Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Israel for a younger crowd

Article on Rabbi Yonah Bookstein in the JTNews

Brian J* had many reasons why he converted to Judaism, but one of them was Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.

A year and a half ago, J* discovered Bookstein’s podcasts, which address Jewish perspectives on topics ranging from sex to plastic surgery, and began downloading them on iTunes. With a conversational teaching style, J* thought Bookstein wasn’t boring, like some of the other rabbis he’d heard.

J* so enjoyed Bookstein’s approach to Judaism that he sparked a friendship with the rabbi. When J* and his partner, Michael, traveled to southern California to visit family, he made a point of meeting Bookstein, who serves as rabbi at California State University–Long Beach Hillel and the Hillel Foundation of Orange County.

J* expected his sexual preference might be a problem for an observant rabbi, but received a different response.

“He wanted to know when I was going to have kids?” recalled J*. “I was like, ‘What?’ It was totally out of the ballpark for me.”

In more ways than one, Bookstein is not an ordinary rabbi. An alum of the labor Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror, a largely secular organization, he was ordained by a traditional Orthodox seminary but refuses to identify with any particular movement of Judaism. He even lost some potential funding for rabbinical school after failing to express fidelity to any of the major branches.

In the age of the Internet, he has effectively used the Web to reach out to a large number of young Jews, not only with podcasts and MySpace pages, but as a writer on the blog Jewlicious, which attracts approximately 10,000 visitors a day. The popularity of the blog has grown so that Bookstein now organizes an annual Jewlicious Festival on Long Beach that attracts young Jews from

around the country with music, comedy, food and late-night Kabbalah discussions.

He has also earned a reputation as a forceful defender of Israel, not an easy job for a Hillel rabbi whose turf includes the University of California–Irvine, widely considered the most anti-Israel campus in the United States by advocates for the Jewish State. The bloggers on Jewlicious represent a range of religious and political perspectives, but share an unabashedly pro-Israel stance.

After their meeting, J* looked for funding to bring Bookstein to Seattle to speak. When the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s Young Leadership Division received a grant from the David Foundation to be used for Israel advocacy, he recommended they bring Bookstein. So YLD invited him.

He will be speaking on Aug. 20 on the topic “Israel: Truth vs. Propaganda.”

Bookstein’s Israel advocacy began as a teenager with Habonim Dror, but intensified after a stint living in Israel that coincided with the first intifada.

“When I returned to the United States I was out of my little shtetl and realized there were so many people with misinformation about Israel and about the various conflicts that Israel was in,” Bookstein told JTNews.

As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, Bookstein attempted to create a “pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” and three years ago returned to working on campuses, “thrust into the epicenter of the most radicalized campus and, basically, region in the country,” he said.

Bookstein said that nothing could have prepared him for U.C. Irvine. He accuses administrators of doing nothing to address what he sees as widespread anti-Semitism. The Jewish community, which he said is “passionately pro-Israel,” has been divided over the best strategy to engage the university, many preferring to keep a low profile while working with the school behind the scenes.

“The only thing that all the Jewish organizations can agree on is that the university is doing a bad job,” he said. “The fact that the university still does not acknowledge publicly that they have a problem is a major source of consideration by parents, who are thinking twice about sending their kids to the school. It’s exactly the opposite of what I would love to see.”

But the experience has also taught him techniques “to win people to a pro-Israel perspective and to help Jews not feel powerless in the face of a growing anti-Israel sentiment,” he said.

He has had success building alliances with disparate groups. Many people do support Israel, he said, and he has organized venues where they can show off that support publicly.

“I’d like to very much take the dialogue out of the Jewish-Muslim conflict and put it into a much larger context,” said Bookstein. “Israel is the only country which has protections in the region for minorities. It has protections for gays and lesbians and other minorities. Those groups are natural allies in our efforts.”

At the helm of the one of the most popular Jewish blogs on the Web, he is also an advocate of using the technology for Israel advocacy.

“If you want to engage people, you have to be where they are,” he said. “I think the advocacy community has been better at using the Internet than other segments of the Jewish community.”

Though he has had success, Bookstein is still quite sober about the current state of Jewish life and the future of Israel. He observes a growing chasm between American Jews and Israel and is as nervous as many Israel supporters about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

“Israel faces a serious threat to its existence,” said Bookstein. “It’s a more hostile environment for Israel than I’ve ever seen. I think our work on Israel needs to be better than before. That the world community is openly discussing whether Israel was a good idea is an issue that should concern every single Jew.”

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