Last week’s column was a bit of a time machine, turning back my personal clock to the late 1980s when I started in yeshivah. This week, to be current, I need to jump back a little before that to connect some dots. Tighten your seatbelts.
The Brooklyn I knew while growing up was more than merely a cultural Jewish milieu of bagels and lox. My home reflected Conservative Jewish standards of the 1960s and 1970s: kosher-style eating, life punctuated by the Jewish calendar, and the exhortation to be a mentch. My shul typified Conservative Judaism of the time: it was Orthodox in everything but mechitzah. Women were essential to the success of the shul, ascending the bimah as presidents of the sisterhood, not as baalei tefillah. Women were intimately connected to the ritual objects of Judaism like tefillin and tallit, beaming with nachas as their sons became bar mitzvah. Though I had heard of Rashi and learned some of his teachings in English, I never learned about his daughters nor that they wore tefillin. The thought that a woman would want to wear either tallit or tefillin was inconceivable to me or anyone I knew.
The year after my bar mitzvah was the presidential election of 1976. Making an appearance at Brooklyn College was the Democratic Party presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a long shot. I went to see him and was part of an audience which reminded me of the guests at my bar mitzvah — Jewish Democrats from Brooklyn. My recollection of the event is strong because it was the first step in my growing interest in politics. Carter was a good speaker, preaching popular but not creative themes, robotic in his gestures. Even as a 14-year-old, I was surprised he was elected president.
Jumping ahead about 10 years after graduating from college, I took a job with a preeminent national Jewish organization whose stated objective was to fight racism and prejudice and, mostly, anti-Semitism. It was there that I first came into contact with Jews who supposedly were dedicated to a Jewish agenda but in reality were driven by other agendas, usually with little “Jewish” content. The most egregious example of this occurred when during a staff meeting to determine the annual “justice” campaign, the legal director and I got into a heated disagreement. She was adamant that we should use the resources of our offices to fight apartheid in South Africa. The fund-raiser (who bemoaned the expense of serving kosher food at official functions due to the expense) agreed with this plan. I vehemently dissented and reminded everyone in the room that Russian Premier Gorbachev had just begun “glasnost” and had publicly stated that he would consider allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union. I argued that although fighting apartheid was a worthy cause, it was not our agenda. Though my argument won, it did not enhance my popularity in the office. I left the organization at the end of my year’s contract, applied to law school and went to volunteer in Israel, eventually ending up in yeshivah.
Yeshivah was a positive life-changing experience and I met some wonderful people there, as those who read last week’s column know. During my stay in yeshivah I was accepted by Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University. When I applied to the school it was irrelevant to me that it was under Orthodox auspices, as I was not yet religious. Interpreting my acceptance there as Divine Providence, I enrolled for the following semester. Cardozo followed the Jewish calendar, had a kosher snack bar and many Orthodox students who helped my religious development. What it didn’t have was a dedicated space for a beis medrash for learning or davening, despite having separate dedicated spaces for Hispanic students, African-American students, and students who pursued alternative lifestyles. Finding a space to make a minyan was a treasure hunt. For these reasons and others, I was not shocked when Cardozo’s Journal of Conflict Resolution chose to honor former president and outspoken critic of Israel Jimmy Carter with its annual International Advocate for Peace Award. Yeshiva University as the foremost Orthodox University in the United States should have been confident in its mandate and repudiated the honoring of an avowed anti-Semite and enemy of Israel by its law school. To its shame, the administration effectively did nothing.
With the month of Sivan fast approaching, another agenda issue is about to re-emerge here in Israel, when the monthly Rosh Chodesh battle is waged at the Western Wall by Women of the Wall. I cannot look into the hearts and neshamot of the women participating in this monthly theater and I cannot know conclusively what is their intent, but when their leader Anat Hoffman describes her role during her 14 years on the Jerusalem City Council as “leading the opposition to the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox administration,” it is easy to speculate that their manner is consciously provocative and that their agenda is not in accord with Torah.
I want to ask just one question and have it answered it truthfully by the human rights organization I worked for, the law school I attended, and the Women of the Wall. What is driving your agenda?
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com