Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Synagogue Struggles
Duration
0:00 / 51:44
Published
June 13, 2024

Since October 7th, American Jews have been sharply divided over Israel’s war on Gaza—a fracture that has been manifest within all manner of institutions, including synagogues. Many leftist Jews do not participate in synagogue life at all, in part because most congregations are explicitly or tacitly Zionist. But for those who are affiliated with a synagogue community that doesn’t completely align with their politics, this moment has raised or reasserted pressing and difficult questions: Should we do political work within these institutions, and if so, how? What is gained and lost by organizing in these spaces, or by withdrawing from them? What kinds of communities can we ethically be part of? On this episode of On the Nose, managing editor Nathan Goldman, managing director Cynthia Friedman, contributing writer Raphael Magarik, and contributor Devin E. Naar discuss their varying approaches to synagogue life in this moment.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Texts Mentioned and Further Reading:

Jewish Americans in 2020,” Pew Research Center

Statement on Israel/Palestine by Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies” from 2021

How a Leading Definition of Antisemitism Has Been Weaponized Against Israel’s Critics,” Jonathan Hafetz and Sahar Aziz, The Nation

Making Mensches

Ale Brider,” Yiddish folk song

Hayim Katsman’s Vision of Struggle,” Hayim Katsman, Jewish Currents

Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early 20th Century Palestine by Michelle U. Campos

Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine by Abigail Jacobson and Moshe Naor

A Democratic Mizrahi Vision,” the Mizrahi Civic Collective

Transcript

Nathan Goldman: Welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Nathan Goldman, the managing editor of Jewish Currents, and I’ll be your host for today. In the month since October 7, American Jews have been sharply divided over Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. That division has been manifest across Jewish life and within all manner of institutions, including synagogues. Of course, many American Jews rarely, if ever, stepped foot in a shul. A 2020 Pew survey found that half seldom or never attend services; only 35% live in a household where anyone is a formal member of a synagogue; and left-wing Jews have long reported feeling particularly alienated from synagogue life since most congregations and their leadership are explicitly or tacitly Zionist, and non- or anti-Zionists are nearly always in the minority. But for those of us on the Jewish left, who do belong to a synagogue, this moment has raised or reasserted pressing and difficult questions about those affiliations, about whether and how to do political organizing within these institutions, and what kinds of communities we feel we can ethically be a part of.

NG: Personally, I became involved in political work about Israel/Palestine at my synagogue in Minneapolis this past fall, and I found the experience both heartening and deeply frustrating. As I’ve wrestled with the shape and scope of my engagement there, I’ve been eager to talk with others on the Jewish left about their own struggles and choices, whether to dedicate themselves to organizing in these spaces, to keep their political lives separate, or to withdraw from those institutions altogether. So I’m excited to be here today with three wonderful guests who are living out a range of responses to these questions to discuss how we’re thinking through our role as Jewish leftists with respect to synagogue life (and to Jewish institutional life more broadly). I’m joined by Cynthia Friedman, managing director of Jewish Currents

Cynthia Friedman: Hi, glad to be here.

NG: Contributing Writer Rafi Magarik, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hi, Rafi.

Raphael Magarik: Hi Nathan.

NG: And contributor Devin E. Naar, a member of our advisory board and a professor with appointments in Jewish Studies, Sephardic Studies, and History at the University of Washington in Seattle. Hi, Devin.

Devin E. Naar: I am happy to be here. Thank you.

NG: Thank you all so much for being part of this conversation. I’d love to start by asking each of you to tell us a bit about your involvement in synagogue life, both in general and in terms of Israel/Palestine politics before October 7, and then in the weeks and months after. What kinds of congregations and communities have you all been a part of, and how is your relationship to them changed or stayed the same over the past months?

CF: I grew up as a kid in the Bay Area in California, and my parents were part of a conservative synagogue. And I basically went every Saturday with my mom, from when I was one or two. I actually found out more recently that my mom helped organize the childcare part of the synagogue so that we could go, and I went pretty reliably until I was bat mitzvahed right before I turned 13 and sort of intermittently after that. It definitely was a space I liked a lot and felt really comfortable in. I think it’s shaped a lot of my love for language and patience for watching things unfold. It was a place I really felt at home. I also grew up going to a Jewish summer camp, Camp Ramah, and even though it’s not a congregation, it really instilled a love for ritual and a really creative and very spirited relationship to ritual. I went off to college and found that in college, my choices felt like going to Chabad, the Orthodox branch that, in my school, was pretty liberal but still gender-segregated and still more traditional than I was comfortable with (or familiar with); or the Hillel, where I felt it was mostly having, like, pizza parties, and not doing anything rigorous or substantial. So I wasn’t that involved with Jewish life there. That was when I learned more about Palestine and felt really heartbroken, angry, and betrayed at the Jewish communities I’ve grown up in and the things that were both excluded from that education or manipulated and mischaracterized.

CF: So flash-forward: I moved to Brooklyn, and for the first few years wasn’t really involved in Jewish community, was just living a pretty secular life. Then I got more involved in Jewish organizing after Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014, and that led me to find a lot of other anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, which I didn’t know existed. My friend (who I met through organizing), who is a really dear friend of mine, brought me to a synagogue in Brooklyn that they go to--and that was back in 2018. It’s a nondenominational synagogue, and one of the most progressive in Brooklyn, and uses a reconstructionist siddur book. And the first time that I went to that synagogue, I got outside and cried for a while with my friend. It was really an overwhelming experience to find myself at a synagogue where I felt that I could be and could pray. It’s not something that I had expected would ever happen again because the vast majority of synagogues that I am familiar with are Zionist--have an Israeli flag on the bema, all of that--and it was really meaningful to me. Since 2018, I’ve been a member there; you know, I go to Saturday services pretty regularly. It’s been a really, really meaningful part of my life.

CF: It feels a lot more difficult after October 7. Our synagogue really cares about being what they call an “open tent.” Most people who go to the shul are somewhere between liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist, and there’s a range of how important this issue is to people who attend, and there’s a range of feelings on Israel/Palestine. It’s one of the most progressive shuls in Brooklyn; the synagogue really welcomes anti-Zionist Jews and it vocally wants anti-Zionists to be part of the community. And at the same time, to me, it feels like it falls short of some of the more substantive ways to make that be felt. The synagogue really has an activist nature to it. Its self-concept is that it’s a progressive synagogue--many, many of the attendees and congregants think of themselves as activists, and often, for many decades, have been involved in activism, and it feels like a real concrete split from that history, to be asked, on this issue, to not be political, or to leave this issue out of the room, when a lot of other issues are welcomed into the room--including police reform (or police abolition), including things about abortion, including things about immigration rights. And it does feel like a marked difference, the sort of apolitical nature that sometimes is felt around Israel/Palestine. And I think part of what is also hard is that, for many years, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about Israel/Palestine in the synagogue, and so we don’t have the muscles built up for how to talk about it--and it is potentially the most difficult time to talk about it (in Jewish spaces, at least). I think there’s wide agreement among congregants that what’s happening now with Israel’s assault on Gaza is awful. And I think, beyond that, there’s disagreement about various ideologies and tactics and strategies.

CF: The other thing I’ll say is many people would give a lot to be at a synagogue that even welcomes anti-Zionists, or even acknowledges that they exist, or acknowledges that anti-Zionist Jews are deeply Jewish and legitimately Jewish, and I feel very privileged to want more. And I also feel really strongly that I do want more; it just feels hard for my heart to either not have Israel/Palestine named or to have it named in ways that, to me, don’t feel that they go far enough. And I worry in the long term, what that would do to my relationship to Jewish spirituality.

NG: Thank you, Cynthia. How about you, Rafi? Could you give us some of your background and where you’re at?

RM: Sure, so I grew up in Brooklyn, and I was raised in conservative institutions: Camp Ramah, a conservative synagogue (though by parents who, theologically and politically, were to the left of the conservative movement). And that means, basically my whole life, I’ve been a regular shul-goer who goes to synagogue at least once a week, and I’ve also my whole life been someone who prays in communities with people who don’t agree with me on basic things. I’ve prayed in renewal synagogues, conservative synagogues (sometimes), orthodox synagogues, and always been a little out of place. And, you know, that has certain difficulties, but it also is the way my life works, and it kind of trains you.

RM: And I will say that, probably, there are relatively few people on the left whose synagogue life changed less as a result of October 7 than mine did. I live in Chicago. I attend a wonderful and (in the best possible sense) sleepy conservative shul that is small and ranges from people who are liberal Zionists, to people who are non- or anti-Zionist. I also am part of a small independent minyan that is a little bit more lefty/queer but explicitly doesn’t engage with Israel and Palestine at all. And I would say, for me, the basic experiences have been: Look, I need the people in my neighborhood to make a minyan, to make a prayer quorum. I have a sense of religious obligation. Regardless of how I feel about it, I show up every week. And so for me, my primary attitude towards these people is: I need them, and they need me. And it’s great if we see things similarly. And if we don’t, that’s fine, too. There certainly is a certain amount of avoidance in that. It’s also the case that the community, fortunately, is comparatively liberal. Neither of the communities I pray in at the moment say prayers for nation states; neither of them have Israeli flags. In both of them I look around, and I see some people in the room who share my politics and some people who don’t. But for me, the synagogue space is a home for diasporic Jewish life around ritual and learning, and if there is a politics to it, the politics is almost a disinterest in Israel--as something that is constitutively positive, and sustaining--just a positive sense of what it means to live in the diaspora and to play out Jewishness not through the channel of a nation state. So that’s my experience, idiosyncratic as it might be.

NG: Thank you, Rafi, how about you, Devin?

DN: I grew up in New Jersey. I went to my family’s Sephardic congregation in New Brunswick (or now it’s Highland Park), where my great-grandfather was the first Rabbi there. And so we were very connected in that kind of environment, which is functionally orthodox. But by the time it came for my bar mitzvah, we wound up affiliating with a conservative congregation with a reconstructionist rabbi. My mother was raised reform, so I got a lot of different threads early on, and that has continued into my adult life here in Seattle, which we’ve been affiliated with as a family, with congregations and all of those streams, in one way or another. Our kids went to reform daycare, we currently belong to a conservative congregation and a reconstructionist congregation. And for quite some time, I was very involved in the two Sephardic congregations here in Seattle, which has a disproportionately large number of Sephardic congregations for a relatively small Jewish community.

DN: I would say the turning point for me was not October 7, but it was the prior conflict in 2021. And I, at that time, like many other colleagues in the field of Jewish Studies, signed on to a letter that was critical of Israel’s military actions. And that erupted in a local controversy that resulted in, essentially, me being ostracized from one of the Sephardic congregations (to which I did not belong, but I was closely connected to in various ways). And so I think for me, that was the wake-up call that made it clear that there were certain kinds of attitudes and postures toward Israel that were, perhaps, unbridgeable. Since October 7, I continued to be involved not only in the Reconstructionist congregation but also the conservative congregation, having conversations with people in the Sephardic community--intense, very long conversations with people in all these congregations. And one of the reasons why I feel like sticking on is--at my bar mitzvah, my grandfather, I actually have a copy of his speech that I carry close by me. And I’ll give you a little excerpt, because it gives you a sense of what I’m thinking about. I get very emotional every time I think of it, in fact. He says: “Devin, I want you to know and understand that you come from a unique Sephardic rabbinical ancestry from Salonika, Greece; that our family was and always is involved in synagogue activities. Devin, do not break the Naar family tradition. Be active, get involved in your synagogue, they need you.”

DN: So I feel that sense of obligation to continue the conversation. And in the conservative synagogue, for example, I was invited to give a talk about the debate over the definitions of antisemitism. This was before October 7. And the congregation was very open to having that discussion around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA definition, of antisemitism, and its detractors. And as a result, they moved a little bit away from that definition; I feel like there is space for a conversation. That was a small victory, and even in the Sephardic community, in the Sephardic congregations, one of my interlocutors--I was having very long conversations with him, very heated, we did not see eye to eye. And after one of these sessions, he wrote me an email. And he writes: “I’ve been torn between what is a real friendship between us on the one hand and an ideological disagreement on the other. Talking with you has been so helpful in reconciling these two formidable forces. At the end of the day, the friendship and brotherhood that exists between us is a very high bar for any ideological or political disagreement to clear. The friendship and brotherhood remains the higher value.” So I feel a sense of possibility that this world, and the various organized Jewish spaces in which I’m involved, in terms of the Sephardic community and the conservative community--I feel that there is still a space for me there; a space for conversation, a space for engagement, and a space to create community, despite--maybe even, more importantly, because of--our differences.

NG: Thank you so much. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Kansas City and grew up going to reform synagogues. Since moving to Minneapolis, where I now live, I first attended synagogue rarely, after beginning to get interested in my Jewishness in a new way and in a politicized way, which also coincided with a renewed interest in religion and ritual. So for the first few years in which I lived here, I would mostly go to High Holy Day services and other intermittent things. And I would go to this particular synagogue, basically the most outwardly progressive, reform synagogue that has a kind of self-identification as an activist community also. Over the course of the time I’ve lived here, and my relationship to Jewishness has deepened and transformed, and I’ve become more involved in that synagogue and became a member in 2020, along with my wife, and we’ve had an increasingly deep relationship with that institution in that community since then. My wife converted through this synagogue and completed that process last year, and when our twin children were born in 2022, that was also, I think, an occasion for deepening some of this relationship. And so, as my family has developed our practice of Judaism, this institution has been an important site of that. There was a leadership transition at this synagogue a few years ago, and we ended up with this head rabbi who I particularly like and feel particularly on the same page with in a lot of respects, both in some liturgical things but then also politically.

NG: So before October 7, it was a feature of this congregation to not talk about Israel/Palestine very much, in a way that stood out to me because it’s a place where there was a lot of conversation about politics and a lot of conversation about activism. But after October 7, there was really a kind of sense, I think, of reckoning at this synagogue, and there was an urgency to having conversations that we hadn’t had and a sense of like: Well, it’s too bad we didn’t lay a groundwork for this moment, but we didn’t, and here we are. I became involved in a committee to do some political education at the synagogue, which is not something I’ve been involved in at all before at this institution (or any institution like it). And through that, I was in conversation with other people on this committee who had a range of political commitments but many of whom were non-Zionist, or anti-Zionist, which is how I identify, and some of whom were on another side. But we kind of embarked on this haphazard project of trying to think about ways, in partnership with other groups at the synagogue that were doing other kinds of things, putting together some programming to facilitate events and conversations and things for the congregation to be able to figure out where people are at, and what people want to do, and where people want to go.

NG: And as I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, that experience, on the one hand, has been very energizing and heartening to me, when there have been moments when I’ve really seen what feels like the possibility in this community. And on the other hand, it has been, at times, very exhausting and trying, and there have been times in which I have spent a lot of time and energy on conversations where I leave feeling like: I don’t know if that was a good use of my time. There’s been moments where I’ve really experienced the limitations of the framework of dialogue. I really had to ask myself: What does it mean to be in these conversations? Am I showing up in an honest way? If it’s an issue on which I have a level of principle where it’s like, I’m not showing up to be convinced to be a liberal Zionist—that’s not what I’m here for. And the other thing I will say is that I felt a drive to do some of this work at the synagogue, even though it feels in some ways uncomfortable to me. It’s not the kind of political work that I am used to doing. It’s not the kind of Jewish work I’m used to doing. I felt the urgency or necessity to do this kind of work because of a sense of it being a place that is available to me to possibly move people. It feels like a space where I want to create a community that feels like I can show up and pray with a wholeness or something that feels harder to me without a degree of alignment on these questions. And then also, I think, for my family, I feel a desire to have this community for my children. And then the flip side of that is, it does wear on my ability to go to the synagogue and to feel like it is meeting certain kinds of spiritual needs or other things if I’m spending a lot of time in this political organizing context, or this context that also has a continuity with my work at Currents. And so there is a sense of a loss around that.

DN: I have a thought on what you were just saying about why stick around in some of these spaces, and can you move people in those spaces. I come at it from a slightly different perspective because I want people to be able to see my perspective--now, whether that changes them, I don’t know. But I would like for them to be able to have the compassion and the reasonableness to make space for me in that community. I think that can become an important small move that can open up additional possibilities. I think about it also like in relationship to my classroom space; like, I taught a course on antisemitism this term, and I had Jewish students who came in wearing keffiyehs; I had Jewish students coming in wearing giant Magen Davids, and we were able to have a conversation. It was difficult; believe me, it was difficult in some moments. But to recognize, to humanize the people on the other side of the political spectrum, I think was very important. And maybe that doesn’t align with all of our politics, but for me, that was an important experience in the classroom, and it’s in dialogue, for me, with the kinds of conversations that I’m having in the organized Jewish community spaces.

CF: It’s interesting for me to hear all of your different relationships, and it makes me reflect on my own. I’ve been thinking in the last couple of minutes about how much I’ve moved and I’ve changed in the course of the last 10 years, and in the course of my politicization. It’s interesting to think about that project of dialogue, or even internal organizing, as something that I support and really think there’s a value in and a home for. I think I surprised myself by really feeling like it’s not work I can do, and it’s not a place I can be, whereas I think a few years ago, it was work I was interested in doing. So in the aftermath of October 7--I’ve been very lucky to have some friends who, originally, we met through the synagogue, and who have been dissatisfied and angry in the ways that I have. And we’ve been doing certain prayer services, just like in living rooms. And it’s sad to me to not have a Torah, it’s sad to me to miss out on some of the relationships with a synagogue. But around Hanukkah, there was a group called Making Mensches that we partnered with, me and my friends; we led some songs at a Hanukkah party that was billed as an anti-Zionist Hanukkah party, and it sold out in just a few days. We closed the Hanukkah event with a song called “Ale Bridir” that’s Yiddish. It’s a song that you generally swap out verses. There’s traditional verses, and then I guess there’s a tradition of adding different verses. But at the end, we did a verse that said, like, “From the river to the sea/oy oy/to the sea, Palestine will be free/oy oy oy.” And in that room, like a hundred people were singing it. And I’m curious what my behavior would be if I didn’t have that sort of space, whether I would invest more in the sort of work that you guys are doing and talking about.

NG: I feel like what you’re getting at, Cynthia, is really at the heart of these questions, because I think a central risk in investing in (what I’ve been thinking to myself of as) imperfect institutions, is that that time, and energy, and those resources could be spent building other institutions. And I think there’s the question of resources, and longevity, and institutional memory. I think there’s a question of what do we want out of synagogues and out of these institutions. And obviously, there’s compelling reasons to try to invest in and avail ourselves of the resources of things that exist and have had structures built up around them, though those same structures are the things that then are constraining. You know, a few weeks ago, I met up with Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, who is someone who is doing a lot of thinking and work here about building alternative forms of diasporic Jewish community. And one thing she was talking to me about was her interest in reimagining the structures of Jewish communal life outside of the synagogue as such, in a sort of critique of the synagogue as hemmed-in by the structures that govern nonprofit organizations, that have a board, and rely on major donors, and all these kinds of things. And I think she’s been interested in the proliferation of other kinds of communities. And really, in thinking of those as places for people to really invest: invest their time, and their money, and all of that, as anti-Zionist Jews. I’m curious, Rafi, how you think about these kinds of questions in relation to where you’re at. I’m really interested in this idea that you put forth of, you know, the way in which not engaging on these politics at synagogue functions as a kind of diasporism for you. I’m interested in how your perspective on it fits in.

RM: I think there is some level on which I don’t see my shul life as primarily about international politics. I see it primarily as about local bonds of community, the place where I imagine my future kid having her bat mitzvah--or where, God forbid, if I need to say Kaddish, I’ll go and do that--the place that forms the backbone of my weekly life. In some sense, I experience these communities as pre-political; communities that are alongside forms of political activity and might nurture them and support them but are deeply constrained, in basic ways, from having too much an effect on the political world. Another institution I’m a part of--not a Jewish institution, particularly--is my union. I really relate to my union quite differently. I see that as a place where I struggle for my interests as a worker. And I hope that the union will gradually grow more politically radical and will shift in various ways towards being more industrial, and more militant, and so on and so forth. But the shul isn’t that for me. And I guess also, personally, I identify as someone who’s just not a Zionist. I wasn’t raised as a Zionist, and I feel that, fundamentally, what that means for me is in the same way that I’m not an Orthodox Jew, and I’m not a Reform Jew, I’m not that, you know? But it’s not a kind of constitutive pole of my Jewish identity. What’s constitutive of my Jewish identity is that I observe Shabbos, that I go to shul, and read the Torah, that I have rituals that I practice, I have texts that I learned. Those are all the positive things that constitute me as a Jew, and they’re sort of passively diasporic. They’re not even diasporist in some strong form that is deeply ideological--they’re just diasporic in the sense that people do them all over the world, you can do them all over the world. They don’t, in some sense, depend on relationship to some privileged place--or, if they do, they’re in such an indirect and mediated way that it doesn’t culminate in state nationalism.

RM: So that’s my general orientation. I understand that other people relate to spiritual community differently and are looking for different things out of it. I will say, I really do feel that community size makes a tremendous, tremendous difference. A formative experience for me (that has nothing to do with Israel/Palestine, but it’s really shaped the way I think about living in small communities) is, I spent a summer studying Italian in Florence. And I remember going to shul there with two men who absolutely detested each other. They had a business dispute and really couldn’t stand each other. But you know what? Without those two people, they didn’t make a minyan for Shabbos afternoon services; and so they grit their teeth, and they sit next to each other, and they did it. And I think that’s kind of a virtue of a small community, is that it forces a certain type of intense reliance. And even though a part of me, Cynthia, is envious of y’all in Brooklyn--you have a hundred anti-Zionist Jews who get together and sing about freeing Palestine--I certainly see the appeal of that. But I think there’s a certain nobility and a certain deep connection and reliance that you have on the very few people who constitute your Jewish life when there is not an inexhaustible supply of others and you can’t find the ideological niche that best corresponds to you.

CF: It’s funny, I similarly feel envious, in some ways, of your relationship to ritual, that I also think would be meaningful and really nice in a different way.

NG: Yeah, it strikes me that one way in which--by your own articulation, your experience, Rafi, feels different from some of the rest of ours--feels related to that grounding in a degree of observance that becomes an end in itself, in obvious ways. Just speaking for myself, it feels like, because my relationship to observance is so much more attenuated and inconsistent and all of these things, it feels like, in the absence of that, it does feel like there’s maybe a different kind of feeling of need or space for a kind of relation to the community that feels like it brings the political into that space to help give it content or something. I’m curious to hear more from you, Devin. You mentioned a little bit about the ways in which what you’ve done at your synagogues has been related to a context of the wider Jewish community and to other institutions. So I’d be interested to hear about that network of relationships because I think that brings us also into a different kind of context for what it might mean to be doing that political work at synagogues--not only in their capacity as religious institutions but in their capacity as part of a network of Jewish communal life.

DN: The best example I could give was the Limmud Conference that was organized here in Seattle, which is kind of like a Jewish community conference. They’re held in different cities all across the world, and at the Seattle one, I was invited by some of the community leaders and organizers of Limmud to participate in a panel conversation around a view from after October 7. And this was just over a hundred days after that time. They wanted to get some real candid perceptions of the different participants, which included myself, a rabbi, the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and two leaders of the Limmud program itself, one of whom happens to be Israeli. I felt like I needed to share the range of emotions and perceptions that I was dealing with. So I spoke about the grief of October 7; one of my former teaching assistants, one of my former students--a friend of mine--was killed in his kibbutz on October 7. So this really hit very, very close, in that sense of grief over the murder of Hayim Katzman, a sense of vulnerability. I spoke about the anxieties around the uncertainty of the anti-Jewish uptick, maybe; is it anti-Israel? Will I be ensnarled in that, in some ways? And on the other hand, will some of the very strong pro-Israel advocates in the local Jewish community--will they come after me again, as they did in 2021?

DN: But I think the emotion that I shared that was most important, and that people responded to most profoundly, was I said that my overwhelming feeling is a feeling of shame over the way in which the Israeli state and Israeli military responded to October 7. I coupled that with trying to articulate a few other kinds of political views that are out there. Maybe this is a moment to think beyond--for this community--beyond this two-state dogma. And so I brought us back into history, and I spoke a little bit about one of the iterations of Sephardic Zionism from a hundred years ago, that advocated for moledet ha-meshutefet, a shared homeland for Palestinians and Jews. This was a mainstream Sephardic Jewish idea in the late Ottoman period. If I were to articulate that vision today, would you denounce me as an anti-Zionist? Or is that Sephardic Zionism still part of the Zionist tradition? And I brought to them some writings of the Mizrahi Civic Collective in Israel--which, even before October 7, had articulated a vision that Israel is actually not a Jewish and democratic state and has not been. It has been illusory. They write that full democracy for Mizrahim, and Palestinians, Ethiopians and others was never really in place.

DN: And so when I said all of these things on this stage in front of a large swath of the Jewish community, the response was fascinating, because several people (people from congregations I am associated with, and people from other walks of Jewish life); several people came up to me, they gave me these big hugs. I was really surprised. And several people thanked me for what I said, and for showing them that it was possible to say what I said--on, literally, the Jewish community stage. Some told me that they didn’t agree with me at all. At all. They didn’t agree with a single thing that I said, but they appreciated that I said it, and others circulated messages denouncing me (which was to be expected, of course). And I felt like that was a meaningful encounter, and it opened up some possibility, revealed to me that there may be other people that are inside the more mainstream, organized Jewish community that are not able to speak, or have not been able to articulate--because maybe they’re anxious, because they didn’t know it could be said in those spaces, because they are afraid of the backlash. That made me feel even more motivated to continue those kinds of conversations. And, you know, I didn’t use polemical language. I think that was part of the agreement to be in that space because also, when you have slogans, you need to get beyond the slogans, anyhow, to have a conversation. But one of the leaders of this group invited me to participate in an ongoing conversation with a group of other Jewish community leaders in the area. That has been really rewarding, insofar as I really don’t agree with most of the people in that group, but I still come back, and they seem to want me there. And that seems to be opening up, again, some kind of possibility that might otherwise seem foreclosed. I think it’s risky to try to open up that conversation, because maybe you don’t want to give too much to the views with which you disagree, and maybe you don’t want to be finding your name dragged through the mud. But for me, I’ve experienced a little bit of both of that. And so far, it’s been worth it.

NG: I think there’s a lot in that experience that feels like it resonates with some of mine, even though I have been operating in a much different context. I was thinking when you were talking, Devin, about this panel I did at my synagogue. I had a sense of, in some ways, similar to what you’re talking about, Devin, of great satisfaction and relief by one outcome of this conversation, being that people did come up to me and express a lot of appreciation for showing up and saying the things I was saying. Mostly, in this event, it was people who did agree with me, in a broad sense. I think many people who also identify as anti-Zionist and so were glad I was up there saying that I did and giving a vision of what that meant, that might have been different than what certain people, who are afraid of that, think they’re going to hear. And I also heard from people who do not agree with me, that they appreciated being in conversation with me or having my views as part of the discussion.

NG: I also felt--and I’m curious if you felt any of this Devin, or for anyone else to speak to this--but it did feel like I had to compromise a lot in the ways that I was delivering the message I was delivering. And I think, in principle, I have no problem with the idea of speaking to different people in different ways, of using different kinds of language in different contexts. It does feel, to me, possible to both be honest and to not use language I’m happy to use for the sake of letting people be more able to hear what I’m saying, in ways that they might stop listening if I say certain things. But even believing that in the abstract, it did feel often very constraining to me, and sort of psychically painful, or something, to have to feel like I sometimes had to contort myself. I kept having to ask myself: What are the limits of what I’m willing to compromise on? And obviously, I’m not gonna say things I don’t think. There’s certain kinds of things I feel I need to say, but what are the constraints around that? Or even in the ways I feel like I need to show up or something. I just hear in you a very clear-eyed sense of how to show up and what value it’s bringing.

DN: Absolutely. I mean, my Hebrew name is Israel, so it’s embedded in me, the struggle there. I guess I’ve become accustomed to it, both in the classroom, I would say, also trying to bring in a wide range of perspectives among my students. I am comfortable code switching, I guess; in one context, I might speak one way, in another context, then I might speak another way. If we were all Sephardim here, I would probably be speaking differently also. Having that kind of public conversation, sure, I did question some of the words that I felt like I needed to use. But I also saw the broader enterprise, which was I wanted people to listen to me. I wanted people to hear what I had to say, and I felt like, if I use certain words (and I mean, this has been my experience), they cannot be heard. Some of those incendiary terms, the provocative terms--people become defensive, and then that becomes everything that they want to talk about: Why did you say this word? And so for me, it’s very important to continue the conversation, because that’s why I’ve agreed to be in that space. And so there may be some elements that are lost; some of the critique, some of the condemnation may become softened, but the trade-off is to have an exchange. I’m in a position now where I want to have that exchange, and others may not want to do that, and I completely respect that.

NG: One of the other things I wanted to ask about before we start to run out of time is that one of the things that has come up some in this conversation--and other conversations that you and I have had, Cynthia--has been a question about what the meaning of institutions like synagogues is for intergenerational relationships and intergenerational Jewish relationships. I know one thing that you had shared with me previously, Cynthia, is a sense of the real value of the relationships that you’ve had, or do have, at your synagogue, with older people who are not in your family, and the ways that--and I have experienced this too, I think--looking at older generations that--because of a dearth of opportunities in our society for fostering those relationships outside of the context of a nuclear family--that is a value of these kinds of institutions. And interestingly, I think, also organizing spaces. And then, thinking of the other direction, as I mentioned, I think a lot about my twin two-year-olds in the context of like: What Jewish community do I want them to have? What Jewish education do I want to be available to them? And that does feel like it motivates a lot of the legwork I have been trying to do. And you know, Devin, I know you have children, and Rafi, you’re about to have a child. So I’m curious for both of you, how you think about that, too, in relation to these spaces.

DN: I spoke earlier about my nono, about my grandfather, and thinking about my kids is equally as profound and also emotional for me. The conversations that I’ve had with my children, especially--I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old--especially with my eight-year-old, that really informed me in thinking about, you know, they’re going to be in ten years, twenty years, thirty years’ time, they’ll be thinking about: Baba, what did you do in the wake of October 7? What were you doing? And that’s a weighty thing. It weighs on me. How am I informing my child in this moment? But the good news is that he’s thinking on his own, and I’ll give you two examples. At their Hebrew school, not long after October 7, and after Israel’s military incursion, that synagogue did a bake sale, and the bake sale was to raise money to send to rebuild the houses that had been destroyed in the war. The way that he explained to me was like, in the passive voice. So he knows--we listen to the radio, we talk about it at dinner--he knows that there have been Israeli Jews and Palestinians whose houses have been destroyed. So he asks me: Whose houses are going to get rebuilt with the money that they raised from the bake sale? I said: Well, why don’t we ask the rabbi? So I wrote to the rabbi, and the rabbi wrote back right away, and she understood what he was asking. And she said: That was a fair point. And she asked: Well, if we have any recommendations for institutions or philanthropic organizations that will be involved in helping to rebuild Gaza, the congregation would be interested in hearing about that. So that was an interesting moment there.

DN: Another quick example, if I may, that speaks to something very profound about children in general, the way that they see the world that is very refreshing (and maybe we could even take some lessons from it): We were listening to the radio. This was a number of weeks ago, months ago, I don’t remember exactly, but he speaks over the radio announcement, and he says: Wait, we killed 20,000 Palestinians? And I was really shocked that he used the term “We” there. I would have never said that. But then, what he said to me was something else that startled me. He says: Baba, why are they killing children? Children are not part of the war. We don’t even know what it is. And this time, he used “we” to mean children, and included himself, Jewish, Palestinian--human children. And I was--I mean, as I am now, I can barely recount the story--I was overcome by emotion. But I felt inspired by the fact that an eight-year-old could grasp a fundamental truth that so many people seem unable to do in the organized Jewish community today. And for me, that was very profound, and maybe he can bring his message and understanding into the Jewish space and continue that conversation.

RM: I do feel slightly at a disadvantage since my hypothetical child (or not quite hypothetical, but still somewhat a little notional) doesn’t yet speak for herself. But I will say I really alternate between a profound sense of anxiety and dread around raising a Jewish kid in this world, and then, some moments of optimism. And the anxiety is that I have so many goals and aspirations for my kid, in terms of their facility with Hebrew, and with texts, and with liturgy. My father is a cantor, his father read Torah in a synagogue; this is a lineage I wanna pass on to my daughter. And that’s a really intensive thing that takes a lot of work, and effort, and immersion in a community. And then on the other hand, part of me is like: Gosh, can I in, fact, pass on some of the compromises that I’ve been willing to make around things that I believe morally and politically? What’s the cost of that? There’s so many different variables that you’re trying to control for. You want a community that is queer friendly, and you want a community that is racially integrated--you know, my partner is biracial, and that was something that was really important to us, to be part of a Jewish community that’s not exclusively white. And then you want a community that isn’t rabidly pro-Israel, and you want a community, for me, that has people who are Shabbat-observant, you know? So that’s the part of me that feels like: Geez, how am I going to do this? How are we going to do this?

RM: And then I would say, on the other hand, there is a part of me that, looking back, I had my great-grandfather’s memoirs. He was a Hasidic rabbi who moved from Russia to the United States, worked as a ritual slaughterer and a mikvah attendant. And one of the things I just think about is, on the one hand, how little he would recognize of my life, and how little I would recognize of his. And then on the other hand, how deep, and complex, and multifarious are the wells of tradition, and ritual, and texts that bind us together. I do take a certain consolation from the fact that the synagogue that I pray at currently is about 75 years older than the State of Israel, and the reform temple in our neighborhood is a good 25 years older than that. And I think a little bit about that, about the sense that I’m involved in these institutions that actually have fairly deep roots and stretch quite a bit--not only before the immediate crisis we’re in, but the whole political map of what it is to be Jewish today. I mean, a place that started in 1877, it’s just lived in an entirely different world, and, God willing, will live through and continue to be part of an entirely different political dispensation. So I don’t know what that adds up to. But I think, on my best days, I’m hopeful that my child will also deeply and profoundly surprise me, as I have my parents, and they their parents, and so on, and so forth.

NG: I similarly feel like I’m wrestling with the question of the balance of all of those things. But a lot of the times when I have been trying to do some of this political work at the synagogue and felt most drained by it, or frustrated, or been like this is just not where I can put my energy--the thing that tends to send me back into it, even if nothing else does, is a kind of thought about, specifically, Jewish education for my kids. And because we do not plan to send them to day school, there are so many limits to what I feel I (and I think what my wife feels she) can provide for them directly. I have a desire for this synagogue to really be a locus of a lot of their education and practice. And so that, to me, influences my desire to dig into the community, and make known what I would hope that looks like, and maybe, in some ways, more importantly, the kinds of things I am not comfortable with them hearing. And it’s also a lot of what drives my interest in remaining attached rather than throwing my energy into leaving and trying to start something else. And sometimes, I do have a fear for myself that there’s a kind of too-conservative impulse in that, or something. I think there’s maybe a way in which it is, or just a different way of thinking about how having those relationships and being in that place of life does shift the kind of work I feel most interested in doing. Which isn’t to put any devaluation on the other kinds of work, or whatever. But yeah, so that’s some of how I’ve wrestled with it.

CF: When I first started going to the synagogue, I thought to myself: Oh, if I did ever have kids, they could be raised in a synagogue, which was a new thought. On the other side of this question about the intergenerational nature: For me, as you mentioned, the way that a synagogue is intergenerational is so valuable, personally, and so rare in my life. The vast majority of people I interact with are in my same age bracket, but it’s been incredibly meaningful to build genuine friendships with people in their 60s and 70s (and sometimes 80s) at synagogue. I think about it a lot, that if the shul isn’t a place I can keep going to, that will probably be the biggest loss for me, in a way. Because it feels like I can continue praying in people’s living rooms, but it really feels like a major loss to not have those relationships. Especially, I think, probably some of what you’ve talked about Rafi--it’s just the consistent weekly pattern also rarely exists. To see people who I don’t have incredibly robust or deep relationships with, but who I know, and who I see, and who I see their families’ simchas, and who I see the kids’ baby namings, B’nai Mitzvahs--it’s really nice to be part of that. And like, something my friends and I talk about is the way that resources within the Jewish community are allocated right now welcomes certain people into that formation and shuts certain people out. It’s not a very optimistic note to end on, but it is something I think about, and something, right now, I feel like I have to mourn.

NG: Thank you all so much for joining me today, and thanks to our producer Jesse Brenneman and to our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose and subscribe to Jewish Currents, and find us online at JewishCurrents.org. See you next time.


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