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.