The Conspiracy

The Global Citizen: Far from Zion


AJWS logoThe Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.


At my school I am one of the co presidents of our Jewish Student Union. At the onset of the year we had to meet with our student group advisor. Confused, she sat looking at the list of activities we had planned (Shabbat dinners, Hanukah and Purim parties, movie nights) and then looked at us perplexed and asked politely, “Now I have this conversation every year with the JSU. You guys are listed as a cultural club… is that right? Most of these activities seem like religious activities, would you like to be in the spiritualities cluster?” The question made us all skip a beat before scrambling (unsuccessfully) to explain that Judaism was complex in nature, and religion in the traditional sense (ie g-d, prayer, festivals) is woven into the cultural. She stared blankly. It was okay if she didn’t understand it, we told her, we ourselves don’t completely get it, and explaining it is pretty much out of the question. The Jewish Identity crisis, we said, was not about to be explained in that office.

This meeting, and the subsequent ones that are beginning to become routine (ie explaining to her why we always do events with Hillel, explaining that we need kosher catering on campus, explaining why Jews for Jesus coming to our meetings are a problem, etc.) have really pushed me hard to think in new ways. Never before had I had to actually come up with answers for the questions about my Jewish identity, and all the sudden I am expected to answer the question for our entire organization. A collective of Jews. oye. Moreover, in a place like Portland, where the Jewish community is very small one has to be aware of being tokenized. The assumption, wrong but understandable, is that the entire Jewish community has a similar stance on issues. I usually pull out the old “two Jews, three opinions” joke to try and reconcile this confusion. My explanation is often met with a blank stare and an awkward courtesy laugh.

While the trivial issues have been a headache, the issues that run far deeper have truly knocked the wind out of me more than a couple times this term. This was possibly best exemplified at our general membership meeting last week. A campus group, “Students for United Palestine” is putting on a play about Gaza. All over campus are posters yielding faces of scare Palestinian children, the moving borders of Israel and other emotion evoking images. The debate they brought to our meeting had resounding murmurs of this identity crisis, what was our response? What was the Jewish response? Our organization is a wide spectrum of opinions regarding these issues, and we were being asked to have a platform. I left that meeting feeling very powerless.

The cosmos must have known I had been struggling with this concept of Jewish identity in such a secular world and sent a special guest my way. Last week my school hosted author Charles London. In his book, Far from Zion, London leads us on his journey to find different Jewish communities around the world.

“In this spiritual ethnography, he reports on his yearlong journey to countries where Jewish people are thriving under challenging circumstances. Their struggles with multiple identities and cultural histories—and their ability to create meaningful Jewish lives—inspired his personal spiritual development.”

In a noisy bar on campus we gathered around to hear his moving experiences in Arkansas, Uganda, and even Iran. What I found most significant about his story was that he never felt paralyzed by the lack of cohesion. He instead felt empowered by the diversity of practice, by the fact that all these people felt so committed to the Jewish story, they were willing to do whatever they could to maintain their identity. I highly recommend checking out this book. If you are like me at this moment, it may just help you in a way it helped me; instead of seeking answers, he reminds, we should be seeking better questions.

More information about the book, or London himself, can be found on the book’s website

6 Older Responses to “The Global Citizen: Far from Zion”

  1. Julie Goodman
    November 11, 2009 at 12:51 am #

    I have to say I have a real problem with your lack of recognition of the Jew that accepts Christ as a Savoir. The belief in Christ does not in any way negate the Jewish Identitly of the believer. In your own words “that Judaism was complex in nature, and religion in the traditional sense (ie g-d, prayer, festivals) is woven into the cultural.” “The assumption, wrong but understandable, is that the entire Jewish community has a similar stance on issues”. “Our organization is a wide spectrum of opinions regarding these issues, and we were being asked to have a platform”.
    There are almost as many Christ believeing Jews or as we call ourselves Messianic Jews in the world as non- messianic Jews. The fact that your organization has no room for the Messianic Jews is both distressing and wrong.
    How sad for both Hillel and AJWS

  2. Michael Reisor
    November 11, 2009 at 8:24 am #

    Aw Amy! So well written. I’m very proud of you for your views:D

  3. Milton Greenberg
    November 11, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Well thought out article. Just one question (or thought for Amy)…What is the bedrock of your faith? Is it your ancestry and perceived heritage as a Jew or is it the Word of God? I propose to you that the bedrock of your faith should be God’s Word. It is on that solid rock that a firm foundation is laid.

  4. Deena
    November 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    To Julie
    I always thought that to be a Christian you had to believe that the saviour had come once and been denied by certain groups, but that means that the entire surrounding events have to be accepted. Then, because he was denied, the end result of the messianic time has not yet occurred but will when he is accepted by everyone. If you believe in Jesus as the messiah, than you cannot call yourselves Jews.
    Now if you accept this, you are denying the rest of the Jewish view of the messiah.
    We don’t believe in second chances. The messiah comes and things turn out as it is foretold.
    Sorry, he hasn’t come yet.
    You can’t have it both ways. Either formally convert to Christianity and join with one of the Christian sects oh, wait. so I hear, formal Christian groups don’t usually accept Jews for Jesus as Christians. I do feel as if you’re hedging your bets.
    Own up and forget about calling yourselves Jews. Heck, you can still enjoy bagels and lox and use Yiddish terms in your conversation.

  5. Alan
    November 16, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    Wow, the internet really brings the weirdos out of the woodwork. Thanks Amy for writing about your experience.

    I think that your confusion is familiar to all of us who grew up in living Jewish families or Jewish communities. What Julie & Milton fail to recognize is that Jewishness, and Judaism, can’t be broken down into these newfangled Western categories of “religion” or “culture”. Western civilization, as we know it, began long after Jewish history had already set down the complex framework that’s so weird to try to explain some times.

    I think the short version, as I’ve worked hard to get down to it, would be to say “Jews are a complex of ethnic groups tied together by shared historical heritage and characterized by a unique religious tradition.” That’s why events and communities that support Jewish life cover so many different arenas.

    Milton seems to have forgotten the first half of the definition as I’ve framed it – that “Jewish” is a cultural thing as much as it’s a religious thing. Julie seems to have forgotten the second part – that Judaism, despite its diversity in its religious forms, still has very real boundaries: and they don’t include central beliefs of that other religion, Christianity, no matter how dressed up they might be in Hebrew drag.

  6. Jess
    November 16, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

    Messianic belief in the divinity of Jesus is viewed by a large majority of Christians and Jews as the defining distinction between Christianity and Judaism. The various streams of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal) as well as many Christian leaders reject the idea of Messianism as a form of Judaism. Messianic communities often target Jews for conversion, so you may see that Amy does not want to turn specifically non-messianic Jewish cultural and religious activities into an opportunity for her community to deal with potential proselytizing. Her goal is the support and growth of Jewish culture and a space to celebrate a culture that does not worship Jesus at all. It is a community’s perogative to define it’s own borders; Amy struggles within those borders to define where culture and religious practice intersect.

    Technically, Judaism is considered to be an orthopraxy, which means it places emphasis on action and conduct, not on belief. Most other religions came from this beginning as well. Christianity was actually the first orthodoxy – a religion based on doctrine/belief, where belief in Jesus could save you and was more important that your actions. In Judaism today, the most observant Chasids (of which I am not) practice Judaism by performing highly structured rituals. They cannot just sit and believe, they MUST do.
    So I would argue that the bedrock of Judaism is action not words. Cultural activities are a form of action greater than sitting around and believing that God gave the Torah directly but not doing anything. (One could also argue that the belief / word of God leads to action and so is the key, but action is still the end goal more than the belief. It doesn’t matter how one arrives at the action.)

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