OHDS students get schooled on Jewish view of social protest

What does political upheaval look like when viewed through a Jewish lens? Does protest carry particular responsibilities and prohibitions for the observant Jew? And how do the Torah and the commentaries help shape social consciousness?

Students from Yeshiva University, the flagship school of the Modern Orthodox movement in New York City, brought these kinds of thought-provoking questions to seventh- and eighth-graders at Oakland Hebrew Day School Jan. 17 and then worked with them to hash out answers, framed by the events of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.

The Bay Area visit was part of Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future’s Jewish Life Coast to Coast program, which sends Y.U. students across the country to meet leaders and members of various Jewish communities, exposing them to Jewish life outside the Orthodox enclaves of the New York area.

Tamar Hochbaum (far left) describes the Person of the Year award for Oakland Hebrew Day School students. photo/rebecca rosen lum

The university students also made stops at Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco, Palo Alto’s Googleplex, Stanford University and the Jim Joseph Foundation, which sponsors the program.

Protest movements offered a natural conversation-starter at the Oakland hilltop day school. Jews have helped launch dramatic social changes throughout U.S. history, from the labor movement to the civil rights movement to Occupy Wall Street. The latter has a sizable Jewish contingent in cities across the county, including New York, where hundreds gathered for Yom Kippur services, and Oakland, where activists erected a “peace and justice sukkah” and a Jewish tent canopy in the fall.

Addressing the university students before they met with their younger counterparts, Bat Sheva Miller, OHDS director of Judaic studies, noted that in the Bay Area, “Israel is not the most loved. The left is very strong here.”

The 21-year-old Modern Orthodox day school includes “Israel at our core” as one of three philosophic tenets. The degree of observance among its 174 students varies widely, Miller said. The students learn to love and identify with Israel in the early grades, and then in the seventh and eighth grades “we start introducing the challenges to cultivate a sense of responsibility. Yes, we love it, and yes, there are things that need to be fixed.”

After a short assembly, the group split up to explore picketing, protest and public action in the larger world.

The younger students were asked to identify one thing they would like to change about their school, and then state how they might go about it.

Their desires were modest: To walk on the indoor stairway on cold days. To wear shorts on hot ones.

They were then handed blank sheets of paper and asked whom they would choose to be Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Yeshiva student Tzvi Goldfeder jump-started the conversation by proffering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; a girl filled her paper with “Justin Bieber” in purple ink.

Several nominated Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs. One student picked Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James.

The pace picked up when the middle-schoolers perused Time and its cover rendering of a demonstrator wearing a face-masking scarf — a generic protester whose nationality and gender were not identified. The image resonated with the students, most of whom knew about the pro-democracy upheaval roiling Middle Eastern dictatorships.

The discourse took a philosophical turn when the students were asked for their reactions to three ideas: the biblical mandate of death for disobedience; a comment from the Talmud that holds a person accountable for knowing of wrongdoing but saying nothing; and the talmudic suggestion that it is a mitzvah to withhold protest that is unlikely to be heard.

“We think of protest as Wall Street, but this goes back to the Torah,” said Yeshiva student Deborah Beilin. “The one thing I’ve learned is where to protest a lot and when to draw back, to focus on things we feel most passionately about.”

The young scholars fired off challenges. One asked if the Talmud wasn’t essentially one “big, long book of protests.” Another cited the role of Abraham, who brought his brother before the community to protest his actions.

“They were quoting some advanced sources — like Ramban,” said Yeshiva student Moshe Rube.

By the time the whole group reconvened, hands flew in the air, students clamoring to interpret the commentaries.

“If we see something wrong, we should try to fix it, but not in a violent way,” said seventh-grader Hanna Marcus.

Torah encourages political action in favor of a just cause, added classmate Tessa Zitter.

“Protesting shows responsibility,” said seventh-grader Yonim Schweig.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.