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And Social Justice for All

In case you haven’t noticed — but of course, you have — these are not the best of times. There are even those who assert they are the worst of times, but on the perfectly reasonable supposition that things can always get still worse, I won’t go that far. Actually, rather than review the mountain of evidence of just how bad things are, I will summarize with just one word: Ashcroft.

You’ve also noticed that Pesach is rushing up to meet us — or we it — and with it the real, not the chronological, spring. And spring, as is well known, hopes eternal. Accordingly, then, a column on the reasonableness of hope, the bad times notwithstanding.

But first, two items to set the stage: Nearly half of all entering college freshmen this year favored an increase in military spending. That’s more than double the percentage in 1993, and almost surely reflects a post-September 11 sensibility. The same cannot quite be said of the television program I chanced upon the other night, ABC’s “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People.” (Don’t ask.) For an example of utter mindlessness, it would be hard to top this. A nearly hysterical audience, a host who was all foam and no beer, and eight finalists — four well-built but watery men and four well-built but vapid women — this while several television channels away their age peers were killing and dying in Iraq.

It is against that general background that I reviewed 24 applications for “social justice fellowships” at Shatil, the Israel-based capacity-building arm of the New Israel Fund.

The fellowships, named in memory of Richard J. Israel, late Hillel rabbi extraordinaire, and Nomi Fein, my daughter, come to my desk as a courtesy; I am not on the selection committee. But what an absolute delight to read through them! I was dazzled, inspired, even awed, and most of all, reassured: At the very least, a saving remnant is intact.

The program is principally directed at recent college graduates, and the fellowships enable their winners to work for a year at a social change organization in Israel. This year’s applicants come from Harvard and Yale, Columbia; the Universities of Michigan, Texas, Kansas and Wisconsin; from Wesleyan and SUNY Buffalo and the University of Melbourne; from UCLA, Goucher, Washington U., Hunter, the Sorbonne, Loyola, Queens, Claremont, and also from Northern Arizona U. and the University of Western Ontario.

They are a stunning mix of academic high-achievers, lovers of Zion and social justice advocates. Most are proficient in Hebrew, and seven have at least some Arabic. One “picked up” Japanese along the way, at a level of proficiency that has enabled him to hold his conversations with his undergraduate thesis advisor — his thesis is on “accent patters of different dialects of Japanese” — in Japanese. He can also sign in Japanese. (Not to worry: His Hebrew is excellent, his French is fluent and he can get along in Italian and Spanish as well.)

They want to work on coexistence, or on the environment, or on women’s issues, or on human rights, or on religious pluralism, or on all of the above. Several count themselves observant Jews, and most have taught Hebrew school or Sunday school along the way. They’ve been in NFTY, USY, BBYO and Habonim; they’ve attended Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Ramaz in New York, sundry yeshivot. Seventeen have spent a semester or more studying in Israel and five are Birthright graduates.

One applicant, not from an observant background, met each week during three years of his university career with a rabbi and a group of five other students to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. Several have been volunteers for American Jewish World Service or for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. One has been a speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the United States, another a press officer in Israel’s Washington embassy.

Their essays, explaining their reasons for applying — which inevitably means their relationship to Israel — would gladden the hearts of the crustiest Zionist. They have defended Israel on their campuses, but know that Israel needs defense of a different kind from within. One, recounting an episode in Israel in which one of her friends walked out of a room when he disagreed with the speaker, concludes that “No matter what the circumstances, never slam the door and walk out. You have to stay in the room to make a difference.”

So maybe there is a dumbing down in America, and maybe — no, for sure — young people don’t by and large relate to Israel as those of us “of a certain age” do. Maybe the sky is falling, maybe turmoil and terror are our destiny.

But for sure all is not lost: If we seek to pass the torch, there are those who will eagerly take it up. They will take it up not out of courtesy to their elders, and not as a burden, but because of how they see the world: As one of them writes, “My belief in social justice has always been certain and fundamental.… [this fellowship] would be the ideal merging of my commitment to social justice and my personal connection with being Jewish.”

Why, then, is this year the same as all other years? Because, in the words of the old song, od lo nutkah hashalshelet, the chain is not yet broken.

Chag same’ach.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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