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Will young Jews stand up for Judaism?

Young Jews need to stand up for themselves and their narrative. A manifesto.

Reform Jewish youth at a youth event,

OK, yes — I sometimes misplace things.

But, at least, I have never misplaced a child.

In this way, I am better than Abraham.

In the Torah reading for Rosh Ha Shanah morning, an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son. Abraham passed the test. He proved his faith and his loyalty to God.

But, at the end of the story, we read that Abraham and his servants returned to Beer Sheba.

Wait. Where is Isaac?

The ancient rabbis teach: Abraham sent Isaac to study at the Academy of Shem, which was an institution of higher Torah learning, founded by Noah’s son, Shem — a mythical ancient Israelite Hogwarts Academy.

The ancient rabbis knew that they lived in a dangerous time. They imagined a place where their children would be safe from the world.

Fast forward, to us, in our time.

We cannot protect our young people from the world. We can only prepare them for the world.

This past month, on college campuses all across the country, SUVs pulled up to the dorms – and more than 300,000 young Jews climbed out.

They found their dorm rooms. They began unpacking their duffle bags. They went to orientation.

And then, many of them found themselves — in the middle of a war.

It is a war that is being fought with ideas and with words. Words like colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid.

All of those words, allegedly, about Israel.

There has been anti-Israel activity at (and this is a short list):

Listen to what a young Jewish woman experienced on her first day on campus:

Over the course of an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made, blatantly denying that Jews were native to the land of Israel, and denying the Holocaust…

It brings me back to my old college days.

One of my classmates told me that Theodor Herzl had secret meetings with Adolph Hitler.

Which is interesting – because Hitler was born in 1889, and Herzl died in 1904. Do the math: Hitler was fifteen years old.

But, it did not matter. She just wanted to equate Zionism with Nazism.

Since the day that I graduated from college, many fads have come and gone.

Remember disco? Gone. Remember leisure suits? Gone – thank God. Lava lamps?


There is one fad that is still around.


If we are lucky, our young people will ask themselves:

Why does no other country live with the constant question — as to whether it should even exist?

  • China destroyed Tibet. No one ever says: China has no right to exist.
  • South Africa invented apartheid. No one ever said: South Africa has no right to exist.
  • Great Britain occupied Northern Ireland. No one never said: Great Britain has no right to exist.
  • The United States has tragic racial problems. No one has ever said: America has no right to exist.

This is anti-Semitism. It is growing on college campuses. Last year, a survey revealed that more than half of American Jewish college students say that they have experienced anti-Semitism on campus.

It is time to go back to basics.

First: Israel has a right to exist.

Judaism is not only a religion. It is the faith expression of a people and a nation.

Nations have the right to self-determination in a sovereign state of their own.

The right to self-determination is especially important for Jews – because there have been times when Jews have had nowhere else to go.

That is why when we go to Israel together next summer (subliminal advertising, here), you will hear almost as much French on the streets as Hebrew. Because the Jews of France need a refuge. That is Zionism 101.

Second: Israel’s cause is just.

What is the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Palestinian terror did not begin after the occupation in 1967, nor after Israel began to establish settlements on the West Bank in 1970.

The violence goes back – at least – to 1920.

It is simply because Arab nations have refused to accept a sovereign Jewish presence in the land of Israel.

At some point, we should have a larger, more focused conversation about a future Palestinian state.

But it should have already existed! The 1947 partition agreement called for the establishment of a Jewish state, and an Arab state.

But the Arabs would not have it. They wanted the whole thing. And since then, to quote the late Abba Eban: the Palestinians have never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.

 And third: Israel is complicated.

 This past week, an Israeli friend of mine wished me shnat dvash – a year of honey.

Why? Because, he said: honey is sweet, but it is also messy. Just like Israel.

We do our young people no favors when we hide that messiness from them.

  • Israel has real social problems. Israel is a prosperous, start up nation. But not for the one third of its children who live in poverty.
  • Israel has real ethnic problems. Israel has lofty ideals, but those ideals have not been fully realized for Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians.
  • Israel has real religious problems. The ultra-Orthodox continue their vise-like clamp upon Israeli’s public and private Jewish life.

But, even with those many blemishes and flaws:

  • Israel is a robust, boisterous democracy. Come to Israel with us next July (more subliminal advertising). You will hear every possible opinion on politics, human rights, the occupation, the settlements – whatever.
  • Israel is one of the few countries in that region of the world that has free elections.
  • Israel believes in human rights for gays and lesbians. Tel Aviv has one of the largest LGBT parades in the world.

Yes, Israel has flaws – like any country. But, if you are searching for a state that approaches the liberal ideal – Israel embodies those ideals.

What do we do about this? How do we help our young people stand up for themselves as Jews?

We now have a choice.

  • We can view Judaism as preparation for an hour on the bima – a bar and bat mitzvah ceremony.
  • Or: we can view Judaism as preparation not for an hour – but for a life.

Every year, I ask our confirmation students: what are your deepest questions about life?

Their answers:

  • What is God?
  • Why do people hate Jews?
  • Why should there be an Israel?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Why do we pray?

Our young people hunger for wisdom.

This is why I teach every kid in our religious school who is over the age of twelve. So that we know each other, and so that we can together learn that wisdom.

What am I asking – actually, imploring – our parents to do?

Do whatever it will take to ensure that your kids stay in Jewish education and youth programs until twelfth grade.

And then, send them to Jewish summer camps, and/or High School in Israel – whatever you can do.

Shimon Peres, the late past president of the State of Israel, and past prime minister of the state of Israel, said this:

We have existed for 4,000 years — 2,000 years in diaspora, in exile. Nobody in the Middle East speaks their original language, but Israel. When we started 69 years ago, we were 650,000 people. So, we are maybe swimming a little bit against the stream, but we continue to swim.

Today, I announce the start of a new movement in Judaism — Salmon Judaism.

In that movement, our young people will swim against the stream.

They will stand up for our truths, our story, and for our people.

Will they be ready?

(adapted from my Rosh Ha Shanah morning sermon at Temple Solel)