Emails from a Grandfather and Grandson
Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning
Rabbi Jordan Millstein
September 10, 2018 (1 Tishrei 5779)
L’ShanahTovah; gut yuntiv. I received an email from a congregant that I want to share with you. It’s a letter he recently wrote to his grandson, who is a student at a well-known liberal arts college in the Northeast. He also forwarded me his grandson’s reply, which I will also share with you.
How are you? I hope your senior year has started off well. Nanna and I are so proud of you, what you have accomplished as a student and your chosen career path. It is an ambitious choice but we have complete confidence that you can do whatever it is that you set your mind to. You are a very special young man!
I’m sending this email because your mother told us that it’s not likely that you will be home for the holidays for us to speak in person.
I’ve been reading a lot about what is happening on college campuses these days. You told us a little bit about what took place last year with that professor and her social media posts and the demonstrations on campus during – what was it called? “Israel Apartheid Week?” You didn’t seem too upset about it at the time, that it was just a bunch of people expressing their opinions, which they have a right to do. Still, it seems that there is a lot of hatred being spewed at Israel on college campuses and a lot of anti-Semitism as well. I read that the BDS Movement is on over 100 campuses and in some places Jewish students were feeling excluded and targeted. We would hate to see you subjected to that kind of thing.
Anyway, it made me think about something. You know, your Nanna and I are very forward looking people. We focus on the present and the future and don’t like to dwell on the past. But, I’m thinking that maybe we have done you a disservice by not sharing more about where we came from and how it shapes who we are and what we feel is important. Or maybe it’s because we’re getting older that we realize most of our lives are in the past and you, our grandson, your younger sister, and your cousins are our future. Whatever it is, I want to share some thoughts with you. I hope this is not too long. I know an email is more than the texts you prefer so please bear with me and my old school ways of writing.
Your Nanna and I grew up in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. In those days that’s what we called a mixed marriage – between a Yankee and a Dodger fan! We both always knew we were Jews. In fact, there was no way to forget it even if you wanted to. The non-Jews wouldn’t let you. When I was a kid your great grandparents and I and your great-uncle Sid, may he rest in peace, lived in an apartment building that had a lot of other Jews. But, the neighborhood was mostly Polish and Irish. People didn’t have cars so we all walked to school and every day coming home, well, let’s just say it was a little adventure. You didn’t walk by yourself because that made you an easy target. But, even when I was with friends there might be older boys who would spot us and decide to chase us “kikes,” as they called us. There were no guns and rarely knives, but I did get a few black eyes fighting back when they called us, “Christ killers.”
Perhaps I told you these stories before. If so, I apologize. But, the part I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell you is what it meant to us when the State of Israel was born. Your great-grandparents weren’t big Zionist activists or anything. They were immigrants from Russia who just wanted to make a living and take care of their family. But, you didn’t need to be a big Zionist back then to be affected by what was going on. It was the biggest Jewish happening in 2000 years. There was nothing more important.
I wish I had the words to describe what it felt like when my whole family sat around the radio, and heard the vote on the UN partition plan. We were filled with hope for the first time in years. I was just a little kid so it’s hard to remember. But, I remember your Uncle Max cried – and back then men just didn’t cry. Of course, we were worried as well. We knew the Arabs would attack. It could easily have been another Holocaust. Everyone did what they could. My cousin Morris was smuggling guns to the Haganah. My buddy Harvey and I used to stand on the corner near the shul with blue and white JNF tzedukuh boxes collecting nickels and dimes for Israel. We all knew it was important, that Jews needed to stick up for each other, and all of us for Israel. We became a state and then survived the coordinated attack of five Arab armies. It was a miracle! We held our heads high for the first time in centuries as Jews.
Before that … oy. The Holocaust devastated our people in Europe. But, here in America, too, there was anti-Semitism. A priest – imagine – a Father Coughlin, had a radio show. Tens of millions of people listened to him spout off in support of fascism and blaming Jews for the depression and for Communism. He had his own newspaper, called Social Justice, which printed and promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian secret police forgery that concocted a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. With anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant feeling so high on the eve of WWII, the US closed its doors to Jews who were trying to escape Hitler. Even Roosevelt, whom almost every Jew in those days voted for, didn’t lift a finger to save us.
We learned that the only ones we could depend on to protect us was ourselves. That’s why the State of Israel was and IS so important to us. We thought that something so important would automatically be felt by the next generations – and so we didn’t talk about it as much as we should. We just acted. We bought Israel bonds when we barely had what for food. I was on the Temple board during the Six Day War; we took a mortgage out on the Temple to buy bonds to help Israel pay for the weapons they needed to survive. The situation was that desperate. We continue to give to the Jewish Federation, to JNF, AIPAC and to other Israeli causes, because we need an Israel that is safe and secure and flourishing, like it has been for these past 70 years.
I’m telling you this because I worry about what’s going on at your college and others. The people behind BDS and Israel Apartheid Week are not people looking to debate the issues; they quash debate; they threaten invited speakers; they intimidate those who differ from them. As I see it, anyone who espouses the destruction of Israel is an anti-Semite, period. It’s hard for you maybe to understand because from the time you were born, you have only known a strong and secure Israel. Nana and I have been around a long time and we know how fragile that security is.
So, while we worry about anti-Semitism, we also worry that your generation could be taken in by their baseless propaganda Israel is a racist, apartheid state, committing genocide or ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians; Zionism is a white European, colonialist movement that forced the native, Palestinian people from their homes. It’s a bunch of nonsense. I’m sure you know that. But, we’re your grandparents, so we worry.
In our generation, things were very clear. Israel was a state of brave pioneers who made the desert bloom and for Holocaust survivors seeking a safe haven after experiencing unimaginable horror. It was a small island state surrounded by an ocean of Arabs who did not believe Jews had a right to a State in their ancient homeland. The Arab states had absolutely no interest in peace. They still don’t. They wanted to destroy us and still do. Israel is a democracy. The Muslim states are all dictatorships.
Despite the constant threat, Israel does so much good for the world, flying medical teams to countries suffering natural disasters – even giving medical care to Syrians wounded in their civil war. You know about the technology and medical advances, the water systems going into African villages, the solar advances – there are new inventions that help humankind everyday there.
But, more important than all of that, it is OUR country, the only homeland we have ever known, the only Jewish State in the world. We need to cherish and support it. Nana and I hope and pray that you will continue to support Israel as we have. Israel’s future is in your hands.
Thirty years ago Nana and I went to Israel. It was an amazing trip, interesting, exciting and a lot of fun. There is no way to explain what it feels like to go to Israel and be in a country where even the taxi drivers are Jewish or to stand and touch the Western Wall, the site of our People’s ancient Temple. We want to go again. Only this time we want to do it with you and your family. Maybe it’s because we think it might help us all understand the importance of Israel, who knows? Our Temple is planning a trip for the end of this December. Your parents are interested in going but they are not going to decide for you. We are hoping you and your sister will make the time to come with us.
Please let us know what you think in the next week or so as we have to make the reservations by the end of the month.
Happy New Year,
Thanks for sending me this note. I really appreciate it, even though it is probably the longest email I have ever read! I thought you used your computer just to send bad jokes, but since you spent the time to get serious in writing to me, I’m going old school and writing an email back to you … using full sentences.
First, I want you to know that you can relax because I am safe and totally fine. My schoolwork is going well. I’m excited about my career choice. And things are really good here on campus. I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism. I haven’t joined some BDS or other anti-Israel group. You know I would never do that. I’m proud of being a Jew, just like you, Nana, Mom and Dad taught me.
But, since you shared your views on Israel, which I appreciate, I think I owe you an explanation of mine. As you say, we grew up at very different times when things were very different for Jewish people. You grew up with Irish and Polish kids chasing you and calling you a “kike.” My roommate is an Irish American who comes with me to light Hanukah candles at Hillel! I was a little afraid to tell you this but my other roommate is a Muslim. His parents come from Pakistan. I’ve been to his house to celebrate a couple of Muslim holidays. You’d be amazed how similar Islam is to Judaism.
Just as we grew up in different times and have experienced being Jewish in very different ways, I have to tell you that we see Israel differently as well. I care about Israel. But, I care more about what is going on right here in this country. Politics aside, in the little bit of spare time outside of my 5 classes and applying to grad schools I volunteer at a clinic where poor and immigrant families can get decent medical care.
Israel is just not that high on my list right now. Part of that is that I don’t think Israel really needs much help anymore. I’ve been to some programs at the Hillel about Israel and they talk about “start-up nation” and how successful and modern Israel is. I also don’t think they need help politically. Our current President and Congress support Netanyahu more than many Israelis!
But, it’s more than that. I’ve learned some things about Israel and the Middle East at school that, frankly, are pretty upsetting. I know you don’t want to hear this and might say that this is all Palestinian or leftist propaganda – and I respect your opinion. But, Israel is not this perfect place that you and Nana remember from your trip, or that the mainstream Jewish community tries to sell us.
In fact, some of what Israel does in the name of self-defense is downright ugly. The embargo of Gaza has caused great suffering. The restrictions placed on the life of Palestinians on the West Bank make their lives difficult. I understand that it’s complicated. The Arab states attacked Israel in 1967 and wanted to wipe it out. That’s how Israel ended up with the territories. And then only Egypt but no other Arab countries would negotiate a land for peace deal. I get that, too. What I don’t get is how it is OK for Jews to build settlements in the West Bank on land that should become part of a Palestinian state and then claim that they really want a two-state solution and are willing to negotiate. The bulldozing of Palestinian homes and olive groves, the expropriation of land, the taking the lion’s share of the water supply, and many other abuses of power are part of the Occupation. And all this is being done because a minority of Israelis who have outsized power in the government believe that all of the Land of Israel should belong to the Jews. I have to be honest, I think that’s wrong.
I also think that the way the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel are being treated is wrong. You mention going to the Western Wall with Nana. I think you know that the Orthodox authorities control the wall and women can be arrested for wearing a tallis or reading the Torah! The government there had finally agreed to allow for an egalitarian prayer space which would in no way interfere with the main area where Orthodox Jews go to pray, and then caved in to the Orthodox parties and backed out of the agreement. The Orthodox control all aspects of religious life in Israel – marriage, divorce, funerals, conversions. Despite that fact that Reform Judaism is growing in Israel it is not recognized as legitimate in the Jewish State while the Orthodox receive millions in funding from the government. If there is a place in Israel we should give our money it is to support the Reform Movement and Reform congregations.
Look, I don’t think Israel is not an apartheid state; and I’m against BDS. I just don’t feel that Israel represents my values. This may sound crazy, but I don’t think Israel represents Jewish values – not the ones you and the Temple taught me: to love your neighbor, to welcome the stranger, to treat everyone as equals.
I love you, Pop. You are an amazing guy. You and your generation did amazing things and my generation owes you so much. But, times have changed, so we see things differently.
But, here’s the thing: If you want to take me to Israel, how can I say “no”? You’re my Pops! And family is family. That’s what you and Nana always taught me.
I hope you found this grandfather-grandson correspondence interesting or at least food for thought. Since it is the High Holidays when we must confess our sins and our contrivances I will confess that these are not actual emails from a grandfather and grandson in our congregation. They are – how shall I say? – a composite of many conversations that I have had and emails that I have seen, but the words here I confess were all mine. Take it as a sort of “modern midrash.”
Be that as it may, what rabbi can resist a few comments even on his own comments? First, in doing what I did I opened myself to the accusation of stereotyping people of different generations. In fact, I know grandparents – for example, in our lunch and learn group – who hold views on Israel much closer those articulated by the grandson in the email. And I know young people in college and just out of college – some whom I confirmed here at Temple Sinai – who hold views on Israel much closer to the grandfather. And I know people in all generations who are ambivalent and agree with elements of both views.
Second, to all of you who are passionate about Israel and hold strong opinions – be you grandparents, sandwich generation, grandchildren – I say as the Talmud teaches, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim” – “both these and those are the words of the living God.” Whatever opinions you hold, if you care about Israel and you base your arguments on Jewish values they are a valid part of our community discourse. Though it is fair to strongly criticize what others say, no one should be ostracized for their views. In the Talmud this is called a “machloket l’shem shamayim” – “a conflict or debate for the sake of Heaven.”
Third, a generation gap has developed in the Jewish community when it comes to Israel. Many young Jews are disaffected and alienated from Israel. Part of that is what I described in my email, a disagreement, even anger with Israeli government policy. There are many young Jews who have attended programs and joined organizations that are actively protesting those policies. Some fall clearly into the BDS camp, others are simply liberal left groups that oppose settlement policies or the treatment of Arabs inside Israel. For those who are aware, the sense of being excluded and looked down on as Reform or Conservative Jews is deeply disturbing. But, for the most part, studies simply show an increased apathy among the younger generation of liberal Jews when it comes to Israel. Perhaps the most significant factor is assimilation. Those who grew up during the Shoah and remember the birth of the State of Israel, no matter how observant, know they are Jews. My generation, we used to debate in youth group – are we Jews first or Americans first? For today’s non-Orthodox young people, they’re Americans. And if being Jewish is important to them it’s not generally a question of which comes first. There is no conflict between the two. And while being Jewish is not a question – most are comfortable or even proud to be so – Israel as a State for the Jewish People is not of primary relevance to them.
And that is why my fourth point is, whatever you do, if at all possible, make it a priority to take yourself, your kids, and if you have them, grandkids, to Israel. We cannot simply tell young people that Israel is important. They have to experience her for themselves. They have to get to know Israel in person and build a personal relationship with her to even begin to understand – no matter what their other values or political perspectives – how much Israel means to us as a People and can mean to them personally. Again, it’s the High Holidays so I must confess that this is an unvarnished plea to join our congregational trip this December. It is definitely not too late – though it may be if you wait to sign up after the end of September. On your way out you will be handed a brochure with all the details. (Matt Kluger, chairperson of our trip, is here this morning. Matt, please raise your hand. You can speak with Matt or with me about the trip.)
Grandparents, parents, this is your moment. Carpe Diem! Seize it. Have the conversation with your children and grandchildren. Don’t let this opportunity pass. You never know what is going to happen in life and when another opportunity like this will come.
That brings me to my final point. As the grandson said in his email: Family is family. This Rosh Hashanah let us recommit to doing those things that strengthen our families: spending substantial time together and sharing an open dialogue about Israel and other things we care about. Let us do this with our own families; let us do this as a Temple Sinai family, and let us do this with Israel, which is half of the family we call the Jewish People. Let’s come to build a relationship with Israel together; let us go to and experience Israel together!