Progressive Jewish millennials are returning to their roots — thanks to Trump
search
'Developing a politicized Jewish identity brought me back'

Progressive Jewish millennials are returning to their roots — thanks to Trump

Previously unaffiliated young Jewish adults are galvanized by the growth of the alt-right — and increasingly draw on their heritage to project their values

  • Naomi Hornstein (left) and Molly Schulman holding megaphones at an If Not Now protest outside the Zionist Organization of America gala in New York City. (Gili Getz)
    Naomi Hornstein (left) and Molly Schulman holding megaphones at an If Not Now protest outside the Zionist Organization of America gala in New York City. (Gili Getz)
  • Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour at a Jews for Racial and Economic Justice rally. (Gili Getz)
    Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour at a Jews for Racial and Economic Justice rally. (Gili Getz)
  • A young Jewish woman is part of a chain of protestors attempting to block the doors at an AIPAC conference in 2017. (Gili Getz)
    A young Jewish woman is part of a chain of protestors attempting to block the doors at an AIPAC conference in 2017. (Gili Getz)
  • Millennial Jews at a Bend the Arc protest in New York City. (Gili Getz)
    Millennial Jews at a Bend the Arc protest in New York City. (Gili Getz)

NEW YORK — Each Friday, Imogen Page wishes everyone on Facebook a Shabbat shalom — with one notable exception.

“Shabbat shalom @ everyone,” said Page after neo-Nazi Arthur Jones emerged as the only GOP candidate for Illinois’ third congressional district, “except the Holocaust deniers.”

“Shabbat Shalom @ everyone,” said Page the week Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi was arrested for slapping an Israeli soldier, “except the ones who think it’s cool to detain children and try them in military courts.”

Just a few years ago, Page wouldn’t have considered wishing anyone Shabbat shalom. She didn’t want anything to do with the Jewish community at one point, she says. But Page is part of what appears to be a wave of young American Jews who are now reclaiming their Jewish identity in the name of #resistance.

The Jewish-American relationship with social justice long precedes the political ascendancy of US President Donald Trump and the alt-right. But nativist stoking of racial tensions in the Trump era has accompanied a resurgence in anti-Semitic activities.

According to a recent Anti-Defamation League report, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the US rose 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase since tracking began in 1979.

Imogen Page found Judaism through social activism. (Courtesy)

Last year’s 22% growth in the number of neo-Nazi groups across America — as revealed by the Southern Poverty Law Center — was closely followed by a marked increase in black hate and anti-immigration groups.

To activists like Keren Soffer Sharon, an organizer at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), the tone set by the Trump Administration can’t be separated from those findings.

“There are ways in which some things just feel clearer now,” said Soffer Sharon. “The fact that our administration is so openly white supremacist, especially for Jews, it’s becoming increasingly apparent the connections between systems of oppression and anti-Semitism.”

Immediately following Trump’s election, JFREJ saw roughly a doubling in attendance at events they held, a boost also seen among other progressive Jewish groups such as If Not Now. Some of these new recruits are young Jews who generally describe themselves as having been brought up with a basic sense of Jewishness and Jewish values. Until now, however, they hadn’t involved themselves in Jewish spaces or issues.

About a dozen progressive millennials who spoke with The Times of Israel said they personally reconnected with Judaism as a reaction to Trump and the alt-right. Many reported coming from the fringes of the Jewish community, being raised in multi-faith families, geographically isolated areas or having taken issue with Jewish institutions for political or social reasons.

Social justice, Passover-style

For some, a sense of alienation — either for being “not Jewish enough” or being the only Jew around — had characterized their earlier relationships with the Jewish community.

Millennial Jews at a Bend the Arc protest in New York City. (Gili Getz)

Growing up in rural New Hampshire, Jenni Walkup described internalizing some of the low-level anti-Semitism she endured as one of two Jews attending her school. But she never really connected with the Jewish rituals her family did at home, either — “except Passover, which I always thought was super rad,” said Walkup.

“For me, actually, a lot of the ways that I think about being Jewish has to do with Passover and this history of oppression that creates the moral obligation to speak and fight for justice,” she said.

Walkup said she “goofed up” her Passover seders in college to not come off as “too Jewish” to her friends. After Trump’s election and the prominence of the alt-right, she felt new urgency to have a Jewish identity.

Following last August’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia attended by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Walkup decided to show solidarity at a Black Lives Matter march in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a few days later.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016.
(Gili Getz)

“The stuff that was being said at that Charlottesville march was very anti-Semitic, and I felt like I didn’t want to blend in and hide,” said Walkup.

Walkup spent the whole night before the march in Pittsburgh — where alt-right groups were supposed to appear — crocheting a yarmulke. The next day, she publicly displayed her Judaism on her head for the first time.

A minority community that enjoys white privilege

For some of these progressive, young Ashkenazi Jews, emerging from a collegiate environment of racial awareness has caused them to wrestle with their role as a historically persecuted people that today generally enjoys the privileges of being white in America.

“It’s clear that Jews are still targeted by white supremacists, but at the same time, I’m not worried if I call the police that they will shoot me when I try to get my phone,” said Jonathan Brown Gilbert, who co-founded the Toronto chapter of If Not Now.

Jonathan Brown Gilbert was disengaged from Judaism in college, but was spurred by recent events to research Jews’ historical transformation in America from a racialized people to their current status today. (Courtesy)

Previously disengaged from Jewish life in college, Brown Gilbert was spurred by recent events to research Jews’ historical transformation in America from a racialized people to their current status today.

While anti-Semitism from both the political left and right gives young Jews reason to stand up, they feel they’re not only fighting for themselves, but rather see themselves as allies for communities of color both within and beyond the Jewish community.

“I think, ‘I am a Jew. I am of a people of refugees. I have an obligation to speak out when I see toxic rhetoric targeting religious minorities, targeting immigrants,’” said Brown Gilbert.

“My identity as a Jewish person has not only been solidified in the last couple of years, but it has a direct relationship to my desire to fight for the liberation of all people,” he said.

A ‘vague sense of social responsibility’

Many of the Jews interviewed who are experiencing this reconnection say their activism first blossomed on college campuses.

Aaron Hahn Tapper (Barbara Ries © 2013/via JTA)

Prof. Aaron Hahn Tapper, director of the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, noted the disproportionate number of young American Jews that receive a liberal arts education, where student activism is more common.

Combined with the “vague sense of social responsibility and loose connection with terms like tzedakah [charity], tzedek [justice] or tikkun olam [repairing the world]” that most Jewish Americans grow up with, Hahn Tapper said it “makes sense” for young Jews even on the fringe to deeply engage on these issues with their identity in mind.

The warm relationship that Trump — whom 77% of American Jews viewed unfavorably in an AJC poll last August — enjoys with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, nudged several of those interviewed who had reengaged on Jewish issues to focus their attention on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and African refugees.

Naomi Hornstein (left) and Molly Schulman holding megaphones at an If Not Now protest outside the Zionist Organization of America gala in New York City. (Gili Getz)

“There’s just this weird kinship of Trump with Israel that makes me want to understand more what is happening,” said one young woman who wished to be known simply as “Rachel from suburbia,” due to increasing tensions with her assimilationist family over her resurgent Jewish identity and activism.

“If you don’t know anything about Israel but you hate Trump, you wonder, why are Trump and Israel so buddy-buddy?” she said.

The rising sentiment coincides with a 12% drop in Jewish-American approval of Benjamin Netanyahu from 2015 to 2017.

This shift has occurred while mainstream Jewish institutions such as campus staple Hillel face an increasing backlash from young, progressive Jewish Americans for perceived compliance with Israeli occupation policies. Overtures from organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America and AIPAC towards Trump-related figures further fuel millennial discontent.

A young Jewish woman is part of a chain of protestors attempting to block the doors at an AIPAC conference in 2017. (Gili Getz)

Those progressives who are deciding to reenter Jewish communities say these institutional ties and attitudes often kept them away from conventional Jewish spaces, something the old guard is taking notice of.

“If significant numbers drop away because these organizations cannot or will not make the changes being demanded, the strength of this community structure is in jeopardy,” wrote Martin Levine, the former CEO of JCC Chicago, in Nonprofit Quarterly. “Will millennials create new organizations to replace those they weaken?”

Alternative Jewish spaces

Among those interviewed, a reconnection with Jewish traditions and practices has taken place through emerging alternative Jewish spaces. Activist groups such as Bend the Arc and the millennial movement If Not Now, which utilize Jewish prayer and ritual to end Jewish-American support for the Israeli military occupation, resonate through applying progressive purpose to age-old traditions.

Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour at a Jews for Racial and Economic Justice rally. (Gili Getz)

Whether singing songs in Hebrew to support undocumented immigrants, or building “Liberation Sukkahs” to protest Israeli occupation, politicized newcomers are probing the issues, actions and beliefs involved in living a Jewish life among Jewish people — maybe for the first time.

“De-assimilation” is how student activist Page called this personal journey to Jewish spaces.

Several interviewees expressed a newfound connection of what’s seemingly ancient with issues of today, utilizing community sources for personal expressions of solidarity.

“I can honestly say that developing a politicized Jewish identity and getting involved with groups like If Not Now has brought me back to Jewish identity and culture like nothing else has,” said Brown Gilbert. “It’s made me want to be more Jewish.”

Some young Jews described incorporating aspects of Shabbat in their personal lives while immersing themselves in Yiddish culture and stories of the old socialist Bund. Under an activist context, religious tradition resonates in ways it might have previously failed to with agnostic or atheist audiences.

“I benefit from exploring my history and identity, and part of that is reassessing ritual and reframing it in a way that makes it relevant,” said Rachel.

Illustrative: Los Angeles Temple Knesset Israel community members gather on the First Day of Rosh Hashana to recite the Tashlich prayer. (photo credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

“Even growing up, the ritual of tashlich [“casting one’s sins” into a body of water, in the form of bread or stones], of putting sins out there, I really liked things like that. Those kinds of things are easy to take and think of [in terms of] social justice — that it comes from my own people and heritage, that feels pretty powerful,” she said.

Having barely practiced Judaism since her bat mitzvah, Rachel’s family struggles to understand why she’s now so determined to both light the menorah and denounce Jewish complicity with white supremacy.

But a dramatic Jewish awakening is something this group of progressive millennials in conversations say they pretty much never foresaw for themselves, either — something as likely to happen as Donald Trump becoming president, perhaps.

“My mother used to bribe us to go to Hebrew school,” said Page, chuckling. “Now some of my best friends are training to be rabbis.”

read more:
comments