When Rabbi Mendel Matusof looked at Nesha Ruther across the divide of a contentious University of Wisconsin student government meeting on anti-Israel divestment last year, he didn’t presume she would soon be a regular Shabbat guest.
Any inkling that he’d be sharing a table with her was further discouraged by the fact that she is the co-president of the campus’s branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an avid anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activist group.
Ruther and SJP were advocating that the university divest from Israel and companies that do business with it; Matusof, decidedly pro-Israel, was at the meeting to show support for Zionist student activists.
But when the 19-year-old sophomore showed up to a Friday night Shabbat meal at Matusof’s Chabad house early this school year, she was welcomed with typical Chabad hospitality. Since the 2005 opening of the Chabad house, Matusof, his wife Henya, and their family have hosted on average more than 100 of UW-Madison’s roughly 4,000 Jewish students on any given Friday night.
Chabad advertises its events to all Jewish students. In an increasingly politically polarized campus, some left-leaning students, like Ruther, feel there are fewer and fewer places where they can be “just Jewish.” Chabad is beginning to fill that vacuum.
“This is entirely on Nesha – she came,” Matusof told The Times of Israel with a note of incredulity in his voice. “She came for Shabbat, and again for Rosh Hashanah, and continued to get more involved.
“She started coming to our classes, we had numerous conversations – and here’s the thing: until I felt like I knew her well, I didn’t bring up Israel with her directly. It was sort of the unspoken elephant in the room – ‘Lets leave it aside, we know we’re at complete opposite sides of this, there’s no reason to bring it up,’” Matusof said.
After Ruther attended classes taught by Matusof at the Sinai Scholars Society, a joint national program between Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning institute, the two were soon comfortable enough to discuss their political differences candidly. But though they disagreed – often heartily – they always held each other in high regard.
From a secular Jewish home to pro-Palestinian activism
“I’m not the kind of person who is going to hide any part of my identity… but it never felt like I wasn’t welcome in Chabad because of being part of SJP,” Ruther said.
Originally from Tacoma, Maryland – a suburb of Washington, DC – Ruther, who is triple-majoring in English, Gender/Women’s Studies, and Jewish Studies, came to Madison on a full scholarship. She earned the academic award, part of a hip hop and urban arts program, for her spoken word poetry.
It was also her poetry that caused her to become involved in SJP, when a friend suggested that she open for a prominent Palestinian poet and activist who was reading on campus a week before last year’s divestment campaign.
Ruther says she grew up going to a Reform congregation in which pro-Israel attitudes were the norm, but that her understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict was limited.
“I didn’t know anything [about the conflict] until my family went to Israel in the summer of 2014, which was quite a time to be there. We went for my sister’s bat mitzvah — she was at mitzvahed in Jerusalem,” Ruther said.
“I was seeing all this stuff going on, and there was a lot of very palpable tension, which prompted me to do a lot of research and question the very Zionist community that I had grown up in. I don’t think there was ever one moment where my politics entirely shifted,” she said.
Contrary to what some might think, said Ruther, her pro-Palestinian – and staunchly anti-Zionist – activism isn’t at odds with her Jewish identity. In fact, she said, her level of spirituality and observance has only grown since coming to UW-Madison.
I’m just as much Jewish because I’m pro-Palestine, as I am pro-Palestine because I’m Jewish
“For me, being pro-Palestine and being Jewish are things that not only coexist, but enforce and uplift each other. Like, I’m just as much Jewish because I’m pro-Palestine, as I am pro-Palestine because I’m Jewish, if that makes sense,” Ruther said.
“I think that becoming increasingly spiritual was definitely tied to becoming more pro-Palestine, and that was also why I sought out Chabad – because I wanted the space where I could just be Jewish,” she said.
Opening the door
Ruther’s involvement has opened the door to a large group of Jewish students who would most probably identify as activists on the left, said Matusof.
People with these political opinions, he said, are likely not pro-Israel. But this sizable segment of the Jewish population has long been underrepresented in terms of community engagement, he said.
For example, Jewish Voice for Peace, a group perceived as falling directly in the anti-Israel camp, has over 1,000 student members nationwide, said Ben Lorber, the group’s campus coordinator. Lorber said that there are over two dozen student chapters and a presence on over 100 campuses, including faculty. While these numbers don’t overwhelm, they do represent a significant untapped demographic.
“In a certain sense Nesha has been a trailblazer in helping us expand the reach of our community,” Matusof said.
“There are numerous students coming who are testing it, and are now like, ‘Oh, I can feel comfortable even though we might disagree on a whole host of issues,’” he said.
Taking a step back
Matusof said that as opposed to the 1960s where the overwhelming majority of Jews felt strongly Jewish and it was simply a question of practice or education, today, many Jewish students lack a significant Jewish identity. In light of that, some Jewish outreach advocates have altered their strategies from promoting ritual observance to fostering a sense of Jewishness. Matusof said that one way to accomplish this is to “take a step back.”
“To me, the first and foremost critical component is strengthening Jewish identity to give Jewish students a reason to identify as Jews and not just as white Americans,” Matusof said.
But Matusof said this isn’t the case for Ruther.
“I believe her conclusions are wrong, but there are very few pro-Israel students on campus who care deeply enough to stand up for Israel as much as she cares to stand up for what she truly believes is the right thing,” he said.
“If she wasn’t Jewish, and she wasn’t a proud Jew, this wouldn’t be an issue that matters to her,” said Matusof.
One issue they definitely don’t see eye-to-eye on is Birthright, a program that provides fully-funded trips to Israel for students and young professionals. Matusof has led many Birthright trips in the past, and is proud to be taking 160 students to Israel this summer.
“I see Birthright as such a central component of what we’re doing,” Matusof said. “I see it as a tremendous investment on behalf of the Jewish community to really help us do what we’ve been doing for a really long time.”
Ruther, on the other hand, couldn’t disagree more. “I think right now, in this day and age, there’s a very strong movement to wed Judaism and Jewish identity and Jewish faith through the State of Israel,” Ruther said.
“Israel is a minuscule part of my Judaism,” she said. “And so for me, my activism is so heavily enforced by values like tikkun olam and doing mitzvot, those are all very activist values. So being part of SJP is for me, it feels like a very Jewish thing to be.”
For the moment, Ruther’s diverging opinion doesn’t present a direct conflict with her spiritual advisers. SJP is more focused on stopping trips offered by the local Hillel that seek to take student leaders – both Jewish and non-Jewish – to learn and network in Israel.
“I think it’s a great thing for Jews to not go on Birthright and to actively boycott Birthright,” Ruther said. “But what SJP is working against is trips for non-Jewish students specifically — and that’s something that Chabad doesn’t offer.”
While her stance might seem incendiary to some, Matusof, despite being diametrically opposed, is undaunted.
“We disagree on the conclusions,” Matusof said. “I hope that Nesha may change her opinion, but I don’t expect that to happen, and I don’t make that a central part of our relationship or her feeling welcome in our community.”
One mitzvah at a time
Ruther’s activism does rub certain other Chabad regulars the wrong way – something Matusof briefly had to quell in her early days.
“Honestly, there were a handful of students when Nesha got involved that came over to me privately and said they felt uncomfortable, and I made it very clear that the Chabad house is not going to be a space in which we’re not going to allow people to come,” Matusof said.
To Matusof, the religious group’s relationship with students whose lifestyles don’t always align is far from cognitive dissonance.
“We need to engage Jews in any way possible, in the spirit of Judaism,” Matusof said. “I live with the Chabad mantra of ‘one mitzvah at a time.’”
Matusof is also attentive to one of Judaism’s most central precepts. “The biggest element of Yiddishkeit [Judaism] is ahavas Yisrael [love of your fellow Jew]. That means on their terms. It doesn’t mean, ‘I love you, therefore I want to change you.’ It’s ‘I love you, and I care about you,’” he said.
Ruther continues to lead bi-weekly meetings with SJP to call attention to the Palestinian plight and that of other “marginalized groups on campus.” They advocate for a “one-state secular solution” to the Israel-Palestine issue. But she also sees both her Jewish identity and religious practice being strengthened, as well.
“I’ve definitely become more religious since coming to college, definitely,” Ruther said.
“I’ve always identified as Jewish, but I was raised very culturally Jewish, and I’ve become even more religiously Jewish since coming to college. That isn’t necessarily directly because of Chabad, but it’s why I sought out Chabad,” she said.
While Ruther admits that anti-Semitism has been a problem for other pro-Palestinian activist groups, she says she has not experienced any herself. In fact, she says, SJP is uniformly anti-bigotry, and she relies on her friends in the group to stand up for her if need be. But her support system now runs beyond the SJP cadre.
“I’m sure that we’re going to be in those situations again,” Ruther said, referring to the way that she and Matusof originally met, on opposite sides of a political dispute. “But ultimately I understand and trust him enough where I can leave that and be like, ‘Okay, he doesn’t think I’m a bad person,’ and I by no means think that he’s a bad person.
“We can have different politics, and we can definitely disagree with each others’ strategies and still come together because we’re Jewish, and still come together because we’re friends,” she said.