A Chaplain. A Rabbi. A Professor. An Editor. A Soldier. These Are the Faces of Jewish America

We sat down with five very different figures, all Jewish, all American, to discuss the tectonic shifts taking place within U.S. Jewry

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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From top left clockwise: Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Ch. (Capt.) Michael Harari, Alana Newhouse, David Myers
From top left clockwise: Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Ch. (Capt.) Michael Harari, Alana Newhouse, David MyersCredit: Gili Getz, Tomer Appelbaum, U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Maricris C. McLane
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The idea was to talk with American Jews and not about American Jews.

As an Israeli living temporarily in New York, I wanted to have in-depth discussions with Jewish leaders and activists, women and men who are on the ground, working directly with today's diverse and vibrant Jewish community. I invited them to sit down and talk about their stories, which together form the story of Jewish America.

In these talks, we discussed their views about the big issues facing today's Jewish community – from intermarriage to BDS and identity politics - and also their own personal and professional stories: A journalist helped me understand what "Jewish press" means and why the current dynamic between American Jews on Twitter is so poisonous; a Reform rabbi gave me a peek into the world of rabbinate and prayers; and a U.S. Army chaplain spoke about Apache helicopters and Muslim and Christian comrades. Each of them told a fascinating story, and together they help create an up-to-date collage of American Jewry.

>> A chaplain. A rabbi. A professor. An editor. A soldier. These are the faces of Jewish America | A special interview project

Kosher boots on the ground: Rabbi Captain Michael Harari

Capt. Michael Harari, 1-229th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion chaplain, receives an Army Commendation Medal for his actions to prevent a suicide, Aug. 30, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Maricris C. McLane / DVIDS

Rabbi Michael (Michoel) Harari, 37, has served for about two years as chaplain of an elite army combat battalion. He is one of the few men in the U.S. army allowed to sport a beard for religious purposes.

“I’m the rabbi of the 1st Battalion of the 229th Aviation Regiment. It is a highly decorated unit, well known from both World War II and Vietnam. It’s an attack team that gets attached to any forward units with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter." As chaplain, he may be deployed with U.S. Army forces on missions abroad, he says. “You might think: If he’s a Chabad rabbi, he must be closed-minded, must keep his wife locked up in the kitchen. But when someone came into the Rebbe's office, and when he saw something that he could fix, he didn’t say first: Excuse me, are you Jewish? [His approach was:] Whoever you are, if you’re coming to me, I will help." Read the full interview

Identity, intermarriage and the future of Judaism: Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Angela Warnick Buchdahl, a senior rabbi at New York's Central Synagogue.Credit: Gili Getz for Haaretz

Groundbreaking U.S. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, who heads the Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, explains why she changed her position on Jewish intermarriage, and what it's like to be the face of Judaism for many Americans, while still not being kosher enough for Israel.

"When I go to Israel, in some way I feel deeply at home. I also feel…like I am a unicorn or a freak. Being a female rabbi is still a little strange for most Israelis, and being Asian and Jewish – I represent a Judaism that basically does not exist in Israel. There is still peoplehood, but I bring a whole other cultural identity as a Korean woman. There are many Israelis for whom their identity is nationality and ethnicity." Read the full interview

Anti-Semitism and the paradox of Jewish survival: Prof. David Myers

David Myers Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Prof. David Myers, a historian, finds it hard to define himself as a Zionist, and at the same time he calls himself a "tribal Jew" who thinks it will be "a serious blow" if his daughters get married outside of the tribe. We spoke to him no less than three times for this interview, the last in wake of his appointment as the new president of the New Israel Fund's board and the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

"There are two unlikely keys to [Jewish] survival, which are both relevant and irrelevant to the present century. The first key is assimilation, in the absence of which Jewish culture would have stagnated long ago. The second component – which is crucial and plays a dialectic role together with the first factor – is anti-Semitism. I'm of course talking about anti-Semitism in nonlethal doses. Without assimilation, there would be no absorption of the cultural norms and habits of the host society; but without anti-Semitism there would be no limits to this process of integration nor affirmation of Jewish difference." Read the full interview

Jewish media, toxic environment: Alana Newhouse

Tablet Magazine editor Alana Newhouse.Credit: Gili Getz for Haaretz

Shortly after Robert Bowers is alleged to have opened fire in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, killing 11 people, all six staff members of the online American Jewish magazine Tablet moved their operation to the site of the attack, following the deadliest anti-Semitic event in the history of American Jewry. Editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse and her Tablet staff remained in town through the end of the shivah period.

"If there is one thing we inadvertently learned from Pittsburgh, it is how clearly our very online lives are killing us – if not instantly, as Robert Bowers did this week, then steadily.” Read the full interview

Spiritual guidance for secular youths: Rabbi Yehuda Sarna

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna. 'Most universities don’t welcome controversies.'Credit: Gili Getz

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, an Orthodox rabbi who alongside an imam serves as New York University's chaplain, navigating the ins and outs of faith, identity politics and culture wars at the famously secular university.

“It’s quite common for someone to come up with a complaint about a lecturer who said in class that the Israeli army is implementing apartheid and Nazi-like policy toward the Palestinians. A student may come to me and say ‘my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and how does this professor dare, and it’s her grandmother’s yahrzeit [death anniversary] today, and how crazy is it that I have to hear that thing in class? So in that case, if a student comes to me, what do I do?”Read the full interview

A Hebrew version of the texts, with a few additional interviews, is being published on the Hartman Institute Blog, "Al Da'at Hakahal"

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