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Discontinuing Jewish Continuity

Stosh CotlerFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

What if we, as a community, have been focusing our energies on solving the wrong question? I contend that it's time to discontinue the obsessive “crisis of continuity” that has been the plague of Jewish professionals and most people concerned with Jewish life. The crisis we really face today is of a different variety. Here is what keeps me up at night: At what point did contemporary American Jews lose our identity as revolutionaries? Why, as a community, have we backed away from our radical roots? Is the act of being an agitator or prophet or rabble rouser only possible for people who are structurally disempowered? Does “success” and prosperity automatically defang the underdog? Or, are we as a people as brave and willing to fight for injustice as we ever were, but our communal institutions have become out of step with our views, values and votes? I'd like to explore the possibility that authentic expressions of our tradition are inherently radical in ways we don’t often consider. The very experience of being Jewish — Jewishness — is, at its heart, a practice of everyday revolution.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice as well as Bend the Arc Jewish Action. She first joined Bend the Arc in 2003 to develop and direct the Selah Leadership Program, which has trained over 300 influential progressive change-makers. Since 2013, as CEO, she has raised the organization’s public profile and launched Bend the Arc Jewish Action PAC, the only Jewish PAC exclusively focused on a domestic, progressive agenda. The Forward featured Cotler in its “14 Jewish Women To Watch in 2014” and again in the annual “Forward 50” list of Jews who have had the most impact on the national conversation. In 2015, the Center for American Progress named her as one of their “15 Faith Leaders to Watch.” She has represented Bend the Arc on MSNBC and NBC, and in The Washington Post, Politico, and The New York Times.


Jewish authenticity, when I say those words Jewish and authenticity what pops into your mind? Is it an image like this ? or possibly this? Or maybe this? I have a different set of images when I think about Jewish authenticity and it’s normal it’s expected that many of us would have these images in our minds, that’s partially what we have been taught being Jewish is, but let me show you what I see… and that’s really my dream, which is to reclaim the authenticity of Jewish radicalism. I would like us to consider the possibility that authentic expressions of our tradition are subversive and they are not subversive just for subversive sake, they are actually subversive specifically for the common good and that the experience of being Jewish, Jewishness is at its heart an act, a practice of everyday revolution. So I have just said “radical”, “revolution” and “subversive” within first 30 seconds of my talk, let me break it down and tell you what I mean. I’m talking about Shabbat, OK? So Shabbat the weekly practice of creating the conditions so we have the experience to get a taste of heaven, there are many many ways to practice Shabbat but when we we can actually experience a shift in consciousness not just on Shabbat, but throughout the week. It’s a powerful powerful sustainability practice not just for the individual but also for the community and it’s so very practical, it helps us balance the dual needs of rest and work. Think about how game changing it must have been when the world was introduced to Shabbat, the idea that not only wealthy people and owning class people had a mandated day off, a day to rest, but that slaves and animals also got the day off. In today’s world that would be as extreme as acknowledging and mandating a day of rest for every service worker in our society, that would mean guaranteeing that once a week we would have no bus drivers, no fire department for non-life threatening situations, those of us who employ domestic workers to care for children or elderly family members would not have that worker in our homes on that day. And in my mind I have always associated Shabbat with being a tremendously restorative practice which of course it is but it is also a great equalizing practice and that is a radical idea.

Example two, Shmita. So the idea, well shmita actually means release and many ways an extension of the Sabbath put into the broader economy, so every 7 years there is a set of agricultural and economic readjustments that are made so that collectively society resets and in that recalibration society then becomes more just, more equal and more sustainable. And if we think about a central element of Shmita we think about debt, so this idea of debt release, imagine now in our current times, how many Americans are swimming in debt? How many Americans both poor and middle class are living in cycles of debt dependence where we are cycling to get into more debt, paying exorbitant interest rates just to get basic needs met. Fo some of us go into debt just to put food on the table. For some people they go into debt to visit a doctor, for some people they go into debt to get to college, any of you who have children who have gone to college maybe carrying decades of student debt that would follow your children for a long long time and the idea of Shmita would change their lives, and just to be clear I haven’t even begun to talk about land redistribution, God forbid I sound communist.

So, another radical idea, Talmud. Here we have ideas points of view, different perspectives, converging over a period of time, codified on page. The form of the Talmud itself is inviting us, its actually imploring us to recognizing the value of inclusivity and the need for diversity. If we were to take this to heart and actually to follow the form of the Talmud and change our institutions, our communal insitutions, our government our private enterprises so they actually reflected the true diversity of our population, our society would look different tomorrow, and that’s a radical idea. Noticeably, I haven’t even begun to talk about the prophets, I don’t need to pull out that sweet social justice quote by Isaiah, I don’t need to refer to Jeremiah, I don’t have to tell the story about Amos, I don’t have to refer to Miriam although I could and they inspire me, but the important to remember is that prophetic wisdom is embedded in the mainstream of our tradition. So, for me what feels so critical and what I feel a tremendous urgency around is the question about, when did American Jews lose our identities as revolutionaries? Why have we backed away from our radical roots? Is it even possible to be an agitator or a rabble-rouser or a prophet when one’s community is no longer systemically disenfranchised? In other words, has our very success and prosperity in the U.S defamed us as an underdog community? Or is it possible that American Jews continue to be just as active, just as committed continuing to work on justice issues like we always have and is it possible that our Jewish communal institutions no longer reflect our views, our values and our votes? So, urrrr I’m going to be honest here and say if you were to have used the word Shmita in my presence when I was younger I would have had no idea what you were talking about. I grew up in Olympia, Washington and by the time I was a very young person I was living in classically unaffiliated family and it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties when I rediscovered my own Jewishness and decided at that point that I wanted to join a Synagogue. And when I did join a synagogue, it became clear that there was this looming obsession that was on the lips of every Jewish professional that I encountered and it was this looming obsession that was on the lips of every Jewish communal professional that I encountered. And it was this looming obsession with Jewish continuity. And of course, like the word Shmita, I had no idea what they were talking about. So this is what I learnt about Jewish continuity and then it dawned on me, I am the poster child for Jewish continuity. That this is me, this community wants me, and they want people like me and so as this poster child of so called Jewish continuity crisis, I want to say loud and clear that the reason why I believe so many younger Jews are staying away from Jewish institutional life and I’ll throw in some older ones too, is because when they think of Jewish institutional life they think of one thing but yearn for another and I would contend that we are not having a crisis of Jewish continuity but rather we are having a profound crisis of Jewish communal purpose. So the American Jewish community is one of the most affluent, educated, integrated and safe diaspora communities our people have ever known and at the very same moment we are at risk of losing our core identity as empathizers and prophetic actors and this is so painful and ironic because if we were to act as empathizers and prophetic actors we now have more power in American society that if we leveraged that power for the common good, it would make a real difference and so this leaves many of us feeling like we are living a contradiction. It’s very confusing, if we are not leveraging our communities tremendous resources for the common good, who are we? What do we stand for? What has our history taught us? And among all of the identities one can choose to be in the world right now why choose to be Jewish in America today? Many Jewish communal institutions may have become out of sync with majority of Jewish Americans. They have become potentially out of sync with our values and our politics. We know that American Jews by and large hold solidly progressive views on the most pressing domestic issues of our time, whether that’s our road in democracy, our broken and immoral immigration system. LGBT inclusion, the fact that there is a shameful gap between the richest and the poorest people living in this country. We know that 81% of American Jews favor taxing the highest income earners, which include many of us in this room myself included, because we understand that revenue stream plays a role in supporting and preserving those precious safety net programs that protect the most vulnerable people living in this society. We know that 56% of American Jews say that working for justice and equality is the very essence of what it means to be Jewish. And yet our Jewish communal institutions spend between 1 and 2% in direct advocacy on social justice issues that again the majority of Jews say is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. So, that’s a problem. I don’t know if you’ve heard this joke it comes in many forms, there’s usually a couple of Jews, doesn’t actually matter what the content is, but the punch line is one of the Jews saying, “but is it good for the Jews?” Have you heard this? Something like it? Ok, so, its interesting that even in a joke we can see so clearly how profoundly connected our people’s sense of danger is, a continual need for vigilance in order for our very survival. Is it good for the Jews? Meaning, is anyone going to take care of us? Are we going to be protected? Will we be around? And I want to say, I get it. I deeply get it. And I am concerned about our survival. But what is good for the Jews today is to act boldly for the common good. What is good for the Jews today is to act boldly for the common good as Jews but not just for Jews and this will be the very thing that helps answer this question and crisis of Jewish communal purpose that our success and acceptance has actually created. So, let’s discontinue Jewish continuity, it’s a framework that reinforces the very parochialism that keeps people like me from choosing to opt in. Let’s discontinue this framework of Jewish continuity because it is actually the symptom not the problem and moreover that mental model of Jewish continuity obscures our central challenge and central opportunity which is to address this much more complex and much more interesting question of Jewish communal purpose. Let’s discontinue Jewish continuity or if we must retain that language because it could be on websites and brochures, we have been using it for a while, if we must retain this Jewish continuity language let’s redefine it, let’s turn it on its head, lets have it mean the continuity of working for justice and equality which our people have done for a millennia and will do into our future. We are living now with a paradox actually two of them. The first being that Jewish continuity will be secured by the degree to which we are willing to remember and embrace this authentic Jewish commitment to everyday revolution and second we must remain committed to the fight of the underdog- not because of our current status in American society but now in spite of it. So let’s recommit ourselves as a community to being courageous taking risks, acting in solidarity this is what Jewish America wants and what we deserve and that is our birthright. Thank you.

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