Citizen or Consumer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5752

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, D.H.L.


You want to find a minyan of Jews on Shabbat afternoon?  Try strolling the aisles at COSTCO!  It's amazing.  It seems every few feet I hear, "Hey rabbi, how you doin'?" 

            A friend of mine was reciting kaddish for his brother many years ago.  One afternoon he went to see a movie, and he'd forgotten to say kaddish.  So after the movie he stood up in front of the movie theater, in a high Jewish population college town, and announced in a loud voice, "I wonder if any of you could help me out. I am saying kaddish for my brother and need a minyan."  Nine guys stepped forward and stayed to honor a Jew and his brother that they didn't even know.

            What would you do if someone were standing right outside the COSTCO exit saying, "I need a minyan?"  Would you be one of the 9 other Jews setting their carts aside, turning eastward, reciting kaddish, then saying goodbye and returning to their separate lives?

            Here's a different scenario: suppose the COSTCO store manager stood outside.  He stops you and says, "Listen, our profits are down.  We need for you to buy more items."  I suspect you'd look at him like he was nuts, and move on.  Why?  Because at Costco you're a consumer.  Consumers make decisions to benefit themselves. 

But among the Jewish people, you are a citizen.  The minyan guys stood up and said, "As citizens we have responsibilities." Consumers act for personal advantage.  Citizens act for mutual gain.  Citizenship often involves short term sacrifice for long term gain, like interrupting your schedule for kaddish or coming together for Rosh Hashanah worship.  If I do this for you today, I am hopeful you will reciprocate when I need you tomorrow.  With consumers, all obligation is up front.  Consumers buy iPads; Citizens build a Beth Torah.

            When a man dies, we say, "He was a Jew; or an American."  We don't say, "He was a COSTCO member."  Citzenship defines our values, who we claim to be.

            So now my question for you tonight:  Are you a citizen of the Jewish world, or are you a consumer?


Lou Rosenblum was an American Jew who watched the trial of Nazi murderer Adolph Eichmann closely, and asked some piercing questions as a Jew.  According to the book When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone Rosenblum asked himself:


Where had American Jews been [during the Holocaust]?  Had they really been too scared to push, to make any noise, to force the problem on FDR or Churchill or someone who could do something to make it stop? When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone, p. 40-1


Rosenblum had watched the Eichmann trial through Eichmann's hanging by Israel for perpetrating the Final Solution.  Rosenblum acted.  He founded The Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry to save the Jewish remnant who survived in the Soviet Union and were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, rather than passively witnessing another European Holocaust. 

Fifty years later, 1 million Israelis and hundreds of thousands of other Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, some sitting here today, owe their freedom in part to Lou Rosenblum and those like him awakening the American Jewish community to the spiritually starving, politically oppressed survivors of our people.  Imagine:  1 million lost Soviets are now Israelis!  Additional hundreds of thousands are living in the United States.

            Rosenblum's vision with a few others activated Jews worldwide, many of them young people. When I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1986 I joined the ranks of hundreds who went before and after me, like Beth Torah member Louise Hipsh.  We visited refuseniks, Jews fired from their jobs, often persecuted for the effrontery of insisting on living as Jews.  Kansas Senator Robert Dole, then Senate Majority Leader, telephoned our adopted Soviet refusenik, Evgeny Yakir, from Senate chambers, because they were heroes and we were citizens – a people united.  Those who paid for my trip; those who supported our efforts:  all citizens of the Jewish people.  Lou Rosenblum spent his own money, contributed thousands of hours, conscripted his own family, and saved God knows how many Jewish lives.  Citizens assume their part for their people.  Consumers mind their own business and take care of their personal welfare. 

            And when they left Soviet Russia, thousands of American Jews, some of you sitting here, like Paulette Giarratana and Denise and Jerry Pakula, met those refuseniks at airports and resettled them in U.S. cities.  Jews donated furniture, took complete strangers to newly rented apartments, bought them food, showed them their first supermarkets, took families to doctors and their kids to school.  Why?  Citizens all, everyone of them. Raise your hand if you were resettled.  Raise your hand if you took part in resettling Soviet Jews.


But now I need to ask you a very personal question, that you can only answer in your own heart.  Because I am telling you that we together face the greatest threat to our people in the last 2,000 years:  greater than the Nazi Holocaust, greater than Soviet oppression of our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union.

Do you live your life; do you think about your life, as though you are a citizen of the Jewish people?  Because if you do not, then liberal Judaism, and very possibly the State of Israel as a democratic state, are imperiled without YOU.


Does your life narrative, your personal story, include the State of Israel?  If you've already shrugged off this sermon, at least listen to this account:

A woman in this congregation, whom I have known and liked for many years, called me to gush about her daughter's recent Brithright Israel trip.  The young college student returned a changed woman.  I was thrilled.

Hearing all of this positive stuff about Israel, as if it were an absolute revelation, and feeling that we are definitely friends, I said, "Can I ask you a question?"  "Sure," she said.  "Every couple of years I give a High Holy Day sermon about Israel.  Why is the importance and wonder of Israel new information?"  And she answered, "Mark, as soon as I hear Israel in a sermon, I turn off.  That's just your thing, but I thought it doesn't pertain to me.'"

Most people like you: religiously liberal, North American Jews, frankly, are Jewish consumers today.  We take what we need – a smattering of Jewish education, b'nai mitzvah, funerals and other life cycle events, give a couple of thousand dollars a year to the Jewish community.  We see ourselves as ethnically Jewish.  But we do not claim citizenship.  We take; we don't invest; we leave Jewish history to those we see as "committed Jews."  This is how we feel about Judaism, not just Israel.  But citizenship cannot be purchased with a check or a check-in.

            We send our children to religious school, but seek only the most minimal Jewish education.  In 1986 I witnessed a Sunday school in the Soviet Union. They were so persecuted they literally moved the school location monthly so that the Soviet secret police would not close them down.  The school met for 5 hours weekly, and their children actually SPOKE Hebrew.  Their children don't differ from ours; but they committed as citizens rather than consumers.

            Citizenship provides the glue that unites our people, bound by history and destiny.  After Hitler; after Soviet Jewry; after listening to the Christian evangelicals in this country and the leading Republican candidate for the presidency hold a Christian rally:  do you deny that your history and destiny are inextricably tied up with your people?  Everywhere in the world, except among North America's liberal Jews, Israel defines the attitude toward Jews.  Instead of the Jew as victim, as in the thirties, today it's the Jew as strongman, because of Israel's army.  Half the world's Jewish population lives there.  More Jewish children are born in Israel today than in the rest of the world combined.  Israel plays on history's stage.  Around the world, Jews are synonymous with Israel.  Israel dramatically affects your life as Jews, and if your personal narrative does not include Israel as a force you are denying reality.


But liberal Jews often either reject Israel's politics and choose to turn their back to it, or don't feel sufficiently invested to want to change it.  We feel uncomfortable with the attitude toward Palestinians; we reject the religious dominance of the ultra-Orthodox.  We are confused over the inability to make peace.  We are uncertain about who is right and who is persecuting whom.  Many Jews emotionally separate themselves.  And disengaging, we abandon the destiny of the central force in determining the direction of world Jewry to those who define themselves as citizens of the Jewish people.  We desert the game before it is played.  And without us, we are abandoning the fate of our children and our people.


Let me explain.

1.        A small example:  In Israel, at ultra-Orthodox insistence, on over 2500 bus routes women are forced to ride in the back of gender segregated public buses.  

2.        But much worse:  if there is no Palestinian State, in 20 to 30 years Jews will be a minority in Israel.  Only three  outcomes are possible:  Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, or Israel will separate Arabs and not grant equal political rights, or Israel will expel Arabs.  None of these alternatives is morally acceptable to liberal Jews.

3.        Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews cannot marry in their own country because the ultra-Orthodox refuse to consider them Jewish.  But the Ultra-Orthodox today control Israel's religious establishment politically, even as over half their men refuse to work and cost the Israeli economy 3 to 5 billion dollars a year in charity and lost production.

4.        Like American Evangelicals, the Orthodox political class believe God gave the entire land of Israel to the Jewish people and forbade sharing it with the Palestinians.   Like the Tea Partyers in the debt ceiling debate:  they refuse compromise.  Fully 1/3 of Israelis believe Israeli Arabs are not citizens.


But the Israeli Declaration of Independence states to the contrary:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as invisaged (sic) by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; …  (Israel Declaration of Independence, May, 1948)

Our people’s destiny depends in large measure upon the achievement of the ideals of Israel's Declaration of Independence.  The right wing politically and religiously is steering Israel toward disaster, while liberal Jews wash their hands of the entire scene. 


Israeli philosophy Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger in Haaretz newspaper recently wrote:

Today, very few [Israeli] coalition members would be able to sign the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence … the promise of completely equal opportunities regardless of religion, race or gender has been buried.... Here's a test: Let the opposition parties submit a bill making it obligatory to read the Declaration of Independence in full in the schools from time to time. That's when the true faces of the knights of the flag and national anthem will be revealed. (, July 22, 2011)


The new reality is:  As Israel, because of a political surrender to Orthodox politicians, becomes less democratic, more insistently Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, denying rights to minorities and even religious rights to the majority of Jews, it increasingly loses the support of the Jews of North America.  Jews like you are simply walking away, ignoring our destiny.


The government trend in Israel is increasingly anti-democratic.   But that's not what the Israeli people want. 

Hiddush: Promoting Religious Freedom and Diversity, in August found that, among Israelis:

  • Over ¾ support ensuring freedom of religion and conscience, and are dissatisfied with how the government handles issues of religion and state.
  • half of non-ultra-Orthodox women refuse to ride the segregated bus lines.
  • 2/3 of the Jewish public supports civil marriage.

Yet, in religion, and in many respects in human rights, Israel’s direction is deeply anti-democratic. 

The results of these trends could, in another decade, be cataslysmic, and too late to stop:

Imagine a world in which the Israelis are not seen as the most powerful military in the Middle East, because the United States refuses weapons sales.

Imagine a world in which you can’t marry the person you love unless you leave your country. 

Israel has rebirthed Judaism in so many ways.  Imagine a future generation of liberal Jews divorcing Israel over politics.


A non-democratic Israel, an Israel that accepts only Ultra-Orthodox Jews as fully Jewish, will ultimately be rejected by all but the zealots and Orthodox among North American Jewry.  An Israel that expels or segregates Arabs or refuses to rent apartments and sell homes to Arabs, or requires an oath of allegiance to the state, or makes it a crime to oppose settlement on the West Bank by calling for a boycott, as is the current Israeli law, will ultimately lose America's support.


This could be our future, without a democratic Israel.  That’s why I personally support returning Israel to its original non-sectarian, all inclusive, democratic, Jewish vision.


How many of you have been in Israel? (PAUSE) DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS MIRACLE?  For the first time in 2,000 years we are privileged to live with a Jewish state, and many of you have never even visited. 


If Israel is not in your personal narrative, if you do not count yourself as a citizen of the Jewish people, I appeal to you to understand that your community needs Israel.


And if it's not important to you, it may well become important to your children or grandchildren.


Your grandchildren may choose to make aliyah.


As in the past, dictators may arise to persecute us somewhere in the world and our people may desperately need an Israel. 


You have the choice of supporting Israel, but we have to preserve that choice for future generations of Jews.


Israel impacts your life positively, your children growing up in a world in which Jews are viewed with respect as strong men and women, not victims. What are you doing to strengthen Israel in return?


Try these ideas action steps:

First: Acknowledge that you benefit from Israel's existence as a Jewish State.  Think about it, and speak to your Jewish friends about it so that we grow the community of Jewish citizens who consciously and vocally support Israel. 


Second:  Read a Jewish newspaper, like Haaretz or the Forward on line.  Stay current with Israeli news.


Third:  Send your young adult family on Birthright to Israel. It's FREE!

Fourth:  Sign up for the Hiddush newsletter and join in their petition to Prime Minister Netanyahu.


Fifth: If you are willing. Go to Israel. It's not dangerous.  It's a part of modern Jewish identity. It's our pilgrimage.  Find a way to go that you can afford, and make sure you see the country and experience our people.  There’ll be a congregational trip on June 7th.


I don't blame the Ulta-Orthodox for seeking to control the politics of Israel on impose their world view on the Jewish world;

I don't blame Israeli politicians for pandering to the right wing in order to achieve their goals;

I blame North America's liberal Jews for allowing the greatest event in 2,000 years of Jewish history to become just another commodity, just another consumer item, like an iPad, just another place.  Israel presents the greatest possibility in the last 2,000 years and the greatest crisis, without exaggeration, and most of us live as though it does not exist.


Without Israel:  no Jewish refuge for persecuted Jews.  But there is so much more:  Israel refuels North American Jews' Jewish batteries through visits, study, and programs like Birthright; without Israel there will be no place for normal North Americans like your rabbis to learn fluent Hebrew; without Israel no place exists to live as a Jewish majority, to not feel like a minority, to live with a Jewish calendar, a Jewish language, an entirely Jewish culture.  Israel sets the image of a Jew worldwide:  that both pleases us and makes us anxious, but it's reality.  And let me tell you:  future historians will not be kind to the generation that allowed Israel to become Ultra-Orthodox and non-democratic.  Israel is the responsibility of citizens of the Jewish people. History confronts you, and the choice is entirely yours.  As we sing in HaTikvah:


Od lo avda tikvatenu,

Hatikva bat sh'not alpayim,

Lihyot am chofshi be'artzenu

Eretz Tziyon virushalayim.


Our hope is not yet lost,

The hope of 2,000 years,

To be a free people in our land,

The land of Israel and Jerusalem.


Am Yisrael Hai.