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O My America: Being an Agendanik

May 31, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

il_570xN.851301282_lj3gI JUST SPENT the weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan at a reunion of some ninety veterans of New Jewish Agenda (NJA), the national, chapter-based, multi-issue Jewish organization that was launched in 1980, lasted until 1992 — and transformed my life.

I attended the inaugural NJA conference in Washington DC. I was 29, the assistant editor of Jewish Currents, and I was there kind of as a journalist, kind of as a participant. I came home and helped organize the Brooklyn chapter; four years later, I moved to New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley and helped organize a chapter there. I also attended at least two national NJA conferences — and a marvelous, mini-conference for NJA leaders meant to explore the many different Jewish approaches to contemporary dilemmas that our organization comprised. Rabbi Herschel Matt, for instance, stood before us earnestly struggling with his devotion, as a Conservative leader, to Torah and halakha (which orders death for a “man who lies with a man...”) while seeking a path to support the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in the rabbinate and in Jewish life. Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Center, meanwhile, delved into the Yiddish literary and folk traditions to find rooting for his anti-war activism. There was no debate permitted, only listening and learning — and it was fascinating to see both the diversity and the unity of progressive Jews.

IT WAS IN NJA, in fact, that I first met progressive religious Jews, who inspired me to set aside my anti-religious, “opiate-of-the-people” biases and become an avant-garde secularist, fascinated by the progressive content they found in Judaism and more than happy to set aside “God” (for me, quotation marks go a long way towards doing that) and to wrestle, as they wrestled, with Jewish texts and traditions.

It was in NJA that I met scores of Jewish lesbians and gay men who helped me realize how homophobic I actually was — and who provided a safe space in which i could struggle with it, ask questions, and have my consciousness raised.

It was in NJA that I experienced a process-oriented activism concerned with maximizing democracy and inclusiveness while doing real work and having real impact on the world. This was political activism that did not feel annoying or sacrificial because it contributed so very much to my personal growth, my friendship circles, my feeling of being embedded in a community — yet it never shrank to mere navel-gazing or ideological pilpul (minutia) as we mounted campaigns about South African apartheid, sanctuary for Central American refugees, a cessation of U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras, inclusion of GLBTQ people in Jewish life — and, of course, Israeli-Palestinian peace. (You can read an interview with Ezra Nepon, NJA’s only historian so far, and get a sense of the scope of the scope of NJA’s work, by clicking here.)

NOW I’M 64, and I’ve been the editor of JC for fourteen years, following an eighteen-year hiatus. I helped organize the NJA reunion because the prospect of seeing certain of my fellow Agendaniks after years apart was too tempting to resist — and because I knew this would be the prime audience to gain for our magazine. But there was something else, a keen sense of homecoming, that I did not anticipate feeling.

And here I am the day after, feeling happy because I got to spend time with people who, despite being scattered across this wide country, are precious comrades and deliciously familiar to me — this one with her hearty laugh, this one with her manner of thoughtfully reaching for her words, this one for his South African accent and his amazing depth of Jewish knowledge, this one for his eloquent and encouraging leadership style. I loved seeing how the veils of age have descended upon us all. I loved having my memories of struggle and growth awakened. I loved how responsive people were to Jewish Currents and to my work as an artist and writer.

I loved being reengaged in democratic processes — making sure the young people in attendance (about ten in all, mostly from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groupings in the anti-occupation movement) were given the space to express themselves, that women were privileged to speak before men, and that overly loquacious people were not permitted to go on and on and on.

I was surprised by how many adoptive parents there were in NJA (including me), and how many of them had chosen to create interracial families. This especially emerged during a session on combating racism, in which our concerns ranged from mass incarceration to the Black Lives Matter movement to issues of Ashkenazic domination within Jewish organizations — to how we might protect our very own kids from police harassment or injury.

NOTWITHSTANDING all the community feeling, however, there was a way in which I felt like a bit of an outsider. No, it wasn’t during the sabbath services on Friday night — there were meaningful secular alternatives, as NJA was always sensitive to secular Jewish identity. What alienated me was the obsession of so many participants with Israel and the Palestinians. During the weekend, sessions of discussion about the Middle East attracted far, far more participants than anything else. I kept asking folks why they were so involved with Israel, and I kept feeling that, more than anything else, what drove their obsession was simply guilt about Israel’s bad behavior.

Israel’s bad behavior is, indeed, a shande fur de goyim (an embarrassment before the gentiles), with the occupation about to enter its fiftieth year!! Yet the power of NJA’s activism, for me, had always been that the organization refused to be repressed because of its pro-peace, negotiate-with-the-PLO positions, and also refused to be consumed by the Middle East struggle, always insisting that American Jews had responsibility and capacity to influence American policy on numerous issues.

The Bundist spirit in me was definitely awake during the final reunion session on the Middle East, which included the participation of Arik Ascherman, the very courageous leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, and Batya Kallus, whom I knew was Betsy Cohen before she moved to Israel and became an important activist with Women at the Wall. So I angled for a turn to speak. Forgive me for being disruptive, I began, and then briefly praised Arik and Betsy for their activism before turning to my comrades and saying something like this:

Jews! Our American government is about to be taken over by the Tea Party. Our planet is melting. Forty percent of black American children are living in poverty, as are one out of five of all Americans. So please don’t forget to be multi-issue-oriented in your hearts and minds — and your schedules! — as New Jewish Agenda always was. Our Jewish identities represent a culture of dissent, of alternative ethical values, and America desperately needs us. And here, we might actually make a difference!

Now I’m driving towards Duluth, Minnesota, where a synagogue with Reform and Reconstructionist affiliations has invited me to be “scholar-in-residence.” Perhaps it’s a testimonial to the stunted nature of post-Holocaust Jewish culture that the likes of me gets to be a “scholar” about anything — but I do have a lot to say on the topic of the weekend, “Bridging the Secular-Religious Divide in Jewish Life,” in part thanks to my experiences in New Jewish Agenda.

And in all four of my presentations, I expect to say not a word about Israel, at least until the questions-and-comments periods. Of course, there’s plenty to say about Jewish secularism in Israel — but NOT focusing over there is, for me, the more radical path. Doikayt, the Bundists called it: here-ness.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.