FearIn 1990, Public Enemy released their 3rd album Fear of a Black Planet. Considered by some as the most revolutionary disc since Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, its impact was incendiary as it challenged listeners to question their assumptions about white America and the black community.

In much the same vein, I too would like to challenge some to question their assumptions about secular Judaism and the Orthodox community. A couple of things inspired this post, but one of the things that definitely did not serve as inspiration was the announcement of the upcoming release in October, 2006 of a movie called Color of the Cross, which depicts the last 48 hours of the life of Jesus who in turn is depicted as a black Jew. Described as “the most controversial depiction of Jesus to date” the movie, by retelling the biblical story from a black perspective, “seeks to repair the anti-Semitism that has been associated with the story of Christ.” Uh huh. Yeah. This post has nothing to do with that. In case you were wondering. But I digress.

Much of the interdenominational discourse on this site, if not in the real world, seems to be tinged with a certain measure of fear. That’s understandable I suppose – we always fear that which we don’t understand. There are things worthy of fear in this discussion, fear of rejection, fear of crumbling standards, etc. I for one fear our diminishing numbers. While Orthodox Judaism grows by leaps and bounds, overall as a people we’re at below zero population growth. While we may be pleased that the Zionist experiment has met with wild success – for the first time in almost 2000 years, Israel has the largest Jewish population of any country in the world, the dismal situation in the rest of the world is nothing to cheer about.

Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews, communities that make up the majority of American Jewry, are abandoning their Jewish identities at a breathtaking pace. In an era and in a country where Jews have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, power and prestige, we see a net loss in population of 300,000 people (over the past 10 years if you factor out Russian immigration). Overall intermarriage rates have hovered well above the 50% mark for many years now. Once again, while some may smugly see this as vindication of the inherent superiority of their belief systems, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, at best.

I recently had the privilege of leading a birthright trip where my role was that of an informal educator. In that role I was pleased to introduce the participants to the land of Israel as well as aspects of their Jewish identity that they had little experience with (Kabbalat Shabat at the Kotel, an authentic Orthodox Shabbat lunch etc.). But I also came away from the experience learning things too. While some of my Reform/Conservative/unaffiliated charges had, despite Jewish day school experience, an abysmal level of general Jewish knowledge (“Is Massada where God gave Moses the 10 commandments?” or “What’s that golden thing over the wall?”) they all possessed a palpable Jewish identity. I am on record as hating the central role played by the Holocaust wherein it positively affects Jewish identity among many young Jews. As if prior to 1944, Jewish identity had nothing going for it. But as we walked through the newly redesigned Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, I was overwhelmed by the genuine sense of empathy expressed by the participants with respect to the unfortunate fate of their fellow Jews. Even a hardened cynic like myself got misty when several of the participants cried. Similarly the interaction between the kids and the soldiers on our trip was warm – so thankful were the Americans at the sacrifices the Israelis were making in order to ensure the safety and continued viability of the State of Israel. Clearly, Orthodox affiliation is not an absolute prerequisite for a strong, even powerful sense of Jewish identity.

Sadly, even a powerful sense of Jewish identity in and of itself, does not guarantee sustainability. despite the fact that I do not agree with the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism my kids affiliate with (I said affiliate – few if any considered themselves practicing), I do not want to see these kids disappear. I learnt that despite our differences, our fates are inextricably linked. We are all part of the same people – and as far as lesbian rabbis, patrilineal descent, shrimp coated fish sticks and what not, I’ll worry about that if and when it comes up. the best that we can and ought to hope for is the maintenance of civility when discussing interdenominational issues, and continued cooperation when it comes to areas of mutual interest that affect us all as Jews regardless of the stream we belong to (ie anti-semitism, Israel etc.).

Things we ought to avoid are the use of terms like “abhorrent” when describing the religious practices of other streams of Judaism. Much has been said of the tone and timber of otherwise valid criticisms. Let’s try this as a litmus test – does the wording of one’s criticism lend itself to enlightened discourse, or rather does it promote ill feelings? Are we simply bashing others or are we trying to, in some small measure, effect change? As an example of the absolutely worst way to go, allow me to cite a recent article in Haaretz.

Titled The Lost Boys, it describes the pain and angst secular Israeli parents in Holon felt when their children became religious adherents to the Breslaver sect of Chassidic Judaism. the way the article was written, one would think that the kids had become Heroin addicts. I suspect most of the parents interviewed might have actually preferred a drug problem to religious Judaism, such was the over the top after-school-special language of the article. None of the parents could fathom the possibility that the kids involved, aged between 17-23, made an informed choice and chose religion over the rampant commercialism and spiritual vacuum offered by secular Israeli society. None of the parents accepted their responsibility in raising their kids in such a way that the relatively ascetic branch of Judaism they chose and the turmoil caused by such a choice was viewed as a better alternative to their otherwise cushy secular lives.

Only one parent acknowledged that perhaps her son was tired of discos. The overwhelmingly one-sided article, which used terms like “coercion” and “brainwashing” left one with the impression that Breslavers were hiding in the sand dunes of Holon waiting for the opportunity to pounce on unwitting and impressionable youths. Such an article serves only to inflame hatred and adds nothing to rational interdenominational discourse. That anyone could take such an article seriously is telling and it behooves us to avoid introducing such hyperbole and hysteria into our midst, except in order to question its assumptions and condemn its biases.

Like Chuck D of Public Enemy, whose most controversial thoughts were always expressed as questions, I’m only trying to point out problems and challenge assumptions. I can’t provide easy, canned answers and I know that in areas of Religion, as in areas of race, nothing is easy. Don’t be like the parents from Holon whose fear of the unknown prevented them from turning an inward gaze in order to understand choices made by their children. Wouldn’t it be better to try and empathize before you criticize and let ahavat yisrael be your guiding principle rather than self-righteous indignation?

Peace out, yo. Remember, interdenominational hatred makes black baby Jesus cry.

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About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.


  • It needn’t be a choice between Fundamentalism and “the rampant commercialism and spiritual vacuum.”

    These are other possibilities, even within Normative Judaism.

    And the problems of the Fundamentalist world will maje the choice a starker one if these problems are not addressed. And that will not help the Jewish people in the long one.

  • “It Takes A Nation…” was really more revolutionary. “Black Planet” had all the “Prof. Griff” smoke around it. The Ha’aretz article tells about common problems parents have when their children become more observant. The way it illustrates Breslov is biased. Ha’aretz is a left-wing paper.

    Tolerance among Jews is an ever increasing problem. With in the Orthodox world (in which I affiliate) it is, sadly, present. Most non-orthodox people I know don’t really have animosity towards Torah Judaism, just lack of understanding and explaination of why we do what we do. We, as a people, can’t afford to be divided any longer. Awesome Graphic!!

  • DK, I saw the two posts you wrote about in the other discussion. I take back my joke and actually apologize to you. Both posts were well written and very much on target. (Maybe if some schmuck wasn’t a schmuck, I’d be visiting there more than once a week and would have seen them sooner and even participated in your defense. Imagine that).

  • wow. i just read the article on ha’aretz. much research must have gone into these “bratslav” chassidim. i have actually learnt in bnei brak for three years and have never heard of such a sect. or are they talking about breslov? of the parents care enough about their children maybe they could find out what it is that “captured” their children. maybe it’s slovakian sect, some bratislavian creeps hiding in the dunes. just one quote from one of the bereaved parents, trying to understand why her kid would want to leave the perfect life he was leading until then:

    They lack for nothing. Their parents describe sociable, fashion-conscious children, who love life, girls and parties.

    i’m wiping away my tears for these poor parents who wonder why their kids had to leave home. come home with drugs, with girls just heaven-forbid don’t come home with tzitzit. and if you do you may not put them on. who is driving who away?

  • ck, I’d love if every Orthodox would be open like you to say “We are all part of the same people – and as far as lesbian rabbis, patrilineal descent, shrimp coated fish sticks…”. In my country (Argentina) Orthodox don’t even look in the eyes of Conservative eyes. And in the las Latin American Congress there were huge discussions over the GLTB issue with, of course, Orthodox calling it ietzer hara and non accepting the Gay Jewish Organization….

  • Get married and have a baby. It is more fun than you can imagine. Damn the expense. You will love it.

    Love, Mom.

  • Bratslav is a variant pronounciation/spelling of the same town, barthalomew.

  • How many Bratslavers/Breslovers does it take to change a lightbulb?

    None. They never change the lightbulb becuase they know they’ll never find a new bulb as good as the old one.

  • Hey CK – when are you getting married?
    Hear that demographic clock ticking?

  • I’d love if every Orthodox would be open like you to say “We are all part of the same people – and as far as lesbian rabbis, patrilineal descent, shrimp coated fish sticks…”

    For most of the things that you cited there’s no reason that those people wouldn’t be accepted as Jews (patrilineal descent excepted); the sticking point is that the groups that you mentioned are practicing a non halachic form of Judaism and thus can’t unite with orthodox Jews on a religious level. I agree that animosity towards the non-halachic world is rampant within the orthodox world, but the solution is not to accept invalid halachic decisions, rather the orthodox world should learn how to relate exactly why many of the “innovations” proposed by the less observant world are problematic religiously and ethnically.
    And it’s not so black and white (pardon the pun); there’s a wide spectrum between residents of Bnei Brak and Teaneck and more modern areas, all within a valid halachic framework. There’s no reason why we can’t share the big tent.