Beit Midrash Report Back
By Josh Leifer
On the last Sunday in January, members of JFREJ gathered at the Harlem JCC for an afternoon of discussion and study. It was the latest stage in the nine-month-long We Are Here process devoted to deepening political and strategic alignment across the JFREJ membership, and to exploring some of the most urgent questions facing the movement in the current moment.
The day was structured as a Beit Midrash, the Hebrew term for a house of study. But as Rabbi Miriam Grossman explained, the term does not only refer to physical place where learning is done. A Beit Midrash is a home for questions, and questioning can happen anywhere. The hope, Rabbi Grossman added, was that afterwards, JFREJ members would take their questions out into the world—into the streets.
And so in fitting Jewish form, the day began with questions. What does it mean to organize Jewishly in this moment? How is our Jewishness impacted and inspired by our organizing, and vice versa, if at all? What is the Jewish role in building a vibrant movement for mulitiracial social democracy? It came as no surprise that there were no easy answers.
During a Shiur Clali, or community exploration panel, JFREJ cultural organizers shared how they’ve experienced the intersections between their Jewishness and their activism, describing how their religious and political upbrings inform their work today.
Simi Toledano, a member of the Mizrahi and Sephardi caucus, spoke about how it felt, coming from a long line of Sephardi rabbis, to grow up in an Ashkenazi-dominated religious community — how her heritage could feel, at the same time, like both a weight and a source of pride. “You want to fit in, but the true resistance is knowing where you come from,” she said. “I’ve got a whole host of DNA, and I surrender in these spaces to allow my ancestors to speak through me.”
Many participants shared the feeling that what it means to be Jewish and on the left is to grapple with complexity, even contradiction. “Being Jewish on the left is the experience of being both an insider and an outsider,” said Judith Plaskow, the renowned feminist theologian. How do we not dismiss the ideals of the Jewish tradition when we haven’t lived up to them, Plaskow asked, “without at the same time turning away from the very real ugliness that exists?”
The form of the Beit Midrash also enabled some to discuss aspects of their Jewish identity and practice, like faith and prayer, that they hadn’t previously brought into other political spaces. Before getting involved with JFREJ, organizer Zahara Zahav said she wasn’t sure what “the left wanted, unsure if it was compatible” with her faith and deep commitment to praying and Jewish learning. But the Tisha B’Av sit-in at the Amazon store to protest ICE detentions last August was a clarifying moment. “We were using the words and tools we had to talk about horrific injustice: when things are really bad, you have to sit on the floor and block the way to make people pay attention,” Zahav said. “I was different after that experience.” The anti-ICE protests, Zahav added, exemplified a kind of Jewish offering to the broader movement for social justice.
The second half of the afternoon was split into two workshops: one on radical Jewish aesthetics, led by poet and artist Tom Haviv, author, most recently, of Flag of No Nation; the other on Torah and the left, led by Laynie Solomon and Arielle Korman.
“What is Torah learning about and why should do it as leftists?” Solomon asked the workshop participants. “Why might we want to learn the Jewish textual tradition in this political moment?” The answers given were varied: the tradition can be a source for building resilience, a personal ethics, a collection of responses to suffering and destruction, and a way to challenge right-wing hegemony over Jewish religious spaces. “If we don’t do it,” said Judith Plaskow, “the right will set the terms for posterity.”
As the shadows outside grew longer, the Beit Midrash drew to a close. A day that began with a set of questions ended with new insights, unexpected conclusions and, of course, more questions. Plaskow said she was surprised that alienation from the Jewish tradition wasn’t a more dominant theme. “There’s a lot of connection, and it turns out there may be even a greater taboo on talking about the ways we are connected than the ways we are alienated.”
Solomon observed that people feel this deep connection most when ritual combines with action. “But beyond this,” they asked, “Where can the Jewish left be found?” To this Rabbi Grossman added, “Where do we go to learn?”
Of course, there was no single narrative into which all of the afternoon’s discussions and conversations fit. While many expressed the importance of connecting to the Jewish tradition, others stressed how they had often felt — and sometimes still feel — distant from it. And the question of what the Jewish role in the movement for multiracial democracy is hardly one that can be answered in a single day or weekend; it will also have to be answered in the forms of protest and community-building that take shape in the future.
Rabbi Barat offered as parting a suggestion to hold on the complexity that had been touched on throughout the day — a complexity that itself mirrored the polyvocality of traditional Jewish texts. “I don’t think our job is to tell a single story,” she said. “But to lift up the multiplicity of stories.”