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03/15/2024 12:13:50 PM



My intention this week had been to keep it light. After all, we brought in the month of Adar this week, the month designated for mirth. How I wish that my phone had exploded with “Purim Torah” on Monday – jokes and silliness – instead of what crashed it: the news of an unfortunate antisemitic memo sent to the faculty of a local high school by an administrator. While Dr. Gilbert, the acting superintendent, quickly issued an appropriate response reiterating that there is no room for hate of any kind in this district or town, NBC covered the story and it is making the rounds in the broader community.

So much for telling a few jokes or wondering what’s up with Princess Kate.

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Gilbert for issuing his statement, and for taking the time to meet regularly these past months with me and a group of local Jewish parents and rabbis. So instead of focusing on the particulars of this school district or this incident, I’d like us to use it as an opportunity to go internal.

How does it feel to you right now to be Jewish, or part of the Jewish community? And how much of that response is shaped by what the non-Jewish world says about us?

Let me back up a bit. There are 15.9 million (with an m) Jews in the entire world. To contextualize, there are 2.3 billion (with a b) Christians, 1.9 billion (with a b) Muslims, and 1.2 billion (with a b) Hindus. Even the “unaffiliated” category listed in the World Population Review, from which I took these numbers, totals 1.2 billion (with a b).

My point: we are a teeny tiny minority. The entire Jewish community constitutes less than 0.2% of the world population. In the US, we are (at most) 2.4%.

This is confusing, because in the NYC metropolitan area it doesn’t feel that way.

And it is confusing, because when the majority culture has a story about a minority culture, the minority culture absorbs it as part of its own self-identity. The doll experiment is one classic example (YouTube video here if you don’t know what I’m talking about. It makes me cry every time.) So right now, with the war in Israel and Gaza bringing to the forefront classic antisemitic tropes in new clothing (genocide the new blood libel; oppressors the updated myth of Jewish power), in what ways have we internalized anti-semitism?

I want to be clear: we are a beautifully diverse community. Plenty of us are critical of Israel’s government and policies now and/or have been for years. That is not what I’m interested in here. Right now I’m curious about something else: how do the ways in which the majority culture speaks about the war affect how we feel about ourselves as a minority culture?

Ben M. Freeman has a few lenses for us to try on as we grapple with these questions. I heard him last week at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Never is Now Conference, and I’d like to share them with you now. I offer them as springboards for our inner work. He calls them the 3D Test of Internalized Anti-Semitism:

Diminishment: sometimes we make ourselves smaller, Jewishly. We change our names, or our noses. We say “I’m Jewish, but… I’m not religious” or “I’m Jewish, but not really Jewish.” In what ways do we distance ourselves from the stereotypes handed to us by the majority culture by diminishing our own Jewishness?

Denial: in past generations, this has meant conversion to other religions. In our day, you don’t need to convert out… you just opt out. “I’m Jewish, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.” Or: “I love being Jewish, and I don’t need to join any organization to prove it. I do my own thing.” How do we hold our multiple commitments and identities, and in what ways does our independence stand at odds with proud belonging to a people?

Deployment: using our Jewish identities against the Jewish community. “I’m Jewish, and I stand against [insert here whatever part of the Jewish community makes you nuts].” Deployment is about using our Jewish identities as a weapon against other Jews, in order to make ourselves feel better, cooler, more accepted by the majority culture. In what ways do we subconsciously align with a majority culture which may have unwittingly abetted an internalized self-hate? 

These 3 lenses and the questions they raise are food for thought as we figure out how we hold our Jewish identities in this moment. I pose them in my continued insistence that our main job as humans on the planet right now is stretching our hearts as big as they will go. I pose them in my continued insistence that pluralism and diversity of opinions – including around Israel and how we hold the various aspects of our Jewish identities – is holy.

Part of our inner work as a minority community is to encourage in ourselves and our children a sense of pride in who we are. No matter what the government of Israel says or does, no matter how we relate to Zionism, and no matter what people here in the US convey to us about ourselves. Even as a tiny minority, the Jewish contribution to world civilization has been, and continues to be, tremendous. May we each be blessed with the courage to grapple with our own sense of self, our multiple identities and commitments, and emerge with a self-love and self-image that enables us to go into the world with our heads held high and our hearts ready to give, to love, and to shine.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784