Home Perspectives Personal Essays Why, despite my beliefs, I avoided the occupation at a shiva

Why, despite my beliefs, I avoided the occupation at a shiva

Katelyn Fay FLICKR

Last month, my extended family lost a relative. He was a parent, grandfather and great-grandfather. He was a Holocaust survivor, a Torah scholar and a teacher who taught bar/bat mitzvah portions to thousands. He was a factory worker in the garment industry. He was passionate about Jewish scholarship and religious study. I didn’t know him well; technically speaking, we weren’t even related, but I knew him my entire life.

I had to miss his funeral. I was away, at a training in Boston. I drove home in time to attend one of the nights of shiva. My parents told the family that I had been out of town at a conference and, of course, my lovely relatives asked me about it. What had I been doing? I didn’t know how to answer that question. How could I answer that question?


I wanted to be honest. I wanted to be authentic. I wanted to show up as who I am. I didn’t want to lie, but, at the same time, it didn’t feel like the time or place to be honest. I mumbled an awkward jumble of words, trying as best I could to avoid the subject.

Although what I’d been doing in Boston represented such an important part of me, I tried, in that moment, to bury that part of myself. I just wanted to be there, to offer a hug to my aunts, support my extended family, clean the kitchen. I wish I didn’t have to hide that part of myself, but it wasn’t the moment to take the conversation there. It wasn’t the time to talk about the occupation. It wasn’t the time to talk about Israel/Palestine. It’s okay, I think, that it wasn’t the right moment.

‘I’ve never felt so whole in a space before. I could be spiritual, I could talk about Torah and I could talk about social justice’

What I’d been doing in Boston was attending a training with an organization called IfNotNow, a movement led by young Jews. I’d spent the weekend in a deeply Jewish space. We sang nigunim and chanted lines from Torah. We shared our hopes for a future rooted in a deep belief of freedom and dignity for all, and many of us shared a desire for Jewish institutions to take a moral stand against the ongoing injustices of the occupation. We talked about anti-Semitism, fear and intergenerational trauma. We got to know each other, people from different local Jewish communities; some of us LGBTQ Jews, some of us Orthodox, others Reform. We built bridges that connected us across the political spectrum.

We talked about the occupation. Some people spoke about their families in Israel and about feeling a connection to the country’s sacred places. It was clear to me that all of the over 50 young people in the room shared a deep love for Judaism and for the people that make up their broader Jewish communities. For me, personally, the love I have for Judaism and my belief in its teachings are inseparable from my values of social, political and economic justice.

We talked about our families, our fears that our political beliefs could create divisions within our communities and, for some of us, how our values and political beliefs have already divided us from family members.

I’ve never felt so whole in a space before. I could be spiritual, I could talk about Torah and I could talk about social justice. I could be me. I didn’t have to ask anyone to trust where I was coming from. I didn’t have to justify my positions. I became a part of something larger than myself, part of a growing movement of Jews working to build relationships with each other, rooted in the belief that everyone deserves to live with freedom and dignity.

But, back in the world outside of the conference, it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. Still, these conversations about Israel and Judaism are ones I’m committed to figuring out how to have.

This past summer, as I was preparing to leave for a trip to Israel, a friend reminded me of something I had previously said to them: “I’m trying not to avoid things because they’re complicated.”

And that’s really it. I love my family and I love Judaism. I also believe in justice. I believe in freedom. I believe in the teachings of tzedakah and tikkun olam. My belief in Jewish ethics means I have an obligation to address injustice, and that includes not supporting the Israeli occupation.

But it’s okay that it’s not always the right time to talk about this. It doesn’t have to be. Sitting at the shiva holding my aunt’s hand, I didn’t want to bring the occupation into that moment of grief and support. I just wanted to be there. I don’t regret that choice.


I know that I still have a lot to learn and that, as a community, we still have a long way to go. I know that I want to go to synagogue sometimes. I want to learn Hebrew. I want to feel comfortable in Jewish spaces and in Jewish institutions. I also know that I will not apologize for who I am and what I believe in. I will speak my truth.

‘the love I have for Judaism and my belief in its teachings are inseparable from my values of social, political and economic justice’

These days, I’m thinking deeply and I’m thinking hard. I felt so many things at once in those days at the IfNotNow training. In the same way, my Judaism is so many things at once. I believe in my community and in our ability to make the world a better place. I know that I am going to continue asking questions, continue learning and loving my Judaism. I am committed to holding all of what’s complicated, especially when it’s difficult.

Sterling Stutz is a young Jew from Toronto. She studies Environmental & Health Studies at York University and is a member of IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews working to end Jewish support for the occupation and gain freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.

  • DJ

    The occupation? Grow up.

  • David K.

    I was at the same Shiva, and I can tell you quite honestly that the majority of the people there would support an end to the “occupation” as part of a fair and just negotiated peace settlement that ends the Arab/Israeli conflict. The difference is that those other people see the reality – that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side at this time, and there might not ever be one. Therefore, a unilateral move by Israel to end the “occupation”, which might be perceived as lovely by your conference-going peers, would inevitably result in another fundamentalist Islamist failed state – but this one nestled up against Israel’s major population centres.

    My Grandfather certainly wouldn’t have approved of you using his Shiva to get up on your soap box.

    So, keep smiling, keep shining – and smarten up.

  • Ilana N.

    This was a beautiful and tender piece, I’m glad you were asked to write about your experiences and felt you could share them with the CJN readership. Thank you for sharing this.

  • amy s

    Love this piece. So honest and respectful. Thank you for sharing your experience and having the courage to write this.

  • amy s

    Love this piece. So honest and respectful. Thank you for sharing your experience and having the courage to write this.

  • Hannah F

    I love this piece and it is so refreshing to read this perspective! It brings a lot of nuance and depth to the conversation. It is courageous and moving.

  • g. f. nestel

    Great honesty and beautiful writing!

  • Dani E

    Beautiful and thoughtful piece! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I too derive my sense of morality and social justice from my Judaism and that does mean fighting against injustice everywhere. And not just including Israel, but especially in Israel. It seems to me that it is that same sense of morality that prompted you to attend the IfNotNow training and to work against the occupation is what also told you that a shiva is not the right time for these discussions. Refraining from discussing a certain topic, even one as important as social justice and ending the occupation, is not hiding who you are or failing to do your part for the cause, but rather a realization that this moment wasn’t about you but about grieving yourself and supporting others through their grief. I think you’ve demonstrated to us all how important it is to come together and support family in times of need without inciting a political battle, which is not something many of us are able to do. Thank you for sharing your experience, your commitment to Judaism and to social justice, and for your wisdom in this increasingly polarized world!

    • Benben

      Refraining from discussing any of your political beliefs at a shivah isn’t much different from refraining from discussing your preferred sex positions at a shivah. I don’t understand the point of the article.

    • TerrorIsEvil

      Today “Social Justice” = Antisemitism

  • DJ

    Wow, its almost Easter, so how appropriate that we witnessed the resurrection of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance League and it’s peanut gallery. Guess that well has run dry and you’ve found a new hobby horse to “occupy” your time with. Hope Mommy and Daddy got their 30K bail money back, Sterling.

  • TK

    I am part of the family and was at Zaida’s shiva. No one would have batted an eye, cared, been offended, or surprised, to be honest, that you were at the anti-occupation conference. Zaida’s grandkids (by birth or by marriage) and their cousins include: atheists, believers, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious, non-religious, Jewish, non-Jewish, and cousins from right to left across the span of the political spectrum. Zaida’s grandchildren, their spouses and cousins represent a plurality of Jewish experiences, and is a microcosm of the plurality of the Jewish community at large. Our family is an inclusive and loving one, much like our community. Your spinning of Zaida’s shiva into a vehicle by which to characterize yourself as some kind of silenced victim is particularly rich given that it is being published by the CJN. You are not silenced by our family, and not by the community. However, as your narrative is more compelling if you are a victim, you have literally turned Zaida’s shiva about you, and are using it is a plug for your politics. At the next shiva, please feel free to be yourself, you don’t *actually* make a secret of it anyway.

    • Benben

      Very well put. Ridiculous article, especially when it begins with he wasn’t my blood relative and I didn’t know him that well. Shivahs aren’t for the benefit of the deceased. You are entitled to your political views but you come off sounding altogether entitled

  • JS

    I was at the Shiva you mentioned and I applaud you for your honesty and for voicing your opinions so respectfully and eloquently at a time of grief for our family. You chose to not let your experience at the conference overshadow the Shiva and chose to be there for our family, instead of talking about yourself which is admirable. We support you, we accept you and we know that our family has many different opinions and beliefs. We are a family and we love each other regardless of politics because that is what a family is.

  • DJ

    Love freedom of speech. Here’s a great counterpoint to this organization.

    Solomon spoke out during the IfNotNow demonstration and pro-Israel counter-demonstration in front of the AIPAC conference Sunday, calling the claim that Israel occupies Arab land “a lie”.

    “I am Palestinian, but I stand with Israel”, Solomon said. “We are the Arabs. We occupy the land of the Jews. This Jewish land. It’s going to be there for ever and ever. I used to be a Muslim. They taught me to hate Israel and the Jewish people. There is no Palestine. It’s a lie. They are using Palestine just to kill the Jewish people. Just to hate the Jews. They teach me to ‘purify al-Aqsa mosque from the filthy Jews’. Palestinians are liars.”

    Solomon drew national attention in Canada earlier this year with a series of interviews and web videos decrying what she called the Islamization of the West. Following the release of the videos, several Canadian imams called for Solomon to be executed “for blasphemy”.

  • Thanks so much for sharing! Great to hear from Jews who are thinking critically and asking questions with an open heart.

  • RW

    it means so much to me to see the CJN posting articles that express these sensitive topics. Bridging politics and family can be so divisive, and I personally find it very moving to see how Sterling has processed these complexities and has been so brave to write about it. If there were more articles like this, I would consider reading the paper more often!

    • Benben

      A shivah is no place to bridge family and politics. Do that at a family dinner, not a shivah house.

  • TerrorIsEvil

    Do any of you on the left have a “shared a desire for Jewish institutions to take a moral stand against the ongoing injustices” of terrorism in the Islamic world directed at Jews and Israel and the occupation of Judea-Samaria and Gaza by terrorist entities… or are you only apoplectic when it comes to Jews building on their biblical, historical and legal land – made legal by the Mandate for Palestine- of which Jordan was also once a part but handed over by Brits to the Arab monarchy?

  • EvenSteven11

    I have decided not to renew my subscription for the increasingly anti-Zionist CJN. I encourage others to do the same. What has happened at the CJN under its new ‘edgy’ editor is a disgrace.

  • Beer Baron

    If Not Now is an organizations masquerading as pro-Israel group who claim to wish to end the occupation, when what they really wish to end is Israel. That would explain the peculiar statement on If Not Now’s website: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood.”

    They do not take a unified stance on Zionism or Israel? That tells you all that you need to know about this “pro-Israel” group.