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RELIGIOUS COMMUNION WITHIN THE YOUNG JEWISH LEFT
by Hannah Weintraub
from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
ON A FRIDAY night, I watch a wine cork roll dangerously along the edge of a coffee table, hitting against a bowl of half-eaten chips and guacamole. There’s a rising din of excited chatter and laughter. Unlike at the Friday night frat parties and dance clubs down the street, here people are passing out Jewish song sheets and discussing ideas for social change. Shabbat candles slowly burn away, casting a soft glow onto those gathered for Pittsburgh’s first If Not Now (INN) meeting.
INN is a movement of North American Jews calling for American Jewish institutions to end their support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The movement formed in the summer of 2014 with a series of actions opposing the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Since then, INN has carried out some eight hundred actions, grown into a significant political presence, and — by rooting its organizing in Jewish tradition, wisdom and ritual — become a cultural and spiritual center for young Jews.
Combining social organizing and religious communion is not unusual within the young Jewish left. While older generations of Jewish socialists and communists often overlooked or even scorned religious and spiritual aspects of their Jewish identities, many Jewish leftists today are embracing religious tradition as a source of power and inspiration. INN leader Helen Bennett explains: “Ritual is intended to be experienced physically and emotionally, not just intellectually. . . . It has this power to reawaken us as a powerful and worthy people who are are able to be calling for moral leadership and dignity and freedom for all.”
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization building resistance to the Israeli occupation, has also become a meeting place for young leftist Jews who want to shape Jewish practice around appeals for social justice. Moriah Ella Mason joined JVP Pittsburgh several years ago, after her critical opinion of Israel and her progressive views on social issues left her feeling ostracized from her more conservative Jewish community. In JVP, she found a group of people who aligned with politics while still connecting to their Jewish identities. “JVP was a community,” she explains, “that included socialist and communist Jews and Jews like me who had a political awakening and wanted to transform our Jewish communities to be in line with those values.”
THROUGH INN and JVP, young Jews from varied cultural backgrounds and levels of observance have joined together to craft meaningful, enlivening, cross-denominational spiritual practices.
I first experienced this at a protest of forty or so who gathered to oppose Trump’s appearance at the annual AIPAC convention. Initially the march was similar to others I had attended: We grabbed banners and signs and took to the streets, chanting the expected slew of leftist slogans and cheers -- until a member of INN began to sing: “Olam khesed yibaneh, ya da dai dai.” The haunting rallying cry (“We will build this world with love”) rippled through the group of protesters until our song of Jewish hope drowned out the blaring honks of morning traffic. “We will build this world with love,” we loudly sang as we approached the crowds of Jewish people waiting outside the AIPAC convention.
I looked amazedly at the people marching next to me, many of whom had taught me some Hebrew and stories from the Torah. I was proud to use our Jewish common stories and rituals as a foundation for our action. Finally, I thought, together as young people, we were freeing these words from their static placement in museum-like cases of siddurim and bemas and carrying them into the active theater of protest.
The choice to mix Jewish songs into our political distress and our hopes for rebuilding gave us all the spiritual strength to move our bodies forward. “Songs and ritual are a type of glue — they bring our voices together, they allow us to resonate collectively and publicly,” Helen Bennett explains. With this song on our lips, we were able to call out to people waiting to hear Trump at AIPAC, and remind them that our tradition tells us to build a world based on tenets of justice that Trump does not represent.
Singing Jewish songs at actions like this, and engaging in other public Jewish ritual, allow INN and JVP to position themselves as rightful members of the Jewish community. Many on the right attack the two groups with claims that its members are antisemitic or self-hating Jews. We can point to our active use of Jewish ritual as a testament to our care for Judaism. “We are demonstrating that we were not off the derekh [path],” Bennett says. “We’re not leaving the community or trying to create something that isn’t authentic. We’re intentionally building upon the very tradition that we learned about through these institutions.”
INN’s singing of Hebrew songs at protests, blowing shofarim to disrupt government hearings, and chanting the kaddish for Palestinians killed by the IDF in the course of the occupation, has awakened many in the Jewish community to remember that we can apply our ritual and tradition to seek out tsedek (justice) and shivyon erekh ha’adam (human equality). Displaying public religious ritual and delving into questions of religious values also helps JVP and INN connect with faith-based communities outside of Judaism. “People from other communities understand what we’re talking about through lenses of faith,” explains Moriah Mason from JVP. “They understand the language of moral questions and traditions.”
Internally, INN and JVP use ritual to develop a spiritual community that strengthens its members and creates a more socially conscious and diverse Judaism. Members regularly gather with one another for Shabbat dinners, havdole, and Passover seders. “We create a community around these [ritual] processes of healing and frustration and action,” says Josh Friedman, a member of INN Philadelphia. “That is why spiritual practice is important.”
Like many chapters of If Not Now, INN Pittsburgh hosted our first meeting on erev Shabbat (Friday evening). Jewish culture already recognizes this weekly holiday as a time for people to come together and discuss ideas, which were among the goals we had for our first INN event. Upon seeing the display of khale, wine and candles, many commented that this was their first time celebrating Shabbat in months. Pushing through the nervousness of practicing ritual with new people, the ten of us lit the candles. We took a moment to bask in the glow of the candles, clear our minds of the current political mayhem, and relax with one another. We allowed the holiday to help us heal. We then covered our eyes and broke into the ancient melody of the blessing over the candles. With that common song, we affirmed our connection to one another through our shared possession of our Jewish tradition.
BECAUSE of its grassroots nature, INN gathers a cross-denominational and multicultural membership. This diversity of Jewish backgrounds challenges the standardized approach towards Judaism of more denominationally stringent Jewish communities. INN Philadelphia member Adi Goldberg, who grew up in a largely Ashkenazi Jewish community and attended a Conservative Jewish day school, felt disconnected from Jewish ritual and spirituality until she found, in INN, a community that focused on listening to and responding to a variety of perspectives on Judaism. “Now I’m thinking about Judaism as something that has many different perspectives and brings people in and is collaborative. It’s pushing people to realize Jewish doesn’t look the same and not everyone is an Ashkenazi Jew,” she explains.
To foster that sensibility, INN and JVP guide ritual practice with care, encouragement, and an emphasis on lay-led leadership. “We’re happy to list the knowledge we have and then share the mic. We give people who have different insights or want to have the opportunity to lead the chance to try it,” Bennett explains.
In JVP Pittsburgh, the group decides the course of Jewish ritual together, which reflects their general organizing strategy. “It’s a conversation,” Mason explains. “In general, what we take on is determined by who is there and what they care about. It’s dynamic.” The group determines on a case-by-case basis what level of observance they will uphold and what types of ritual they will engage with. “We feel permission to do it . . . I know this tradition of the student and questioning. To me and my friends it makes me feel very engaged in this tradition.”
Many members of JVP and INN still participate in more formal or institutionalized Jewish communities. For many members of JVP Pittsburgh, chapter meetings are just one piece of their myriad of Jewish practices, says Mason. “We’re not replacing it, but we’re part of it,” she says.
At the end of INN Pittsburgh’s Shabbat meeting, the participants and I gathered around the dying Shabbat candles to make future plans. Members gave ideas for havdole celebrations and offered to help one another shape the ritual content for upcoming gatherings. At 11:00 p.m., the evening came to a close, two hours after our intended end time, but with shared Shabbat food, wine, songs and conversation, few people voiced regret about missing other Friday night plans. That evening, we began to rely on one another, to not only organize social actions but to organize the intimate, spiritual moments of our lives.
Bennett believes that the trust required to practice ritual with others is what will build INN to become a force of strong, Jewish leadership. “We have this trust that if we want to see something happen we will,” she explains. “We know that the power of our coming together and letting go of our own particular anxieties is actually going to be what helps us win. Coming together around ritual building is a huge place to really flex if not even build those muscles of trust.”
While many in the Jewish community fear that young Jews are straying away from Jewish culture and tradition, ritual practice in INN and JVP shows that young Jews are instead actively reclaiming and renewing their Judaism. For these young Jews, reimagined Jewish practice has become a deeply meaningful response to the demands of social organizing. Through powerful calls for social movements and moral accountability, Jews in this younger generation are gladly turning to Jewish resistance movements to create strong spiritual communities that will become powerful forces of political and religious change.
Hannah Weintraub is a writer for New Jewish Voices and a senior in Fiction Writing, History and Jewish Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.