One of the key questions for Modern Orthodox Jews to ask—and constantly re-ask—ourselves is how public we are with our Judaism. For Ultra Orthodox Jews, the answer is simple. Who they are is evident for all to see. Their names and their appearances are as they would have been hundreds of years ago in Poland or Lithuania. For those from the Reform and Conservative movements, the answer is quite variable. Some are outwardly Jewish and have very Jewish-sounding names, and some could be from any religious background, as far as the general public is concerned.
For those of us who are Modern Orthodox, if absolutely required to make a living, we are permitted to keep the most evident elements of our religion to ourselves. This holds true for some in terms of wearing a yarmulke, keeping tzitzit out, the dreaded affliction known as “tefillin head,” wearing sheitels or hats, long skirts, etc. When we work in the secular world, we are painfully aware of when wearing such things is a true hindrance to our careers, and sometimes those prejudices are more hidden. As the modern variant of anti-Semitism has arisen in the form of anti-Israeli sentiment, this has become even more of an issue. It is not just our yarmulkes that give us away, but our Zionist politics.
This is part of what motivated my family to move from the Boston area to Teaneck. When we would drive around Boston, we would always remark on the very few times you would see an outwardly Orthodox Jew. When we would stop in Bergen County on the way to visit my parents and siblings who live in the Philadelphia area, we would see dozens of heads covered, tzitzit flying and modest clothes. I took a deep breath when I parked outside of Mocha Bleu or E.J.’s or any one of a dozen restaurants here, and stepped into a world suffused with Judaism (and with cheese). I wanted my children to grow up in a place where they did not have to worry all the time about what part of their Judaism was showing, what part of their identity they had to “tuck in.”
As comfortable as it is to be Jewish in these areas, post-modern life in the 21st century has added a new wrinkle. We used to have to worry about this outward element of our religion at work, on the street or on a subway. Now this matter has become multiplied by a thousand times as it relates to social media. Posting a pro-IDF video or even anything that portrays Israel in a positive light at all will cost you hundreds of friends and countless hours scrubbing clean your feed from all the hate and vitriol that immediately spring forth from the darkest corners of the interwebs after such a posting.
I found myself in just such a position after I took on my recent job for an Israeli organization. Not only is it just Israeli; some of its schools are in the Golan, Yehuda and Shomron. For many of my liberal friends, this is—absurdly and wrongly—tantamount to my supporting war criminals.
Perhaps it is appropriate to my first name that the realization of how much impact my Zionism had on what people thought of me came to me over time, drip by drip, and not like a lightning bolt. The news sources I remember as a child were primarily on the liberal side of the equation. I would hear the stories one after the other, and they all made sense. The United States, for instance, was acting in some other part of the world to protect human rights. Sure, we likely had other interests there, but we were bringing food, medical supplies and order to some part of the world that had very little by way of any of those three things.
Then, every so often, the story would be about Israel. The headline was usually something like “Three Palestinians Killed in West Bank.” The first five paragraphs of the story would be about the dead Palestinians. It would include interviews with aggrieved family members, with indignant Palestinian officials who would blame the “killings” on Israeli “aggression” and the “occupation,” and who would laud the dead “activists” as martyrs.” The last paragraph would quickly add the detail that, according to (impliedly suspect) Israeli accounts, the three Palestinians had walked into a Jewish town, shooting into buildings, and had wounded five, including children. The Israelis returned fire and killed the Palestinians. But these Jews were not described in the article as people, with interviews with aggrieved family members to humanize them, but instead were diminished as “extremists” or “settlers.”
I lived through hearing this scenario time after time. It finally occurred to me that while my heart still bled like a liberal Democrat with possibly “New York values” who had a weak spot for a potato knish, there was something else at work here. Israel and Jews as a whole were simply valued differently than others. Our lives meant less. Killing us was somehow justified in ways that killing others would never be. This is the lesson that we learn as Jewish children. History teaches us that our lives are cheap and that, as we recall at the seder, in each generation someone rises up against us to destroy us.
To counter such a reality, I and many others have dedicated our careers to strengthening Israel in the way that is most appropriate to Jewish history. Education has always been the absolute core of our existence. And, as we saw in movies like “Defiance” and “Exodus,” we were only able to survive because we also defended ourselves. You cannot get educated if your community has been wiped out. Modern Orthodoxy allows and encourages us to live in the modern, secular world and also stay connected to our traditional practices. “Torah” and “Avodah” are our guideposts.
I am grateful beyond words that my parents chose to mark me by my name and my upbringing as undeniably Jewish. This decision set my path. I am also grateful to the communities here in New Jersey and around the world that have struggled so mightily to create an atmosphere that allows all of us to pursue both our religion and our work with passion and with comfort.
By Akiva Covitz
Akiva J. Covitz, Ph.D., is executive vice president of Yeshivot and Ulpanot Bnei Akiva’s North American office. He teaches at Yeshiva University, previously served at Harvard Law School as associate dean and a member of the faculty, and as vice president at the online learning company edX.