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Dear Gen Z Jews...
A plea to two generations who have grown with me as their rabbi, following the announcement of my becoming emeritus in 2024.
(This essay is based on a Rosh Hashanah sermon you can watch here)
Dear Gen Z – and, uh, Millennials too.
First of all, I apologize for lumping the two of you together. I know full well that Gen Z, meaning those 65 million Americans born between 1997 and 2012, would not want to be caught dead being lumped together with their – I believe the word is cheugy (CHEW-gy) elders, the 72 million American Millennials born roughly between 1981 and 1996. I understand that cheugy, in Gen Z speak, means out of step and trying too hard to sound like someone they aren’t, which is precisely what I’m doing right now; but also what I thought about my elders, until I started reading about all the heroic things they did in World War 2. I really came to admire and love them in the end, but when I was young, I thought they were cheugy too, only I called them “square” and “fuddy duddy.”
So, as a proud, late blooming Boomer, representing about 71 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - yes, we’ve just been passed numerically by the Millennials, I think it’s time for a heart to heart. And yes, I know I’m leaving Gen X out of this right now, but between you and me, when your claim to fame is grunge music and Alex P. Keaton, I mean really… Nothing happened during Gen X. But in all fairness, for the purpose of this conversation, Gen X and Boomers can be lumped together too. You know, once I’m done, I really think it might be a good idea to just lump us all together.
So, let’s put all the stereotypes aside. Put all that aside. We’ve got to talk. Not as representatives of generations but as fellow human beings and fellow Jews.
So, you may have heard that I’ve now got 7 High Holiday sermons left before I move on to whatever comes next. I hear rabbis go to this farm where all they do is sit around all day, study Torah and eat knishes. But wherever I’ll be, know that I’ll always be around for you. As they say, “Your childhood rabbi is your rabbi for life.” I’m not sure who said that – I think I made it up. But that’s why we need to talk now. No time to waste.
I know how hard it is to be a young Jew in America right now. Three quarters of Americans feel we are going in the wrong direction. Freedom and democracy are declining dramatically almost everywhere we look. Women have lost the basic human right to control their own bodies – and oh, the planet may be uninhabitable in another generation or so.
And all of that has led, inevitably, to the highest rates of antisemitism in this country since the 1930s, because it’s one of history’s most sure bets that when the going gets tough…everybody blames the Jews.
A rabbi and his congregants were taken hostage by a gunman in Texas in January. This year! Last year, 2021, was the highest year on record for antisemitic incidents in the U.S. according to the ADL. It’s scary to be a Jew these days. It’s scary to be a supporter of Israel. And to top it off, at the time when we most need to come together in unity, Israelis and American Jews seem to be like Mars and Venus, going in opposite directions politically, culturally and religiously. And within American Jewry, it’s almost as polarized.
It's enough to make us want to throw up our hands and walk away. Why would anyone want to be part of this not so exclusive club called the Jewish people?
I’m here to tell you why. It is special. It is a gift to be a Jew. And we should declare it to the world and to ourselves just how special it is – and just how proud we are.
But I look out at you and wonder whether you are feeling the same way. I know you and know how great you felt when you left here. You were on top of the world. But I know it’s different out there now.
This year the original Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati closed down its campus. And that’s because there’s been a 37 percent decline in the number of Reform rabbinical students. Why? Among Jews in the 18-49 age category, fewer feel a connection to the broader Jewish people and our traditions.
It’s not just Jews. Thirty four percent of Gen Z, of all backgrounds, reports no religious affiliation at all.
But I also know that there are some nice things happening with our younger cohorts. For one thing, you’ve taught us how to be color blind and nonbinary and radically welcoming. And you are fearless too.
In 2019, one of our incredible young adults, Nathaniel Harrison, gave a Bar Mitzvah talk describing the courage it took for his very diverse youth hockey team to ward off racism and antisemitism directed toward him his teammates. As a Jew of color, Nate’s experienced hate from all directions – and he has helped me to see the world through his eyes.
Well, this summer, Nate took part in the 21st Maccabiah in Israel. I know it was such a thrill for him and for other TBE’ers too, like Adam Satz too. Nathaniel’s team won a silver medal in ice hockey – and he had no problem entrusting his prize to his rabbi for the New Year.
What an amazing symbol of the connection our congregation has to Israel and the Jewish people. The “New Jew” that Herzl envisioned. A Jew who had shaken off the shackles of the shtetl and had returned to the land – to athletics, to proudly defend ourselves.
But also, to revel in our diversity. You, our Millennials and Gen Z – can lead teach us all about diversity. And pride.
While preparing a recent CNN special on antisemitism, Dana Bash discussed her apprehension when her preteen son asked her if he could wear a Star of David necklace in public. Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism, was interviewed in the special - and also mentioned that she wears a Star of David as she works.
So, Bash said, “My young son showing the world that he is Jewish made me nervous because I knew that antisemitism is on the rise in America.” But she later concluded after working on the special, “It turns out that normalizing the practice of and pride in Judaism is one of the antidotes to prejudice — something that my young son understood innately.”
It’s that kind of pride that we need to show. It’s not always easy. But you guys have it in your DNA. You are amazingly courageous. And that’s all I’m looking for. You know that your rabbi accepts you unconditionally, no matter what you believe, who you marry, if you marry, what pronouns you use, how you pray or what you eat – or even which baseball team you follow. But if you are ashamed to be a Jew, that hurts. I feel that one is on me.
We need to talk about being a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. This is too important to get caught up in that generational stuff and all the other schmutz. All the other confusion that gets in the way – the mixed feelings - the ambivalence that many Jews have.
So let’s get started with this basic question that I’m so often asked: Why bother with this Jewish thing? What does it mean to be Jewish?
I’ve spent the better part of my life looking for the magical answer that would tie together all the strands of Jewish experience, sort of a unified string theory -- with tzitzis. That journey took me, ironically, to the words of someone not himself Jewish: Bill Clinton. Several years ago, as he began a worldwide book tour, the former president sat down for an interview with Dan Rather on “60 Minutes.” In the most enduring moment of that interview, Rather asked Clinton why he did what he did in his reckless relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The former president’s response was telling. Why did he do it?
“Because I could.”
He then added that this is "the worst possible reason ... I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything." And that’s true.
But he did it – because he could. I don’t want to single out Clinton as the only one who has abused power, or the only one who abused power and got impeached, for that matter. But this is a theme that runs through our society, people with power exercising it arbitrarily, simply for the sake of reveling in that power.
Vladimir Putin is a much better example. His genocidal crimes against Ukraine are only beginning to be documented. Russian forces in occupied territories have tortured and murdered civilians, arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed theaters, museums, schools, hospitals. Oh, and his warmup act was subverting democracy all over the world. Why? Because he could.
But you don’t need to be a dictator to become a super-empowered sociopathic mass murderer these days. All you need is a car, enough gas to drive 300 miles from Binghamton to Buffalo, a social media account, a Bushmaster XM-15 – easy to get one of those - and a manifesto loaded with the trifecta of hate: racism, white supremacism, and antisemitism. And you head to the Tops grocery store to kill 10 Black people, because you can.
In the 19th century, Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But that’s not what Judaism says. Judaism says that power ennobles. But only if that power is utilized to ennoble others. Power is a gift, our tradition teaches, but only if we use it wisely. And with the advent of Zionism, Jews have made the conscious choice of power and morality over victimhood and self-pity. Zionism is a gift. Two thousand years in the waiting. But only if we use it wisely.
To be a Jew is to ennoble the world - because we can. To feed the hungry - because we can. To assist victims who are half a world away - because we can. We may or may not be a chosen people, but we are, in the words of Michael Medved, a “choosing people.” To be Jewish is an act of will – we exercise our will, not arbitrarily. To be Jewish is to choose the hard way – to dream up the impossible, and then to fulfill it.
We’re the ones who tackle racism and hate head on. While Christians and Muslims spent most of the Middle Ages building fences and re-drawing borders, Jews were constantly traversing them, carrying the best that every culture could offer. We traveled the world spreading a message of peace and justice, because we had to - we kept getting kicked out of every darned country.
And then we built a Jewish state - because no one else would take us in. No one. Including this place. Land that I love.
So that’s what it means to be Jewish. And that’s why the world needs us now more than ever. And that’s why you need to be proud. And that’s also why we need a Jewish state.
This month we marked the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, forged by Theodore Herzl, the giant who dreamed the dream of a Jewish state and then willed it into reality. His dream began with a nightmare. He attended the infamous Dreyfus trial in Paris and realized that European Jewry was in deep trouble. He was right. A half century later, two thirds of Europe’s Jews would be murdered. But he dreamed that in half a century he could forge a Jewish state, and he set out to get that done.
Herzl was not a heavyweight Jewish thinker. He knew no Hebrew, had only a superficial knowledge of religious tradition. Herzl was something of an embarrassment. He was completely assimilated.
But Herzl foresaw the destruction of European Jewry and he decided to do something about it.
So one reason why the world needs proud Jews – it’s because our tradition believes that power can be ennobling.
We also believe that power can be humbling – and humility itself can be ennobling.
I’ll tell you what I mean by sharing the story of a very special Israeli song.
This song is a favorite of none other than Nancy Pelosi, who has mentioned it twice over the past couple of years, on very special occasions. More on that in a minute. But first, a little about me (I know you hate it when older people say, “When I was your age,” but indulge me this once
I came of age at a time when Israel’s existence could never be taken for granted. The weeks prior to the 1967 war felt like the potential lead up to another Holocaust. And in the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel nearly lost everything.
But all that changed with the invasion of Lebanon in June of 1982. It was Israel’s first war of choice. Suddenly Israel was no longer David, but Goliath. I was in Jerusalem when that war broke out, finishing my year of rabbinical school there. Those final few days before I left, I got to experience what it was like to be in Israel during war time. It was scary and sobering. The Palestinian rockets couldn’t reach Jerusalem, where I lived, but sirens still sounded, the cafes and streets were suddenly empty, and everywhere you could see reserves in uniform running to catch rides to their bases. When Israel is at war, the whole country is at war.
I left just a few days into the war, when it appeared that Israel was just going to establish a buffer zone about forty miles from the border, so that the PLO would not be able to reach the Galilee with their Katyusha rockets. The terror would stop, and presumably negotiations would bring about a longer cease fire.
The wounds of the ’73 Yom Kippur War were still fresh, so no one was taking anything for granted. And that was the Israel of my formative years. That was the Israel that was stamped on my soul. This precious jewel, so fragile, so filled with life and spirit, so desirous of peace and tired of being attacked. The 2,000-year-old dream come true. I was leaving, but I knew I’d be back, and nothing would keep me away.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, the Israeli army reached that 40-mile mark, the stated objective of Operation Peace for Galilee. I was 24 and a half years old. I was you. I was impressionable but not cheugy. And that was the day Ariel Sharon decided to keep going to Beirut. That was the day they opted for regime change.
A great military success became, overnight, a moral and strategic catastrophe, and Israel has been paying the price ever since. It was a huge mistake. One that led to the cataclysm of Sabra and Shatila, where hundreds of refugees were massacred – not by Israeli soldiers, but on our watch, and ultimately to the vacuum that led to Hezbullah being on Israel’s border now. Menachem Begin – who had achieved peace with Egypt, left office in shame after Lebanon – a broken man.
Traveling through Europe that summer on a Eurail pass, everywhere I went, there were anti-Israel protests, some of them quite intimidating and violent. I couldn’t understand how this could happen, so soon after the Holocaust, how people could embrace a group that espoused terrorism, that indiscriminately had only recently killed school children at Ma’alot and the athletes in Munich. But there I was in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and they were taking to the streets to deny my people the one little plot of land we had ever called home. How?
Amos Oz, in A Tale of Love and Darkness, writes, When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, "Jews go home to Palestine." Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, "Jews get out of Palestine.”
That’s exactly how I felt that summer of 1982. And I know that’s not exactly the same thing you experience. But it still goes on, this unrelenting disdain for the other, and this hate is, for lack of a better term, intersectional. So, the guy who kills Blacks in Buffalo writes about hating the Jews. The ones who attack Latinos in El Paso and Muslims in Christchurch and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville - they hate us too. Some promote racist concepts like replacement theory and eugenics that Hitler used to target us. Some blame George Soros for so called globalism – that is a code word for antisemitism. Show me someone who demonizes Soros – and I’ll show you a Jew hater. Anyone who denies the Holocaust or even questions it. That’s antisemitism. Anyone who even hints that the Jewish people do not have the right to a state of their own – antisemitism. Some hate Jews and others act on that hatred, by aiming their weapons at us - in Jewish population hubs like Highland Park, Squirrel Hill, Overland Park, Jersey City, Williamsburg and Colleyville.
It’s all the same hate. Same virus. Different variant.
Yet Jews, for some reason, are called victimizers even when we are the victims. Many who should join forces with us attack us. Fully one third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism on campus this past year. At Harvard and Columbia and the University of Vermont and so many other places, again and again – and then, when a Jewish student at SUNY Binghamton named Cassie Blotner, established a support group to combat sexual violence against women, she was kicked out of her own group because she professed to be a proud Zionist. She was defending the victim but was shamed and called a colonizer. That is shameful.
Of course, Palestinians deserve basic rights. But it’s complicated; Jews are also indigenous to that land. We are a religion, but we are also a people with a proud history and a precious legacy of deeply embedded values of peace and justice to share with the world. Ours is an ennobling voice. How dare anyone try to rob Cassie Blotner of that voice? To tell her that she’s not allowed to defend women who have been victimized simply because she stands with proud Jewish women like Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, or Betty Friedan, who found her way back to a Judaism that she had rebelled against.
"I hereby affirm my own right as a Jewish American feminist to make chicken soup," she declared, "even though I sometimes take it out of a can."
And if anyone wants to mess with Cassie Blotner because she’s a proud Zionist, they’ll have to take on Ruth Westheimer first. Before she became a sex therapist, she was a Haganah sniper. All you need to know about Dr. Ruth is that, orphaned after the Holocaust, she moved to Palestine and learned all about life on a pile of hay on a Kibbutz. And her first love was a boy named Putz. You don’t get more Zionist than that!
But back to my story about the first Lebanon War. One of Israel’s great poets and songwriters, Ehud Manor, was furious about the war; what it did to innocent Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, but also what it did to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Those soldiers had to bear the brunt of decisions made by people whom they trusted, whom they were sworn to obey. Those decisions placed those soldiers in the midst of a moral quagmire. So, he wrote a song.
Manor actually wrote that song as a belated response to the killing of his younger brother a few years earlier, during another futile battle, the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal between Israel and Egypt just after the Six Day War.
Manor later told an interviewer, “For many years I have been walking with a very strong sense of protest, that there was such a callous disregard for human life. They put our soldiers on the line of the canal in front of incessant shelling by the Egyptians, and they helplessly absorbed the blows.”
Manor was very mad at his leaders; but he loved his country. And so, he wrote his most beloved song, En Li Eretz Acheret.
Ein li eretz acheret
Gam im admati bo'eret
Rak mila be'ivrit
choderet el orkai el nishmati -
Beguf ko'ev, belev ra'ev
Kan hu beiti --
ki artzi shinta et paneha
I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.
I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes.
When he died in 2005, the Israeli public voted this Ehud Manor's most popular song The guy wrote literally over a thousand songs, so many of them immortal standards and much more optimistic.
He wrote Chai, for God’s sake, which was a winner at Eurovision, and, O-My-God, Ba-Shanah ha-Ba'ah the most optimistic, hopeful song ever written! Od Tireh, Od Tireh, Kama Tov Yihye – you’ll see, you’ll see, how good it will be – next year, next year, next year. While “Ba’Shana Ha’Ba’a” has a hopeful and nostalgic note to it, “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” is all fire and flame.
And that is the one he is most loved for. And this song, with its bone rattling pain and even shame – combined with an unbreakable, almost mystical love for the culture, the language and the soul of his people and his country – that’s the one that Israelis call a patriotic standard. There is no issue about self-criticism. No problem with grappling with Lebanon War and it’s stained history – this song would be probably banned if it were sung in Florida.
But that song gained power over time, and like so many of our prayers and great poems, gained meaning and resonance through shared national experience. In November of 1995, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin that same song was chanted on street corners where the Israeli youth lit candles. They called them the candle generation.
While our Millennial generation of the ‘90s was busy asking their parents for Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, Israeli youth were lighting candles on street corners and singing Ehud Manor’s song. They agonized over how things could go so wrong, how their beloved country could generate such hate – and zealots like Yigal Amir, dark souls who killed with such impunity.
And all we could do, as Israel buried its beloved leader and then endured a horrific string of bus bombings and other attacks, was say, from afar, “Shalom, chaver.”
And THAT is the song brought out twice by Nancy Pelosi, first after January 6 and then again after the Dobbs decision this past June. Her favorite Israeli song turned out to be about America too. And now, that song unites November 1995 and January 2021; it brings together the War of Attrition and the War on Abortion. These are the words that could capture the tears of Peres and Pelosi.
We have no other country. We will not stay silent when our country has gone astray. And we shall prevail. But we will always be proud, and it will always be our country.
Am I tempted to abandon America because it is increasingly slouching toward authoritarian rule? No way! Because there are people in this country who hate me simply because I’m a Jew? What else is new?
And am I going to give up on Israel, the first homeland the Jews have had in 2,000 years, because Israel too is flirting with anti-democratic leanings and policies? No way! Ein li Eretz Aheret. Were I Hungarian I would be angry as hell at what Victor Orban has done to that country – and I would fight to change it. Same thing if I were Russian, or Turkish, or Nicaraguan. Omygod, the courage of that Russian journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, who jumped in front of the camera on the news in Moscow to dare to tell the truth. The courage of Iranian women and Russian protesters right now.
We Jews, and we Americans have it easy in comparison. We need to have that same courage – to be proud and to stand up for the ideals of our people and our country.
Leonard Cohen felt strongly about his connection to the Jewish people. An interesting footnote to that. He disagreed with John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” He couldn’t imagine a world with no religion, with no Jewish people. “Only nationalism produces art,” Leonard Cohen said. The only culture worth anything comes from loyalty to a language, a group, a place, and that a world without these differences would be unbearable.
As philosopher David Hartman wrote, “I am a “we” before I become an “I.” “I” surfaces only after it has appropriated fully the sense of “we.”
I think there is room for both Lennon and Leonard – a world where each person and each group can be celebrated for their unique gifts – we can celebrate without having to dominate. We can celebrate ourselves, but only with humility.
Power ennobles. But so does humility. That’s why I’m proud to be a Jew – not so much “because I can” but “because I can’t.” I can’t fix everything. I can’t wipe away the tragic errors. It takes hard work to love the Jewish people. But it’s worth it.
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean who became a slave in Egypt, the lowest of the low – we began as slaves! And we were delivered into freedom and covenant as we all stood at Sinai. And we stood together as well, at the Gates of Auschwitz. And Munich. And Babi Yar. And Jerusalem. That is the beginning of my story – our story.
At the opening ceremony of this summer’s Maccabiah, a popular Israeli singer Chanan Ben Ari, sang one of his recent hits, Cholem k’mo Yosef. And I dream, I dream like Joseph…”
I dream like Joseph. I fight like Deborah. I speak out like Esther. Like Moses. Like Ruth. Like Dr Ruth. I am all of them. I live at 31 Connollystraße, where the Munich Olympic athletes were attacked. I live at Mila 18, where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was planned. I am Herzl, watching Dreyfus on trial in Paris. I sing Psalms with David. I dream like Joseph.
Being Jewish is who we are, 24/7. Being Jewish is not what we do from 4-6 when we pick up from Hebrew School. Being Jewish does not end with Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We eat Jewish, we sleep Jewish, we kvetch Jewish, we cry Jewish, we laugh Jewish – we especially laugh Jewish - we ask questions Jewish – and lots of them – we protest Jewish. We care Jewish and we love Jewish. And we do this this despite the haters. And in some ways because of them – to defy them – to defeat them – we do Jewish all the more.
And although I think I’m the one who invented the term Jew-ish, I have some bad news. There is no “Jew-ish”. If you are half Jewish or Jewish-adjacent, or otherwise ambivalent about your identity, that is precisely what makes you a full-fledged Jew. To be a Jew IS to be ambivalent. If you have doubts about what it all means – You’re a Jew.
You can be ambivalent and proud all at the same time. And chew bubblegum too. That’s a Boomer reference. Google it.
You know, sometimes, it’s easier to get to know ourselves when we are seen from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. I am very lucky. I get to see that all the time, because I work with students for conversion. If every Jew could spend just a half hour talking about Judaism with a Jew by choice, it would change your whole perspective.
Just a few weeks ago, a young woman named Ashley became a Jew by Choice. She loves everything about being a Jew. When she finished the process, she was glowing. I ask every candidate to write a short essay.
Here’s some of what she wrote:
“Most people are born into a religion and that is that. No questioning, no rejection, just blind acceptance. I have been lucky enough to truly experience both Catholicism and Judaism, then make the choice of which is right for me and my future family. While falling in love has been the catalyst for this choice, it is up to me to continue my beliefs and after experiencing the sense of community and positivity I’ve found in Judaism, it’s easy for me to actively choose to be Jewish from this point in my life forward….I’ve found that Judaism allows me to focus on some of the most important qualities in myself and encourages me to better my relationship with the world at large.
My life is exceedingly different from those of the people who wrote the Torah, but I think it’s beautiful that generations of people have been able to glean what they need from a text that was not written with our current circumstances in mind. In that sense, I think it was truly written to be reinterpreted for each reader. That same sentiment is expressed in how Judaism continues to reevaluate and consider views on topics like women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality. I find solace in knowing that my religion takes an informed, nuanced stance on modern matters and will always take the time and allow for healthy evaluation and questioning.”
Did you hear that? Ashley praised Judaism for its “innate positivity!” And you know what? She’s right. It’s a glass half full religion – for a glass half empty people. She’s helping us to fill the other half of the glass.
These are my Millennials. My Gen Zs. My “kids”. Proud Jews.
And so, Gen Z and Millennials, I’m not going to claim for you that things are perfect, in Israel, in America, for the Jewish people everywhere. Our two homelands are linked by the same songs, Ein Li Eretz Acheret and B’Shanah Haba’ah. The joy and the sadness, the hope and the hopelessness – that quickly reverts back to hope. And as we bring in a new year, we hope that this year, this year, how good it will be.
But this is a time where you need to stand tall and proud. To stand as one, saying, “With an aching body, with a hungry heart, here is my home.”
And to know three things: 1) To be a Jew is ennobling. 2) To be a Jew is humbling. And 3) Your rabbi will always be here for you.
My God bless you and keep you and may you forever be proud to be a Jew.
And in the meantime – Get off my lawn!