The Force of Apathy – A Piece for the National Journal Sh’ma


As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:

Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”

The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.

Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.

That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.

I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.

Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is CNN.com; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.

That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.

Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.

It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.

‘Remember Now Your Creator’ – The Challenging Dichotomy of Faith and Reason


Last night, at my school’s back-to-school-night for parents, I delivered my “senior sermon.” Each senior at Milken writes and delivers a sermon at some point during his or her final year at the school. Here is mine, on the challenge of balancing faith and reason at a religiously affiliated high school:

Last week, I took the SAT in Portland, Oregon. My family was visiting relatives for Rosh Hashana, and the test happened to be that weekend. So that Sunday I went to the only place in Portland that offers the SAT to people who are shomer Shabbat: a school for Seventh Day Adventists.

The test happened to be in a science classroom. In one corner I noticed a diorama of a DNA strand. In another was a stack of copies of the periodic table. And then I looked at the bulletin board: Several pictures of wildlife. A few snapshots of plants. And there, in middle of the board, in the middle of the science classroom: a painting of Jesus himself, and four words: “REMEMBER NOW YOUR CREATOR.”

Remember your creator? There I was, in a high school science classroom, about to take the world’s preeminent test of logic and reason. And all I could focus on was: remember your creator.

And through four hours of really difficult questions, I couldn’t get this one out of my mind: what’s Jesus doing on the wall of a science classroom? But the truth is, really, that question isn’t so different from the ones that Milken students grapple with every day. One moment we’re sitting, talking about Martin Buber and Rabbi Akiba in Jewish Thought class, and the next moment we’re in Physics, studying Newton’s First Law of Motion.

On this very campus, every day, we live with this challenging dichotomy: are reason and religion mutually exclusive? And what does one have to do with the other? Is that quotation on the walls of the science classroom in Portland that different from a mezuzah on the doorway of our chemistry lab, or even my orthodontist’s office? I’ve found three distinct answers from three distinct sources. One from the Jewish tradition, one from the era in which we live, and one from Cedars Sinai.

First, an answer from the Talmud. There’s a famous story: The rabbis were trying to decide if a particular oven was ritually pure (a debate I’m sure goes on in all of your households). All the rabbis agreed that the oven wasn’t pure – all except for one rabbi – Rabbi Eliezer. He was positive that his view was correct. Rabbi Eliezer kept offering proof by bringing about various supernatural phenomena. Still, the other rabbis weren’t convinced. Finally, a voice from the heavens resounded through the chamber and said: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.” But the majority was outraged. Another rabbi looked up from where the voice was coming from and shouted: “It’s not for heaven to decide!” And the voice of God answered back: “My sons have defeated me.” Meaning that the rabbis were right: Just as we have faith in God, God has faith in us – to use the intellect God gave us.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his most recent book Why Faith Matters, puts it eloquently. He writes that “faith honors those who discover truth. For people of faith to turn their back on truth, whatever its source, is a reaction of fear, not an assertion of faith.” In other words: True faith sees the hand of God in the capacity for human discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that we rely only on our own intellect. Our belief in an almighty God, a God who created the universe, a God who spoke and the world appeared – a belief in that God grounds us. A belief, or even an acknowledgement of a force beyond forces – beyond the human intellect, beyond MD’s, beyond even iPads – is a blanket of humility over our pervasive human arrogance. And that acknowledgment alone carries with it another humbling truth: we are limited.

But often we can forget that humility. And that’s where I found my second answer. Almost exactly a month ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of a calamity executed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s work. Fundamentalists are people who have profound faith that’s unchecked by reason. Religion that’s deprived of the voice of modernity, that’s stuck in antiquity, breeds arrogance. It breeds the people who demand that you must agree theologically, that you must see eye to eye – And it’s not just in other religions; we sometimes see it in Judaism, too – a stringency that defies reason. As someone who reads and writes about the news, I hear almost daily about the damage wrought – whether in Israel or here in California – by those who use faith as a rationale to carry out a radicalized approach. Our faith needs to be accompanied by reason and progress – which leads me to the third – and perhaps most powerful – place where I saw faith and reason interact.

A few years ago, a family friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Some of you may have known Joel Shickman. He was a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University. And his situation would have justified complaining, crying, even grieving. But instead, Joel built a holy community.

We’d gather in his hospital room, a group of adults and a few kids, and put our arms around each other. And to the rhythm of Joel’s guitar, we’d sing. We’d sing the Beatles, and American Pie, and whatever anyone wanted to hear. We’d chant the prayer for healing and create harmonies that I’m pretty sure touched God’s own angels. And as I pounded on the drums and prayed and prayed, I watched the IV-tubes pump through Joel, the nurses coming in and out of the room, the heart monitor beeping – each one keeping Joel alive.

And when Joel left his wife and his three young sons, and met God at heaven’s gates, he also left what so many of us strive to build: a community uplifted by his faith, enlightened by God’s presence, blessed by the miracles of science, and humbled by its very real limitations. When science couldn’t keep Joel’s body alive, his faith, and God’s own presence in the hospital room kept his neshama alive, and raised ours.

On Wednesday night, we’ll begin the sukkot holiday – a period that implores us to reflect on life’s fragility. And during sukkot, we’ll read the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a book about the fleeting nature of life. And in that book, we’ll read this verse in hebrew: U’zechor et borecha. In English: “remember your creator.” The same verse from the wall of the science classroom in Portland.  And when we’re sitting in synagogue, or under the fragile canopy of the sukkah, that very verse should remind us of the potential of our intellects, of the greatness of the divine, and of our imperative to live our lives aware of and challenged by both.

Thank you.

When It’s Worth It – Speaking When You Can Be Heard


On Monday night, my SAT class stopped being just a weekly bubble-in fest.

The class is made up of just two students: David, another high school Junior who goes to an ultra-religious Yeshiva type school in West Los Angeles, and me. Just before we were about to start a lesson in Geometry, we took a ten-minute break. During the break, I turned to our substitute teacher, Rebecca, and asked her about her background. She grew up in a Jewish home, she told me, but her family was never really motivated to get involved in the holidays or their synagogue. She’d kept some form of “kosher” up until college – then she’d pretty much given it up. “I still feed my dog challah, though,” she quipped, seeming a little embarrassed about her depleted Jewish identity.

I reassured her that her fluctuating levels of “Jewishness” were all acceptable and that – as a rabbi’s son who struggles with finding purpose and meaning in Jewish text – I’m of the opinion that everyone can and should look at the Torah’s laws through differing lenses. It’s healthy.

And then David stepped in. Fiddling with the tassels of his blue winter scarf, he shook his head and in a conclusive tone – as though there wasn’t an SAT tutor in the world who could prove him wrong – said, “Look, the way I see it, either be Jewish all the way or don’t be Jewish at all.”

My mind backpedaled. Wait a second, I thought. Most of the foods that I eat (and consider “kosher”) aren’t branded with an “O U” (Orthodox Union) insignia, or even a “K” (for “kosher”). I’ll text and call my friends on Saturday (Shabbat). I haven’t put on t’fillin (phylacteries) since my trip to Israel last summer. Occasionally I’ll sleep in on Saturday mornings and – whoops – miss services at my synagogue.

But I spent the first fifteen years of my life as a relatively observant Jew. Each day, I would wear a kippah (yarmulke) and recite the morning prayers. I spent this past summer in Israel fostering a meaningful connection to the land and its people — my people. I’m conversant in Hebrew. I don’t eat meat out. I say the words of the shema prayer before I fall asleep every night. I’m a knowledgeable Jew. I still maintain an eternally deep connection to my roots and my community, but I’ve recently become less observant in the conventional sense. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve overlooked some of traditional Judaism’s more logistical practices. Why? Because if adolescence doesn’t spark some form of rebellion, what’s the point of being a teenager?

Was this kid telling me that I shouldn’t even bother being Jewish if I my religious life isn’t a precise replica of his?

“God gave us the Torah. It’s not that it’s wrong what you’re doing,” David lamented. “I’m just more Jewish than you are. I observe Judaism correctly.”

Zoom out. You’ll probably need some biographical background here. I love to debate and I love to argue. Admittedly, I could be a more patient listener sometimes. But coming to hurried conclusions and generating one-liners (that often hardly pass for rebuttals) has become almost second nature in my on-edge psyche. (So I could feel the steam shooting out of my ears like in those old Looney Tunes shorts.) Zoom back in.

I tried to keep my cool.

“I’m Jewish, David. I believe in the same God that you believe in.”

I was really trying.

“If you believed in my God you would observe his laws the way he gave them; you’d observe them the way I do.”

But then I lost it.

“Religion isn’t rational!” My calm, cool, and collected tone was quickly slipping away, making room for one of hostility. “Judaism is about interpretation. What do you think the Mishnah was for? Interpretation! Why do you think we have commentators? Interpretation! It’s the reason we have denominations! You think I’m less Jewish because I don’t observe all aspects of the Torah blindly?!”

The same bitter dialogue continued until the ten-minute break was over — and made for a rather uncomfortable Geometry lecture. But at the end of class, as I was packing my books and zipping up my backpack, David looked over at me.

“Look, Ami,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t.” I assured him that it would take more than a petty, informal religious debate to offend me.

“But if you wanted to be Jewish — really Jewish…”

I cut him off.

“I don’t live Biblically. I don’t live my life in the same way you do and I don’t follow all of the commandments because we live in a modernized world. God said to stone your rebellious son, do we do that, David?”

The conventional wisdom is true — it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. It’s important to pontificate when a point needs to be made and to listen when a point needs to be heard. It’s constructive to have to defend yourself and justify your actions and existential choices. But in that moment, looking at David, I realized something invaluable: sometimes the debate just isn’t worth it.

From my perspective, ten plus years of an ultra-religious upbringing had left David with a closed mind. From his perspective, ten plus years of my (“liberal,” as he called it) upbringing had left me with a closed mind. Of course, I wasn’t arguing against orthodoxy — David didn’t represent the beliefs of all orthodox Jews. I was arguing against David. But I wasn’t going to convince him, nor was he going to convince me. Had there been an impressionable audience present, I might have continued the argument. I might have done all I could to bestow my beliefs upon those who were listening. I might have raised my voice, even yelled.

But no one was listening, and as I walked out of my class into the crisp January night, it became clear to me that there would only be one tangible result of our impromptu (and largely inconsequential) debate: a lower score in the math section of the SAT.

Written for the Roar.

Blind Zionism


On a soaring balmy mountaintop at the very top of the Galilee, a graying older man with a white goatee stands before an crowd of enraptured teenagers. Behind him, almost like a painting, is the motionless Lebanese village of Adaisseh. The man, an American-born Israeli, gesticulates and changes the inflection in his voice to make his points which garner scattered applause and cheers from the young quasi-zionist audience. Pointing out at– what is to the kids– the unknown, then back at the land upon which he is standing, the man makes a bold statement.

“This land has always been ours. It was granted to us in the Torah. At no point in history have we ever kicked anyone out of their homes here. At no point have we taken land that isn’t ours.”

Kids clap. Staff members smirk. I frown.

I don’t frown because I disagree with the idea that this land was promised to us. Or even because I have my doubts about God and the Bible. I frown because what the man with the white goatee is saying with such confidence is simply untrue.

After the Israeli War of Independence, there were between 600,000 and 725,000 Arab refugees. That means that there were between 600,000 and 725,000 Arabs (people) who were no longer able to live in their homes because– for better or for worse– the Jews needed somewhere to go. Fortunately for the Jews, they were able to settle. Unfortunately for the Arabs, they had to leave. The Zionist ideology at the time was something along the lines of, hey, Arab states, we’re taking care of our refugees. Why can’t you take care of yours?

Some of my closest friends have told me things like “That’s what war is. That’s what you do when you conquer a country.” It’s true. Few people bring it up, but the original American settlers– in all their glory– pushed out (even killed) the Native American population when they showed up. They decided that the land was theirs and nothing could be in their way.

The man with the white goatee and people who preach his hear-no-evil talking points are people who I’d dub “blind Zionists.” How idealistic can you get? Perhaps you believe that it was ethical, justified, or even necessary to displace all these people. But regardless, it displays ignorance and idealism.

Just because you wish it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It happened. It’s naïve to make such a definitive statement based on wishful thinking. Blind Zionism is real. If you call yourself a Zionist, please know why you are one.

God?


I mentioned yesterday that I am going to start posting journal entries that I wrote in Poland and start discussing Israel. Right now, I am going to post the last thing I wrote in Poland; a theological reflection on the cumulative emotions of the entire trip, which culminated with a very strenuous day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I still believe some of this. Other parts I don’t. (If there are typos, awkward grammatical mistakes, or rocky language, please note that I have not edited it and wrote it somewhat hurriedly in a Warsaw hotel room.):

I can think of no single theological reason or explanation for this. It is 100% incomprehensible. A God could not have been there. Marta Wise (the Holocaust survivor who accompanied us to Auschwitz-Birkenau and told her story) said that when there was rain– and it saved her life– it was מן השמים, from God. But she didn’t believe that God had any role in the mass murder.

No. That is unacceptable to me. It cannot be that simple. You can’t just flip God on and off at ideal moments. There is no divine light-switch.

If anything, this trip has strengthened my sense of Jewish Nationalism (perhaps Zionism), and pushed me further in the direction of Atheism. It’s not that I don’t believe that there is a God, but rather that I don’t understand the scale of effect which God has on daily or cosmic life. After walking the surfaces of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, the mass graves, and Poland as a whole, I am left with more questions– perhaps never to be answered– and a much more coherent, yet still murky image of what happened.

I think, however, that before this trip, the question, “Do you believe in God?” was not something that I really saw as a grey area. But now I do. Alan (our educator) said something that resonated with me, though.

ישראל– the pride and namesake of ourselves and our homeland– means “struggle with God.” That comforts me. Does God exist? Who knows. Did God have a role in the Holocaust? I don’t think so. Therefore, maybe God doesn’t exist. But I’ve learned on this journey that being Jewish does not mean adhering to the set of standards for belief or disbelief in God. It means struggling with the existential and theological implications of day-to-day life.

If you’re going to take the time to assess the Holocaust, I don’t believe that God should be in the equation. If you’re looking for answers, at least, then adding God will further confuse you.

Confusion yields frustration with “God” and with the Nazis. It is for that exact reason that I took a brick from the rubble of a crematorium and threw it at the ground. What is there to get? Do we even want to understand?

Where was God? I don’t think it matters. It’s up to us to make sure doesn’t ever happen again.

Polychrome


Last night, I returned from a seven-week trip that changed the way I look at the world on a political level, but also on a sociological and religious level.

In the coming days, I’ll take a short hiatus from narrating on politics and, instead, share some journal entires and thoughts that I wrote while I was in Poland. I’ll also explain the changes in my political ideologies– why being in Israel caused me to move further right or further left on certain issues.

The most important realization I had, however– the thing that kept me open to so many other opinions– is that the world isn’t drawn in black and white. It’s important not to incarcerate yourself in any political or religious box. While I was in Israel, I heard people say things that made me want to punch them. I also heard people say things that made me want to hug them. But regardless of what the opinion was, I learned that I had to keep everything in context: there’s a reason that the man living on the Lebanese border is so right-wing. There’s a reason that the Palestinian man who has been neglected all his life is so left-wing. You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes– really understand where they’re coming from– before you argue with them (or decide whether or not it’s a good idea to argue with them).

This past Friday, on the corner of Gaza Street in Jerusalem, I met Noam Shalit, the father of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In an uncomfortable effort to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime moment, I hesitantly walked up to him and asked–perhaps naïvely–what it is that we, Jewish American youth, can do to help his son’s situation.

Noam Shalit turned to me, his furrowed brow frozen in a frown than seemed to encapsulate his whole body, and very slowly shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, almost in a whisper, “thank you for your support.”

Americans tend to have strong opinions about things that we think we understand. And then we make a big ruckus about joining a cause, sell bracelets, ask people to donate money, and the list goes on. Sometimes, however, nothing can be done. My brief encounter with Noam Shalit was a wakeup call; not to the idea that we can’t do anything, but rather to the idea that if we’re going to get ourselves involved and invest time and effort, we should know the realities of the situation and avoid the precarious and all too familiar belief that we are invincible. Because we’re not.

There’s one other experience that should be shared before I write future posts. Last week, early Tuesday morning, my group was hiking up a mountain just outside of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. As we were climbing up the final stretch, right when we began to be able to see the Red Sea and the peak where we were going to pray Shacharit (the morning service) we heard a very loud “BOOM,” that sounded like planks being thrown thrown into a dumpster at a construction site. We kept walking. a few seconds later we heard another one. We asked our staff what the noises were and they assured us that it was nothing…that the IDF does special trial runs in the desert all the time and that we shouldn’t worry.

The “BOOM”s that we heard were not planks from a construction project in Eilat. They were two of five rockets that were fired from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula with the intention of hitting the Eilat area. They were fired with the intention of hitting anything Jewish. They were fired to hit me.

So, next time you decide, like me, that the man who lives on the Lebanese border is crazy and unjustified (which I happen to partially believe), think about how your opinion might be changed if you were constantly under fire from enemy rockets. Think you might be angry?