Yoav Kaufman

My TribeFest 2012 Interview with Rabbi Charlie Schwartz!

Yoav Kaufman 03/22/2012 Israel
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This post is an interview with Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, the Director of Digital Engagement and Learning for The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), about young Jewish leaders current approaches and attitudes towards Israel.

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz will be speaking at the TribeFest sessions: “Me Myself and Israel, A Town Hall Meeting.” and “The Case of Max: Dilemmas & New Frontiers in American Jewish Engangement with Israel in the Twenty-First Century.”

What are young American Jewish leaders thinking about Israel today in 2012?  That’s a question that’s been on my mind recently.

Since I made aliyah from Seattle, WA. back in 2004, there has been just a tremendous number of pivotal world events that have changed the political and social landscape of Israel and the U.S..

Here are just a few of the major world events I can remember that have occurred recently:

The real possibility of a nuclear Iran, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, the Israeli settlements being brought to the table as an issue in the peace process, Obama getting elected in 2008, the 2012 U.S. elections, Bibi being elected the PM of Israel, rocket attacks on the South of Israel, the Mumbai terror attacks, Gilad Shalit being captured and released, the Israeli/French family murdered in France just a few days ago, and the list goes on!

Since the world has seemingly been turned on it’s head over and over the past few years I was thrilled when TribeFest introduced me the amazing Rabbi Charlie Schwartz!

Rabbi Schwartz seems to me to be unbelievably experienced for the amount of time he has had to develop his career.  This is from Rabbi Schwartz’s bio on the TribeFest speakers page:

“Rabbi Charlie Schwartz serves as the Director of Digital Engagement and Learning for The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) .  In addition to his position at JTS, Charlie is the Rabbinic Advisor for Harvard Hillel’s Student Conservative Minyan, founding director of Not-A-Box Media Lab and a field facilitator for Encounter,  an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion training Jewish lead­er­ship to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to heal internal Jewish rifts formed in its wake.”

“Charlie received rabbinic ordination and a masters degree in education at JTS, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow.  Named to the New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 as a leader helping to reshape the Jewish community, Charlie is a nationally recognized educator focusing on technology and Israel.  Charlie has worked with a number of Israel-focused non-profits including Encounter, The Chayei Sarah Project and Makom.  Prior to JTS, Charlie served with distinction as a squad commander in the airborne battalion of the Nahal infantry brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces.  A native of Portland, Oregon, Charlie lives in Cambridge with his wife Dr. Andrea Wershof Schwartz, their daughter Maayan, and their sousaphone.”

Rabbi Schwartz was just the person I needed to fill me in on what young American Jewish leaders attitudes and  approaches to Israel are like these days.

The following are the questions I had for Rabbi Schwatrz and the answers he was kind enough to share with me:

Q – Do you see that there is a prevailing opinion of Israel lately from young Jewish Americans, considering current events such as Iran, the election year in the US, global terrorism, etc.?
A – I don’t think there is one prevailing opinion about Israel among American Jews, although I think one can outline a few trends.  First there is a core group that is engaged, knowledgeable and passionate about Israel, while the majority of this group has what might be called a mainstream, classical American Zionist approach to Israel, embodied most clearly in the aipac platform, their is a growing number that expresses their Zionism through both support for Israel and a nuanced and heartfelt critique of Israeli policy.
Larger then this first group is an even increasing numer of young Jews who feel connected to Israel, but are turned off by the toxicity that often (either in reality of perception) has come to typify conversation around the issue.
Q – Are the cultural differences, the physical distance and the social and political issues between Israel and many young Jews in the U.S. too big of a gap to bridge?
A – I think the short answer is no, that the distance between Jewish Israelis and young North American Jews to not too large to bridge.  Anyone who has been on a Birthright trip and has seen the interaction between these two groups can attest to this.  What is necessary is changing the paradigm of these interaction.  Often times the subtle subtext for interaction between these two groups is Israelis showing North American Jews what it means to be “authentically Jewish.”  This is paradigm is a direct decedent of the shlilat hagolah concept embraced by the early Zionist thinkers.  What needs to take its place is an understanding that conversation and learning between these two groups happens two ways.  It’s not just about Jewish Israelis showing North American Jews what it means to be Jewish, it’s also about North American Jewish teaching Jewish Israelis about what it means to be Jewish in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society where Jews are the minority.
Q – I have noticed a trend recently that some Jewish  American’s who consider themselves to be pro-Israel take issue with Israel on many levels such as the settlements, the peace process, foreign policy, Israel state law, defense decisions, etc..  Some have even gone so far as to call Israel an “apartheid state”.  Do you see this type of criticism of Israel from afar a healthy form of supporting Israel?  Do you see that sort of support as working for building a good image of Israel in the United States?
A – In general I think criticism and substantive discussion about meaningful issues is both healthy and important, argument and the ability to hold multiple opinions at the same time after all is our heritage from the rabbis.  What’s more is, it is difficult/impossible to ask someone to feel connected to a place, to support it, financially, personally and spiritually, and then ask them not to have an opinion on what goes on there.  That being said, when these criticism stop being substantive and begin to enter into the realm of hateful rhetoric (as is the case with the label “apartheid”), I think they cease being healthy or positive.
I personally just want to thank Rabbi Schwartz and the TribeFest staff for granting me this interview.  Rabbi Schwartz, I think this is the start of a meaningful dialog and one that needs to be continued.
Rabbi Schwartz will be live tweeting at TribeFest via his personal feed @chschwartz as well as the JTS feed @JTSVoice
TribeFest: www.tribefest.org

TribeFest sponsor: www.pjlibrary.org

JFNA: www.jewishfederations.org