This past Saturday evening, the mens’ club of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the well-known progressive shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, hosted a discussion between Daniel Sieradski, a 30 year-old entrepreneurial blogger and political activist, and John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation.
Sieradski founded Jewschool and the Orthodox Anarchist, two sites that present a self-consciously youthful critique of the established Jewish community. Ruskay worked his way from being a leader of the liberal 1970s group, Breira, which attempted to move American Jewry into challenging Israel’s lethargy in pursuing peace, into the highest reaches of professional leadership within New York’s Jewish community. He rose from heading the afternoon Hebrew school at a Reconstructionist synagogue to a leadership role in that movement, into an executive position at the 92nd Street Y and then to the UJA-Federation.
Sieradski, raised Orthodox, made his way in and out, and back into religious observance over the years, and is involved with what he calls “an indie” (for independent) minyan. Their polite and articulate clash of perspectives was fascinating.
John Rusakay sees his career as consistently advancing a uniquely Jewish value for and about the building of community. It became apparent in their discussion, probably reflecting the difference in their generations, that Ruskay holds up a more collectivist, consensus-building ideal over Sieradski’s impatient individualistic zeal. For example, Sieradski mentioned that he had worked on UJA’s Web committee in 2002, only to experience the frustration of having all his proposals rebuffed or ignored.
Another complaint that Sieradski mentioned was that when he introduced a website for readers to post ratings of neighborhood shuls online, his contact at UJA-Federation was “horrified.” He then went his own way. Ruskay urged that he re-engage with the community.
Sieradsky was an organizer of an unofficial bloggers’ session at the J Street conference in Washington, in October. At B’nai Jeshurun he expressed support for J Street, but at the conference, most of his fellow bloggers projected a haughty aloofness toward J Street’s liberal Zionism, with some giving voice to hostility toward anything Zionist.
John Ruskay demanded that his few remarks regarding Israel not be quoted by the two newspaper reporters in the room. This was for at least two reasons: that he needed to represent the entire New York Jewish community and wouldn’t want to be seen as divisive, and that he didn’t want to inadvertently say something that might be misunderstood. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to step into a minefield regarding Israel.