A politically Conservative, Jewishly liberal person … these and these are both divine.

Last year (2016-2017), I was teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors in a Reform congregation.  The teens really wanted to talk about the election (pre and post) and all of the platform issues shaping the discourse in the country.  One teen, who was very active in the NFTY youth chapter at the congregation, came to me distraught. He had just come back from a weekend NFTY convention and felt so discouraged.  He confided that he was a political Conservative and felt there was no place for him in NFTY. He shared that he was ostracized, that there was no room for his voice in discussions over the convention weekend, and that he just didn’t belong.  We sat for a while and spoke about how I wanted his voice to be heard in our class discussions and I would create safe space for him (and I did). [The class discussions were rich and his peers appreciated hearing different view points.] I also shared that I think he needed to consider how the URJ platforms and his own personal views may or may not be in sync and what that meant for him in terms of movement affiliation. (And by no means, am I saying the URJ should alter its platforms! or apologize for them in any way.] Regardless of my own personal political and religious leanings, I couldn’t wrap my head around this situation – he was right – he didn’t belong.  An involved, engaged teen who just didn’t belong? That just isn’t okay with me.

Fast forward to this year (2016-2017) and I am facilitating adult learning at a different Reform congregation.  As a post-denomination Jew (someone who doesn’t believe we need denomination boxes anymore) and as someone who believes in Jewish pluralism Screenshot 2018-01-17 12.16.09(we all need to be a little uncomfortable), I teach through these lenses.  I believe in Eilu v’Eilu (and teach the learners that debate and difference and dialogue are inherently Jewish).   My educational philosophy is such that no matter the issue/content we are confronting in our learning, I present each text, each commentator, scholar and philosopher as having equal weight – and allow the learners to discern the value.  I hold back my personal opinion until each other participant has had a chance to interpret and wrestle. And I wait for summation of the class to ask what each person’s biggest takeaways are and then share mine.

This year, I have been teaching “Judaism and Political Activism.”  Each time I walk into a space with new learners, I have no idea their political leanings, their personal history and what they will bring to the discussion.  I just walk in open and encouraging a safe space for diverse opinion.  But this past year has felt different.  This year it has felt as though the learners themselves expect everyone to be politically left for the mere fact we are in a Reform congregation. More than once it has been brought up by the adults that they can’t understand how a person can be a Reform Jew AND a political Conservative.  More than once I have heard someone say they don’t think “those people” belong in their congregation.   And I agree …. soft of.

I only agree that there isn’t a solid place in a URJ congregation for a politically Conservative adult. The URJ has a very clear politically left platform and therefore politically Conservative beliefs are dissenting. If an adult – who has free choice for affiliation and belonging – doesn’t have a belief system in sync with the URJ platforms, then s/he has the obligation to find a Jewish community where their values are aligned.

But where do they go? We currently don’t have a non-URJ Reform “movement” – one which is both Jewishly liberal and politically Conservative.  So whose obligation is it to create that space?  As a communal steward of Jewish life, I feel some sense of obligation to be sure everyone has a place (particularly that aforementioned teen).  And yet, since I personally don’t fit that description, I am not sure how I would even begin to help them create that space.  These experiences have left me with one absolute:  there needs to be a Jewish space for these folks; and left me with a lot of uncomfortable questions about how and who helps create that space if it’s not within my comfort zone.

So for now, I can only continue in the lane I have created based on my educational philosophy – these ideas and these ideas are all divine – even if these are the ones I personally follow.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zach Mayer
    Jan 17, 2018 @ 16:38:04

    Robyn, This is a very challenging subject for people that are politically conservative and reform jews. I would like to chime in here and give you a different perspective. When you said that some adults say “they dont belong in their congregation”, and you mention that there is no solid place for them.. i believe that mentallity IS the problem. A temple is meant to be home to a jewish population and community. White, black, asian, straight, gay, or whatever. If you are jewish and want to be a contributing and positive member of that community, you belong there. Because someone has conservative views, that should not preclude them from being a part of that community. In fact, i believe it is dangerous for them not be there. We as a society flourish best when all sides are considered and debated. Group Think is the most dangerous of conditions. When we create a community of people that believe 1 singular way, we can become that “click” that nobody liked in High School. We become a community of people that has 1 unique voice that can compound into a scenario where no outsiders are welcome. I would argue that the “liberal” movement is one of inclusivity, diversity, and understanding. Why does that belief stop at conservatives? We live in dangerous times. The last place we want to have compromised by politics are our houses of god, where we as a people do our best Tikkun Olam. I hope you can work to create a space for people you disagree with to share their opinion, perspective, and belief system. You may not agree, but we should respect all of our opinions in our democracy. If not me who? You have proven time and time again to be a leader in the Jewish community. Maybe you could help to host a space for politics to be looked at from both sides where everyone is encouraged to attend and share their beliefs. The result should be a more educated community that can either empathize with someone else’s belief system or/and a more resolute position that they had coming in. But, we should talk. talk carefully, and honestly so we can repair our world and find common ground. Local conversations are the best way to find that common ground and build community for all.

    I hope you can help that teen, and help those other liberal congregants that conservative leaning congregants are congregants first. Something sticks out to me – You taught a program called american jew or jewish american? Are we liberal / conservative Jews, or are we Jewish Liberals/Conservatives first. I hope the ladder!

    Reply

    • rfaintich_jewishgps
      Jan 17, 2018 @ 17:08:31

      Zach,

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply. A few thoughts.

      First you say, “Maybe you could help to host a space for politics to be looked at from both sides where everyone is encouraged to attend and share their beliefs.” And this is EXACTLY the one thing I have been doing. I set out the concept of Eilu v’Eilu (https://www.facebook.com/JewishGPS/posts/1791604660850381) and start with a statement of respect and safe space and the holiness of different opinions – that Judaism demands of us to explore the differing voices even if the “law” takes sides.

      However, it’s been very difficult this year more than others for everyone to feel that they can even attend learning in URJ congregations. Because the URJ has a set platform which directly contradicts many of the values of the right-leaning participants, they themselves (as the teen articulated) don’t feel like they belong. So my point of this blog is how hard it is for me to sit on the “sidelines” and recognize that they sit in conflict in these congregations and what space can/should be created for them so they can be Yes, And without feeling like an outsider.

      Another thing to consider, currently when a person says they belong to X Reform congregation – that they affiliate there – that this place is their spiritual home, they are also also saying (perhaps unintentionally) they support the URJ political platforms. That those platforms are in alignment with their beliefs just as much URJ observance platforms. And when it comes to light that they don’t align with the political platforms, that’s where the struggle to belong sits.

      As for your final question – American Jew or Jewish American. I hoped that teens who came through that program recognized their Judaism as the guiding principle before American. If so, you may not agree/like what I think I know – and that is the bulk of our text, commentary, etc would point us to the left politically. While, yes there are always texts on both sides of every debate/issue (ala Hillel and Shammai), I think that the Jewish law leans left.

      In the end, I am troubled by all of this – by the division, by the belief by someone that a person can’t be both liberal Jewishly and conservative politically … my goal of this post is to say, yes, people can validly be both, but perhaps not within the structure of the URJ as a movement (and the congregations affiliated).

      Reply

  2. Zach Mayer
    Jan 18, 2018 @ 14:04:36

    I understand better your conundrum. The URJ as a movement certainly represents the left and many reform jews may not agree with those values. The text issue can be discussed both ways, depending on the lens that you look at them. The reform movement has certainly taken a liberal perspective on many social issues that the text as it is written may not agree with. However, the reform movement (URJ powers that be) have found their guidelines and perspectives to be appropriate and ones the fit with a majority of their audience. IE, Gay Marriage, Women in the Rabbinate, abortion, prayer modifications etx. *please note: i am not saying which of these values i allign with, just pointing out that some jews would say the above values are not “jewish” values.

    It is also more challenging for the teen you talked about, he is currently engaging in activities that are led by the temple or regional and national events like NFTY. I think it is the responsibility of the URJ and NFTY to create events and activities that are not political, but religious and social. they are different things. We are allowed to have our political values, but it should not be preached at religious events. That’s my opinion. For me, as an adult, i don’t concern myself too much with the URJ movement and their political values. I have found a community of people who are jews, and also politically aligned with me. But for the teen, his community are these events. I believe that the URJ is not doing the right thing IF there events and weekends have become political. These are KIDS, they should not be too focused on politics. It is our job as adults to make a world better for them, and let them focus on building friendships through judaism, not friendships through liberal values. I still have friends that i have major disagreements politically, but we are friends from Temple events and the BJE, so we focus on where we agree rather then disagree. Sometimes we will have a debate about these values, with the purpose of sharing perspective, not the intent to change their opinions. We need more of these discussions so that people that may have a different outlook on things, can understand WHY we feel that we. Neither person is wrong (you may disagree with that) it is just that each person has a different priority in specific issues. The challenge is finding solutions that both priorities are met so we can advance as a country together.

    You may be interested in sharing the RJC with the teen where he may find other people that share his political values in a jewish context. At the end of the day i think we need to understand that republicans and democrats can and should get along; just because they disagree on politics should not have the consequence of excommunication. That is the worst thing we can do! Hopefully this was helpful for you to see from a different perspective then your own.

    Reply

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