Seeing my high school in national headlines last week was mildly surreal.
The Frisch School, a modern Orthodox high school in Paramus, was my home for four formative years. It also is the alma mater of Jared Kushner, currently an adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.
These improbable facts collided last week when a story broke in Haaretz that some parents of students at Frisch were upset at the school for instructing students to write letters of thanks to Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The letter-writing campaign was initiated by NORPAC, a pro-Israel group that fundraises for candidates who take certain positions on Israel. NORPAC has long had close relationships with many schools and synagogues across northern New Jersey, including Frisch.
That a teacher at Frisch was encouraging students to participate in a NORPAC-led campaign is itself entirely unremarkable. Many other groups of Orthodox Jews are doing the same thing. The fact that there was some parental backlash is somewhat surprising, but hardly the stuff of a viral news story.
Except, in this case, the point of the campaign is to express gratitude to an unpopular and problematic president, and the group in question is his adviser’s high school.
I was surprised to see this story in the news, and I was reminded of my own political activism in high school. I have fond memories running Frisch’s Israel advocacy club, including editing its newsletter and organizing a trip to Washington, D.C., so that high school seniors could lobby members of Congress on issues related to Israel. Frisch did a service to me and my politically minded classmates by encouraging political activism and civic engagement at a young age.
I thought about these past events in light of last week’s story. The problem goes beyond the few modern Orthodox Jews whose support for Trump is, and opposition to Obama was, rooted in racism. The bigger issue is the myopic focus on Israel whenever modern Orthodox Jews discuss national politics. It’s not only a matter of using Israel as a proxy for which candidates to support. Virtually all political activism in modern Orthodox communities centers around pro-Israel advocacy.
Concern for, and prioritization of, Israel’s welfare is not by itself problematic. It becomes a problem when that concern comes at the expense of thinking about any other political issues. How many times have modern Orthodox schools organized in support of policies to alleviate chronic poverty, expand access to health care, promote environmental protection, and fight racism? It’s difficult to imagine a modern Orthodox school organizing a letter-writing campaign about any of those issues, and we should ask ourselves why. These issues, and many more, ought to be as concerning to any civic-minded Jew as the well being of the Jewish state.
The problem with politics in modern Orthodox communities is even more acute today. The specter and disaster of Trump’s presidency and what it symbolizes should act as a wake-up call for all religious Jews. President Trump has made clear his contempt for democratic norms and his admiration for white supremacists. His administration has made itself the enemy of the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned, precisely those people whom the Torah repeatedly commands us to care for. Now more than ever, it is crucial to educate the next generation of religious Jewish voters about the danger Trump and his allies pose for anyone who supports liberal democracy, abhors racism, and looks after the most marginalized in our society.
I am grateful to Frisch for supporting my political activism before I could even vote. I hope that Frisch, and other modern Orthodox schools, continue to educate their students on the importance of civic engagement. The question is not whether these schools should encourage political activism. It’s a matter of which politics should be discussed and promoted. Will schools continue to talk only about politics in the context of the U.S. government’s stance on a handful of Israel issues? Or will schools educate students on acute issues facing our country, and how, even as minors, they can work toward a more perfect union for all Americans?
Alexander Lichtenberg of Teaneck is a student at New York Medical College.