in 2018, and during Kabbalat Shabbat at an Air Force base in Texas three months later. On both occasions, though I was there as an outside observer, I was struck by the power of intentional community, the invisible alchemy of holy togetherness that unites friends and strangers who feel an ancient, indescribable longing to connect to God — and, even more importantly, to each other. As we know from the rules of a minyan, the quorum that Jewish law requires for certain prayers — and as we’ve especially realized this year — “doing Jewish” is incomplete if not done together.

I’m embarking on this journey for the same reason I came to The Forward in the first place: I love Jews, I love learning, and I want to use what I learn to serve the community I love.

Being a Jewish journalist allowed me to learn from Jews every day. From college students and seasoned political insiders, from grassroots activists and nonprofit executives, from mavens and machers and moochers and meshuggeners, I learned how the world works for Jews and how the Jewish world works – and often, how it doesn’t. I’d like to think Rabbi Ben Zoma was thinking of journalists when he asked, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” (He was definitely thinking of journalists on Twitter when he asked, “Who is strong? One who controls his impulses.”)

I hope to take what I have learned, and what I will learn, and help build and grow the types of intentional Jewish communities like those I encountered in Pittsburgh and Texas, like those I’ve reported about at universities, summer camps, protests and synagogues of every denomination and size.

Although I’m committing to five years of classes, the stakes are anything but academic. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are either the last, the dying, Jews or else we are those who will give new life to our tradition.”

The author, slightly younger

The author, slightly younger Image by Courtesy

This has been true of every generation. But now, the chief challenge preventing new life from emerging is caused not by antisemitism or assimilation, but by the very Jews who claim to be acting in our interests and as our leaders.

I do not believe the tropes that Millennial and Gen Z Jews are not “joiners,” that they only care about universalist ideas, that Jewish concerns are of minor or no importance to them. Young Jews not only want to build Jewish communities, they are building Jewish communities.

Many of these communities are on social media, but that’s reality for generations that never had life without the internet.

And such community-building is also taking place IRL. The growth of independent minyanim is the most obvious religious example, but what surprises everyone I talk to is that Jewish life is thriving on college campuses nationwide – both through traditional avenues like Hillel and Greek houses, and in hundreds if not thousands of student-created endeavors. Take it from a creator of the country’s only independent Jewish college guide: The notion that there’s a “crisis” of antisemitism on campus preventing Jews from feeling safe, let alone thriving, is a lie peddled by unscrupulous groups hustling for donations by telling scared bubbes and zaydes that only those organizations can protect their grandkids.

Education is everything

Why does this narrative persist? Because the American Jewish donor class is more focused on Israel than on American Jewry.

The most important article the Forward published this decade was by a colleague who found that the largest share of donations to American Jewish causes – 38% of a $26 billion pie – went to pro-Israel advocacy. Only 16%, less than half that, went to Jewish education.

There is no Jewish future without Jewish education, but donors have decided to instead spend our inheritance (you could call it a birthright) on defending Israel from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – a campaign that even the Israeli government admits poses no threat to its economy – rather than prioritizing the development of strong Jewish identities in the coming generations.

It brings to mind the story of Yiftach, the biblical judge who vowed that if God helped him save Israel from the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw when he returned home. Israel was indeed saved, but the sacrifice turned out to be his only child, who had run out to greet him.

Midrash Tanchuma says that Yiftach could have undone his vow if he had just gone to the High Priest for help – but Yiftach thought the priest was an ignoramus, and the priest thought Yiftach was an idiot, so the world’s two most powerful Jewish leaders refused to cooperate with each other and the next generation was burned to ashes.

Studies have repeatedly shown that sending children to Jewish day schools and summer camps are the most effective ways of inculcating Jewish practices and identity, even when controlling for their parents’ involvement in Jewish life. Non-Orthodox day school graduates are twice as likely as public-school students to join a synagogue; summer camp kids are 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.

But these institutions are financially out of reach – often unworthy of even consideration – for all but the wealthiest Jews.

“No way of life or world-outlook can long survive the stigma of being a class affair,” Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan warned in 1934. Clearly, we haven’t listened.

If Jewish leaders want the coming generations to grow and thrive, they should underwrite Jewish day schools and summer camps to make them tuition-free. And since many parents will still prefer their children get a public-school experience, those leaders should also underwrite synagogues to make their Sunday schools tuition-free.

Ironically, the only prominent figures who appear to understand the importance of widely-available American Jewish education are Russian-Israeli leaders Avigdor Liberman and Natan Sharansky, who have repeatedly proposed that the Israeli government provide hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for U.S. day schools. You could read this cynically and see politicians concerned that the decline of American Judaism would mean a decline in American political and financial support for Israel. But it can just as easily be seen as Jews who fled countries with no Jewish future, alarmed by the prospect of American Jews choosing not to invest in their own future.

And even if some American Jewish megadonors truly only cared about defending Israel, the most effective way to do so would still be investing in Jewish education, rather than subsidizing campus BDS “battles” that are largely symbolic since, despite the outcomes of student votes, no university has yet actually divested.

Jewish students from Brown University

One of the country’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists recently tweeted, “About 70% of Jews do not identify as Jews…their new religion is Leftism.” With that kind of attitude, it’s logical to single-mindedly support Israel as the eventual sole remnant of Judaism.

But that would mean missing not just the awe-inspiring determination of American Jews of all ages and incomes to maintain the established institutions they love despite unprecedented difficulties, but also the amazing new communities being built: on “Jewbook” and “Jwitter,” in independent minyanim and Jewish student networks, in non-traditional Daf Yomi study groups, through all sorts of experimental Zoom experiences, and most especially, in the incredible waves of social-justice activism that are proudly and consciously Jewish.

That includes – perhaps especially includes – IfNotNow.

A web, not a tent

I’ve reported on this group and associated movements since they launched in 2014, and I’m around the same age (and share the same day-school background) of many of their founders and leaders. Now that I’m leaving journalism, I can openly say that I strongly disagree with most of IfNotNow’s statements and tactics.

But I also believe that IfNotNow, and the young Jews who have found a home in and around it, is a tremendous net positive for American Jewry. Because unlike past generations of Jewish leftists radicalized by Israeli depredations, this group refuses to check their Judaism at the door. They demand to be seen as proud Jews acting in the spirit of Jewish tradition — and they are.

While some IfNotNow members are able to feel comfortable in established Jewish institutions that officially either despise or ignore them, many more feel alienated. Most are yearning to be accepted as they are by the broader Jewish community – to be granted just enough tolerance to allow a sense of belonging from a family that they long to be part of even as they recoil from many of its mores (in other words, a family).

Jewish institutions that are interested in growing should do everything they can to make this generation of leftists feel welcome. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Chabad did not become the most successful Jewish movement of the last 50 years by telling Jews they disagree with to shove it. Instead, they say very clearly, “This is what we believe, and we won’t compromise on our values, but you are our family and are always welcome here.”

IfNotNow Protests in New York

IfNotNow Protests Image by Photo: Gili Getz

I don’t know if it will be possible to fully synthesize IfNotNow followers into broader institutions, to build not a “big tent” but a web that connects us all toward a common purpose even as we occupy different strands. And the tension goes both ways – there’s always been a bit of a disconnect on the Jewish left between those who merely want the establishment to respect their views and those who demand that the establishment adopt their views.

But if our institutions become more accessible – not just financially, but also by being less machmir about who is and isn’t kosher – they will be opening the doors to thousands of young, creative, vibrant people who feel Jewish in their kishkes and want to build a brighter Jewish future for themselves and their future Jewish children.

Lots of people know the story of Honi the Circle-Maker, the Talmudic figure who once asked an old man why he was planting a tree he would never live to see blossom. “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants,” the planter says. Honi then falls asleep for 70 years, and when he wakes up, he sees that the planter’s grandson is enjoying the fruits of that tree. It’s a cute fable with an important message.

But most people don’t know the rest of the story.

Honi then starts looking for his own grandson. He tells townspeople that he is Honi, but no one believes him. He goes to his beloved study hall, where he hears students praise him as a legendary scholar. But when he tries to explain that he is the famous Honi, he’s jeered out of the building. Honi is so despondent that he dies.

This tale, a rabbi named Rava explains, is actually meant to explain the origin of a saying: “Either friendship, or death.”

The word for “friendship” in the saying, chevruta, is also the word for a study partner. So the phrase could just as easily be, “Either education, or death.”

Or, to read the story into the phrase in yet another way: “Either community, or death.”

Education and community-building: As a rabbi, this will be the work of my life. It will not be up to me alone to complete the tasks — but neither am I free to abstain from them.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink


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