Why I Resent Jewish “Leaders” On Social Media
It’s not why you think!
Many may only know of Eve Barlow from her association with Amber Heard during the infamous trial between two actors, but if you don’t know her relevance to us, she’s been a prolific defender of Jews and Zionism. She’s a Scottish Jew living in Los Angeles, and she used to be a lauded pop culture writer (and she still is a good pop culture writer), but “cancel culture” took her usual line of work from her. She uses her voice and the platform to stand firmly for issues that matter to us.
I resent that she does. She’s not an elected leader of any Jewish community or institution. She’s not in charge of any regional Anti-Defamation League effort, nor is she a rabbi or leader of a large congregation.
That resentment isn’t of her…it’s resentment of our institutional paralysis that keeps us from speaking out in the ways that we should.
During the pandemic, I used my position of president of Maine’s oldest synagogue to take on state Representative Heidi Sampson, who literally hugged a Holocaust denier, used Holocaust comparisons in her anti-masking, anti-vaccine crusade, and then of all the ironies, touted her support for Holocaust education in Maine that she voted against on the state house floor.
The silence of other Jewish institutions in the state of Maine frustrated me, but I knew that on this matter I had the backing of my rabbi and my congregation. I’m inclined to be pugilistic about Jewish safety and security because of my first vocation as a paratrooper, and I hate sitting on my hands. My Judaism is motivated by an Orthodox approach, but also Abraham Joshua Heschel, and more importantly, figures in Jewish history that lead from the front and didn’t necessarily wait for consensus.
There was some pushback on me speaking out from a member of another congregation in Bangor. “Perhaps we need a community-wide committee to put together a unified response,” he suggested, but I wasn’t inclined to demure. I’m a duly elected leader of a sizable chunk of the community. I’m willing to accept the consequences if I should go too far. I can be displaced. I should be displaced, if I don’t reflect the standards and morals of my community effectively.
There’s also paralysis. A few years ago, after being volunteered, I drafted the open letter that a consortium of groups came together to write after racism manifested in Bangor schools. That process was fraught with too many cooks, too many people wanting to leave their performative mark, and was almost paralytic to the point of irrelevance by the time we got it over the wall. Much of that, and I’m not being uncharitable in saying so, came from working with that other congregation. Great minds, but everyone needs to be the Most Relevant Person in the Room, and it’s exhausting. To borrow from the Christians, I’m “purpose driven.” I don’t need to be seen doing what I do, unless I’m going to be seen doing what I do, something we know is hazardous for Jews.
I had some leeway to fight back on the issue of Holocaust denial and Holocaust imagery, but I don’t have the same leeway to push back about other issues without first seeking consensus from our Board of Directors. Our rabbi used the “power of the pulpit” clause in his contract to advance a message after Texas passed its restrictive abortion laws. Our avenues to do such things are limited.
One recent example of this is the pursuit of tribal sovereignty for Wabanaki Tribes in Maine. Maine’s tribes have a more restricted status than any other federally-recognized tribe in the country. I had really hoped that our congregation could lead from the front, but concerns over the impact of the particular tribal sovereignty on the strength of Bangor’s casino derailed that effort. And I’m not airing a grievance with my Board on this matter. People have a right to their opinions and we absolutely shouldn’t proceed on such matters without consensus, but on a personal level, I have an objection putting the profits from vice ahead of a people’s dignity and sovereignty. It means government is deliberately protecting private business from competition, something I object to as a libertarian, and more so at the expense of indigenous rights. This is something every one of us who is Zionist should recognize common cause with. It’s why I put it to our Board, though. Maybe there are valid reasons I don’t see with the tribal sovereignty bill in this legislative session, but it would be unfair to those congregants who don’t support it for us to issue a statement of any kind.
It is still an education into why we live in a time when social media luminaries are more successful in issue advocacy than our institutions. It’s also unfortunate in how it’s relegating to our institutions to irrelevancy. It’s not my primary goal in advancing institutional engagement with advocacy, but a byproduct is establishing relevancy to a younger set of Jews who feel disconnected from our communities. Do I believe our synagogue will suffer because we didn’t take a position on this particular issue? Not at all. We are really adopting great policies and practices in other areas, and no amount of advocacy will overcome our chief problem: the retreating demographics of small town Jewish life.
On the flip side of that, it’s tragically unfair to these individual advocates. When they lack the backing of our organizations, who are not quick to follow them until it’s often safe to do so, they are isolated, exposed, and easily subject to burn-out. I also am dubious of the extent of their influence, even when they are invited to speak at conferences. Social media is an echo chamber that while amplified, isn’t having much direct influence on our institutions. Perhaps that will change, but I feel the burden is still on us to start being fiercer, to stop being apprehensive about advocacy, and to sometimes operate without consensus, even if that comes with consequence. We owe it to these brave souls to be ahead of or at least alongside them.