The Medium Is the Message

Many young, engaged Jews want justice to be a well-integrated part of our Jewish communities and identities. At the same time, we can’t talk about justice and pursue justice for other communities without observing the injustices we perpetuate in our own community. The medium is the message. In the area of gender, do we ensure that our system supports women in leadership roles, our panels have equal numbers of men and women, our agencies are not staffed by women but run by men? Do we make more than a symbolic attempt to address the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life? Young people recognize when our talk doesn’t line up with our actions. Doing the internal work is often harder than traveling around the world to right an injustice, but we can’t right other people’s injustices while harboring our own.

Issues of gender equality are currently being brought to the forefront in Israel. Non-orthodox Jews are being arrested for freely practicing in Israel what is standard liberal Jewish practice here in the United States. It is hard for young liberal Jews who care about justice to feel connected to a place that is supposed to be their spiritual homeland but refuses to allow women to pray in prayer garb and in certain communities, requires women to ride in the back of the bus to prevent men from being tempted by them, or harasses young observant girls for wearing clothing they deem too immodest. For young Jews who learned the lessons of the civil rights movement, it is difficult to pursue justice elsewhere and feel like Israel is propelling itself further into the past.

Second, as social justice becomes a bigger component of many Jews’ Jewish identities, they hold the lens of justice up to Israel and they don’t like what they see with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they feel implicated in it and ashamed. Regrettably, often when they voice their angst, the established Jewish community closes in and declares a full conversation off-limits. This only pushes the young social justice Jews further outside the communal tent. And so, we are raising a generation of Jews who care passionately about their Jewish lives, feel the community has shaped them, but the conclusions they have drawn are considered forbidden. Finally some young people, particularly in this country, feel they can have a full Jewish life with a commitment to social justice and not relate to Israel.

The medium is the message. If we can’t have a civilized conversation in which we respect each other’s positions, understand critique as coming from a place of loving the Jewish people and commit to tolerating and respecting each other’s views on an issue that none of us seems able to resolve, then we don’t have much hope for a fully embodied Jewish social justice movement.

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

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