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Letter to the Editor: Jared Kushner Reveals The Fissures In American Judaism

In his recent column in the Forward (“How Could Modern Orthodox Judaism Produce Jared Kushner?” ) Beinart examines Jared’s recent, little-more-than-a-week long record as a member of the Trump administration. He looks at what the administration has thus far produced, and how Jared has stood by and watched it happen.

In Beinart’s telling, Jared is “a modern Orthodox golden boy.” Jared’s grandmother, Rae Kushner, is a Holocaust survivor. Jared is a product of the Frisch School in New Jersey, a prestigious New Jersey yeshiva. The Kushner family also built an Orthodox day school in Livingston, New Jersey.

Someone who goes to synagogue during this cycle of Torah readings, or who sits each year at the Seder table, should have internalized something. Beinart quotes Go Forth and Learn, a haggadah created by Rabbi David Silber and Rachel Furst: “One purpose of the Egypt experience was to sensitize the People of Israel to the suffering of others, to teach them what it means to be alienated and oppressed, so that when they set up their own society, they will be sure not to impose such suffering on others.”

Writes Beinart:

“How could Kushner—a modern Orthodox golden boy—fail to internalize that? How could he invite Donald Trump’s cabinet to his house for Shabbat dinner only hours after his father-in-law’s executive order banning refugees from entering the United States? How could he pose in a tuxedo alongside his wife Ivanka on Saturday night as that executive order wreaked havoc on innocent people’s lives simply because they hailed from the wrong countries? Kushner’s failure is not his problem alone. It should chill every modern Orthodox educator, rabbi and parent in the United States. How could the modern Orthodox community, a community that prides itself on instilling Jewish knowledge and ideals in its children, have failed so profoundly?”

All good questions.

There has probably never been a Jew in American history whose religious observance has been as carefully scrutinized as Jared Kushner’s and Ivanka Trump’s. It is time, therefore, to put Jared Kushner’s modern Orthodox Judaism into its proper context. And it is also time to expand the conversation – beyond Jared’s Judaism – to the Judaism that we all share and claim.

Let’s talk about Jared’s modern Orthodoxy.

For example, you might have noticed that Jared does not wear a kippah. Under normal circumstances, this would be de rigeur for any Orthodox man. (Note: Neither does former Senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph P. Lieberman).

However, Jared Kushner’s modern Orthodoxy is about more than just whether or not he wears a head covering. It’s more complicated than that. While I know little of the Kushner family’s domestic customs, I have some hunches about the modern Orthodox community that nourished and nurtured Jared and his family. It is a small, wealthy modern Orthodox community that centers itself on one tiny enclave in Livingston, New Jersey. They have their own small synagogue. Many of the Jews in that enclave are associated with New Jersey real estate. Many of them are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. I have known several of them, and have had wonderful interactions with them. And, to the best of my memory, I have not noticed any of them wearing kippot in public. So, are they “really” Orthodox?

Yes. It is a particular kind of modern Orthodoxy – one that has made peace with modernity and success, but which maintains its traditions, albeit privately and quietly. In some ways, they live out the Enlightenment adage: “Be a Jew in your home, and a ‘regular person’ on the street.”

Here is the question that Beinart does not ask, the question that lurks behind his observation of Jared’s observance. It is a deeper, and even darker question about American Jews and their Judaism. The truth is: while many Jews are connected, at least ritually, to Judaism, when we talk about the values that they live and promote – is there is a vast Jewish disconnect?

Yes. It is profound among the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox; every new scandal, financial and otherwise, that emerges from that community reminds us of that. Those scandals remind us of the Jewish moral category of hillul ha-shem, desecrating God’s Name – which the Talmudic Encyclopedia defines as “acting in any way that would cause a gentile to say that the Jews don’t have a Torah.”

However, the endemic disconnect between promoted Jewish values and the actual lives of the Jews who promote them is not limited to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. It is no better among Conservative or Reform Jews. Let’s face it. We are all living in the midst of numerous disconnects in Jewish life. My co-religionists love to claim that the essence of Judaism is ethical behavior, which all too often in their estimation simply means not hurting anyone. But how many, in their everyday actions, actually ask: WWGS – what would God say?

• Disconnect. The child who is bar or bat mitzvah; who makes pious statements about Judaism and the Jewish people – and whose family drops their synagogue membership during the third stanza of Ein Keloheinu. Which is to say – before the service has even ended.

• Disconnect. Boards of Jewish institutions that are supposed to uphold and embody ethics, but then make decisions that are utterly devoid of any such considerations (full disclosure: not the leadership of my own synagogue).

• Disconnect. Jews who claim that Judaism is about ethics, but when it comes to immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, etc. suddenly forget those claims.

• Disconnect. Jews who shrei about the Holocaust, but who see nothing wrong with the white supremacist antics of the alt-right.

The problem is not Jared. The problem is all of us. On Shabbat, when we eat our braided challah, let us ask ourselves: How can we better weave the strands of our disparate Jewish commitments together?

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is senior rabbi at Temple Solel of Hollywood, Florida


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