December 10, 2023

PHILADELPHIA — Rabbi Lonnie Kleinman of Mount Airy was arrested at the U.S. Capitol three weeks ago, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Soon after her arrest was broadcast on Fox News, she received a text message from her father. He said he was deeply disappointed, and that her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, would have been devastated if they were still alive, Kleinman said.

She and her father are not currently speaking, she said.

“He is acting from a place of wanting to protect the Jewish people and honor his parents’ legacy. And so am I,” said Kleinman, who is 32. “We’re just going about it in very different ways.”

Kleinman’s experience speaks to a growing generational rift that has been highlighted in Jewish communities across the city and country in recent weeks. National polls in the past few weeks have found younger Americans are far more skeptical of the Israeli government and the United States’ relationship with Israel than their older counterparts. In some cases, differences by age were even starker than differences by party. A Wall Street Journal/Ipsos poll found that only 40% of respondents under 30 said the U.S. “has a responsibility to help Israel fight Hamas,” compared to more than 70% of people over 65.

Even before the most recent violence, younger Jewish voters across the country were more critical of Israel than older ones. The Jewish Electoral Institute, led by prominent Jewish Democrats, conducted a 2021 survey of 800 Jewish American voters. The poll found that 38% of those under age 40 — compared to just 13% of those over 64 — agreed with the statement “Israel is an apartheid state,” an analysis backed in recent years by international and Israeli human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and Amnesty International.

In the Philadelphia area, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, this generational disconnect has taken the shape of grief, fury, and splintering conversations among loved ones who cannot see eye to eye on the crisis. The local stakes are raised by an increasing number of Jewish-led demonstrations against Israel’s escalating siege of Gaza.

In the past month, Hamas killed upward of 1,200 people and kidnapped more than 240 people as hostages, most in the terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, according to the latest figures from Israeli authorities. Since Oct. 7, Israel’s military has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, including more than 4,100 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

At a protest and sit-in at 30th Street Station last Thursday, many of the activists, including Kleinman, wore black t-shirts that said “Not in our name” and “Jews say ceasefire now.” Hundreds of young Jews, alongside older Jewish activists and others, demanded the U.S. government call for a ceasefire.

“I was a chaplain in a hospital and I just thought, ‘what’s going to happen to the hospitals (in Gaza) without fuel? Without water?’” Kleinman said.

She grew up in a mainstream Jewish community in Tucson, Arizona; at home and in youth group, she learned that Israel is a democracy under constant attack. When she turned 18, she studied in Israel for a gap year and spoke for the first time with Palestinians. Learning about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, she left Israel feeling that “people were being harmed and oppressed on my behalf and I didn’t even know it,” she said.

David Mandell, 55 and a member of Rodeph Shalom synagogue, agrees with much of the criticism about Israel’s current government. But the bloodshed on Oct. 7 sparked fear and a familiar sense of dread for him — as did the ensuing, in his view lopsided, public condemnations of Israel.

“Never far from the surface, there’s this idea that a Holocaust or something similar could happen again. The Hamas attacks were a reminder of that in Israel, and the world’s response was a reminder of that globally,” Mandell said.

His two daughters, on the other hand, both under 20, are “much less forgiving of Israeli transgressions,” he said.

In interviews, Philadelphia Jews and their relatives described heated exchanges that veered from the academic — about the global history of Judaism and geopolitics in the Middle East — to the highly personal, touching on family memory, trauma and obligation. Many families are experiencing what is effectively a microcosm of the fierce debates that are playing out on college campuses, social media platforms, and in workplaces.

Rabbi Nathan Kamesar, 40, of Society Hill Synagogue, described the broad strokes of the debate as between an older generation that sees the Jewish people as perpetually vulnerable, even while they go through periods of relative stability and safety, and sees Israel as the best available protector of them, versus a younger generation less convinced that a formal nation-state is the way to provide safety for Jews, and that sees the Palestinians as the vulnerable population in need of protection.

There is, of course, a diversity of opinion in every generation, he added, and some families are largely in agreement across generations. Others, fearing an even more irreconcilable breach, are avoiding the subject with each other.

Elya Piazza, 30, a rabbinical student who lives in Germantown and is getting a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies, joined the recent ceasefire protests organized by Jewish Voice for Peace at the U.S. Capitol, 30th Street Station, and the Statue of Liberty.

“Pretty much my entire adult life is devoted to learning our history and serving Jewish people,” said Piazza, who also speaks and teaches Yiddish.

After being arrested at the Capitol, Piazza messaged their family group chat.

“Ideally I would have liked my mom to be proud of the work I was doing,” Piazza said. Their mother, Laurel Kallen, 70, messaged back, “Glad to see you standing up for your ideals” with a heart emoji, along with an article about progressive Jews feeling abandoned by the left as they mourned the victims of the Hamas attacks.

At this point, mother and child, both closely tracking the violence in the Middle East, are barely speaking to each other about it, they each said in interviews with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Kallen has a friend whose child is not speaking to her mother at all because of their disagreement, and so Kallen has been hesitant to bring up the subject too much with Piazza, she said.

“That’s a fear that I have, with them getting so frustrated with me that they would cut off communication completely,” Kallen said.

In some families, the intergenerational conversation is slow and difficult — but it is happening.

Zach Malett, 27, lives in West Philly and has spent the last few weeks trying to get his dad to call his representatives and push for a ceasefire.

“I really do fundamentally think that my Jewish upbringing made me a justice-oriented person, and I like to think that’s part of why I feel so strongly about this,” he said.

Zach’s father, Danny Malett, 57, said recently the two had what was supposed to be a brief workday phone conversation that ended up lasting nearly two hours. Danny Malett described himself as being in a “sandwich” generation between his own parents, who raised him with the belief that, basically, “without Israel, there’d be no more Jews in the world,” and his children, who see Israel, at best, as a regional super power imposing military control over a vulnerable population.

Recently, after difficult text conversations, Zach lent him two books to read on the history of the region.

“Would I read them on my own if I found them on a coffee table? I don’t know,” Malett said. “But Zach asked me to, and so I intend to — to keep the dialogue open.”

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.