Jewish conference to set the wayback machine for 1968

Any decent highlight reel from 1968 would have to include images of Vietnam War protests, two Olympians giving the black power salute in Mexico City, and news reports on the assassinations of a King and a Kennedy.

Ari Y. Kelman

Then there was Jewish 1968.

The same socio-political changes that roiled the world that year had just as dramatic an impact on American Jews and Judaism. Now, nearly 50 years later, scholars are going to take a closer look. 

Stanford University will play host to “The Jewish 1968 and Its Legacies,” a two-day conference that explores the events of that year and the through lines that have impacted the Jewish community to this day. Free and open to the public, the conference will include one panel discussion on the night of Sunday, Feb. 15 and three more the next day.

The 16 participating scholars include Stanford Jewish studies professors Ari Y. Kelman and Steve Zipperstein, historian Shaul Kelner from Vanderbilt University and journalist J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large at the Forward. Four panel discussions will cover much ground, from the birth of the Soviet Jewry movement to the impact of hippie counterculture on Jewish spiritualty.

Earmarks of 1968: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach gathering

The year 1968 saw the first measurable social impact of the baby boomers, who were then just coming of age. Everything was changing, much of it youth-driven: feminism, drugs, arts and culture (the Beatles’ “White Album” came out that year), black power, Latino power. And a new form of Jewish power.

The changes in the Jewish world “were part and parcel of the broader cultural and political activities going on,” said Kelman, who co-organized the conference with University of Minnesota Jewish studies professor Riv-Ellen Prell. “You hear echoes of the popular political tropes of the day in the writings and speeches of Jewish activists at the time.”

Though, in many respects, the organized Jewish community clung to a patriarchal, top-down model that had been in place long before, by 1968 the winds of change had begun to blow. Agents of change included Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who opened San Francisco’s House of Love and Prayer in 1968, and who, along with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, launched the Jewish Renewal movement.

Soviet Jewry movement, and Tommie Smith

That same year, Meir Kahane launched the Jewish Defense League, a pugnacious group that took a page from the Black Panther Party.

“Whether you’re talking about the House of Love and Prayer or the Jewish Defense League, you can see the Jewish conversation was not a siloed conversation,” Kelman said.

Probably nothing impacted the Jewish world more in 1968 than the aftershocks of the Six-Day War, which occurred in June 1967. The war expanded Israeli territory and reunited Jerusalem, and also sparked universal Jewish pride.

“It becomes the moment the [Jewish] left starts breaking apart,” he said. “It pulls apart the ability of Jews on the left to see themselves as Zionist because Israel goes from glorious underdog to occupying force [in the West Bank]. People also point to the emergence of a radical Zionist movement, a Jewish version of La Raza and the Black Panthers, the JDL most prominently, where the notion of Jewish nationalism steps to the fore.”

Kelman says no social force impacted Judaism in 1968 more than feminism. With women advocating for equality at all levels of society, Judaism — at least the more liberal streams — responded.

John Carlos raising fists at Summer Olympics in Mexico City

Kelman said there were repercussions here in the United States.

“Whether it’s the ordination of women rabbis or the open Orthodox movement, it was a sea change in a short period of time,” he said. “In 40 years we went from no women rabbis to maybe 50 percent in terms of religious leadership.”

He also cited the rise of the havurah (small group Jewish worship and friendship circles) as a key development in Jewish life that got going in 1968.

“This sense of do-it-yourself Judaism was so much in the ethos at the time,” Kelman said. “Jews tapped into, marshaled and recalibrated the needs of the Jewish community.”

The son of retired Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Kelman previously served as assistant professor of American studies at U.C. Davis before being appointed in 2011 as the Jim Joseph chair in education and Jewish studies at Stanford.

He wasn’t even born when 1968 came and went, but as a historian, he says that year does not feel like ancient history to him.

“One doesn’t need to have lived in this historical moment to benefit from the conference,” he said. “If we wanted to have it be a walk down memory lane, we would have invited different people. We want this to be a forward-looking conference.”

“The Jewish 1968 and Its Legacies”
will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15 and run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16 in Room 101 at the Center for Educational Research, Stanford. Free.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.