I believe, as I wrote in Saving American Jews - What are we trying to save?
that in practical terms, in the Gola
) Judaism is, or was, neither just a nationality nor just a religion, but rather, a community, and what we are "selling" when we try to convince people to remain Jewish is really a community and identity, not a religion or a nationality.
That community is vanishing as a working society because it is being physically liquidated as Jews move away from large cities and out of the close milieu of Jewish friends and the nearly extinct extended family.
We cannot reconstruct the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe and we don't want to do so. Few American Jew
s will sacrifice their careers and quality of life just to be near bagel bakeries and a Jewish congregation. Exhortations to follow in the footsteps of ancestors are largely pointless or absurd for people who never knew their European or Middle Eastern Jewish ancestors in person and don't identify with them or their customs or beliefs. Great great grandpa wore a fur hat and a long black Caftan in the summer and white socks and had earlocks and a big beard. Great grandma probably wore a wig. Not many people are going to do that or identify with it. Most of our ancestors fled persecutors and lived in fear, powerless individuals in alien societies, Others often looked for, and frequently found, ways to escape their Jewishness and the onerous condition it entailed. We don't want to sell that reality as an identity.
Grannie and grandpa are now first or second or even third or fourth generation Jews who have moved away from the traditions and the neighborhood. They live in Florida. They are not autocratic paragons of Jewish learning, tradition and religion or determiners of behavior. In fact, they are disdained targets for "education" by the young - for political and cultural propaganda - a "shlep" that must be undertaken to convince them to vote the "right" way.
There are things that can and must be done, but for the most part, they are not the things that are being done. A revolution in Jewish thinking is required. Being Jewish has to be free
- Judaism costs money as we saw
: $10,000 a year for Jewish education for one child, $1,200 a year for Synagogue membership, $1000 for a Jewish summer camp, money for Jewish center membership and more. Local Jewish communities are communities of paying members. If you are Jewish, with no money you get no community. Those who want to worship on High Holy Days have to pay for seats. Why pay money to be a Jew when I can be an atheist or a Methodist for free, or pay only as much as I can afford? Was any Christian ever turned away from a church because they could not pay dues? Like the family Passover
Seder, all Jewish institutions should be open to anyone. An invitation to a Jewish Center or a Synagogue has to be an invitation to participate, not a solicitation for a donation. It can be done by spending more money on people and less money on ostentatious buildings, by encouraging voluntarism and community spirit and by focusing Jewish philanthropy on the Jewish community. Give people reasons to be Jewish
- If we want people to remain Jewish, we have to give them some real reason to be Jewish. Judaism is a "buyer's market." The community must come to them and offer to include them - not at a price, not because they paid membership dues in a Synagogue or a Jewish Center, but for free, because they are Jewish. If we want to save Judaism, we have to make Judaism into a real non-denominational community with tangible benefits to its members. Tikkun Olam begins at home
- Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world") is a strong part of the Jewish tradition. It motivates Jewish social work and political activism. But if there is no Judaism, Tikkun Olam loses its point as a Jewish practice. Jewish philanthropies and scholarship endowments, which are prone to non-sectarian largess, should perhaps remember more often that charity begins at home. Tikkun Olam
for Jews has to begin with other Jews and the Jewish people. Acceptance is not a panacea, but it is important
- In a buyer's market, the Jewish religious establishment and the Jewish community have to stop obsessing over who must be excluded, and must find ways to include and accept anyone who really wants to be Jewish or get close to Judaism, and who is not trying to disrupt or subvert the Jewish faith and the Jewish nation. The sometimes justifiable concern of orthodox Judaism to defend Judaism against erosion has too often itself eroded into inhuman and inhumane petty legalism and frankly, racism. The religion that rejects a Jew
just because their mother was not Jewish, is a parody of the religion and people who accepted Ruth the Moabite
. If the orthodox Jewish establishment will not change, than others must take their place. But these others must provide authentic Judaism, not a pale imitation of Christian ritual. Meaningful and useful content
- If learning Hebrew
is only useful so that Jews can read prayers that they do not understand and do not believe in, there is not much point in Hebrew education. Hebrew education should be geared to understanding things that Jews can relate to: Hebrew literature, Israeli journals and central Jewish traditional content. Overwhelming majorities of Jews still celebrate the Passover Seder, though it is doubtful that most of them can understand the Hebrew Passover Hagadah
. Teach them to understand what they are reading! But understanding will also generate a desire for change and modernization. Most Jews are not going to want to have any part of prayers that thank god for not creating them a woman and call down the divine wrath on non-believers. They may have been correct in their context. They have the wrong message today. Identification
- The "benefits" of community are not exclusively financial or social. People search for roots and for positive figures with which to identify themselves and give them and their children pride in their heritage. Sometimes the past is somewhat of a myth. People of various religions and nationalities may make heroes and saints of people who were narrow minded bigots or worse. Americans venerate Thomas Jefferson who was a slave owner and had a concealed relationship with a slave who bore him children. Ukrainian and other European national heroes often excelled at killing Jews. Palestinian Arabs made a national hero of Izzedin al Qassam, who was not a Palestinian Arab or a hero, but rather a benighted Syrian religious fanatic who conducted a senseless campaign against the British and the Jews. Heroes are usually best when viewed out of focus. Regrettably, when Jews think of their past they are too "objective" and negative. The images of Jewish heroes in the eyes of Jews are often like grotesque photographic enlargements that show every blemish, rather than emphasizing positive qualities. How many Jews will mention Einstein
as their heroes? Right method, wrong content
- The Chabad
have tried to fill the void of community and identity. Considering that their content and message are so far from the twenty-first century and American social norms, they have had remarkable success. This version of Judaism, which re-creates the European ghetto culture, is not going to appeal to a lot of Jews. It is the past, not a future for the Jewish people. Often, it sunders Jewish families in a tragic way, rather than uniting them. However, anyone who wants to promote Judaism has to learn from the enthusiasm and dedication of the Chabad, their willingness to accept all kinds of Jews and dialog with all kinds of Jews, their real sense of community, and their efforts to reach out to Jews in the farthest corners of the earth, not just the farthest corners of the US. They proved there is a market for these products. They have generated admiration and identification with those same European ancestors who are such improbable role models for American Jews. If the Chabad can instill adulation of the Baal Shem Tov in once secular Jewish youth, is it too difficult to imagine that other groups can instill admiration for Jewish prophets, Israeli heroes, Spinoza and Einstein?
Like Chabad, Jewish community outreach has to include mobile services that get to Jews in Cheboygan Michigan, Jews in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Jews in Eutaw Alabama and even Jews in Eek Alaska. There are 282 people there. By the law of averages a few of them are probably Jewish or used to be, and the Jewish community must show a presence wherever there are Jews. They should be given the feeling that they are part of a larger community whose support is there for the asking. Use the Web
- The Web has the potential for shrinking distances and creating virtual communities to replace the actual communities of bygone days. Mailing lists, forums, interactive Web sites and online services that teach about Hebrew and Judaism, online dating services and online want ads, are powerful tools that can be used to provide services and education and involvement and a sense of "belonging" at a distance. Every Jewish organizational Web site should have a real person person who answers mail and is there to provide help. These tools are not a substitute for a real community, but they are a way of maintaining links where there are none. Zionism and Judaism
and the Israeli success story should have provided the non-religious content that could unite the Jewish people in the Diaspora
. Instead, Zionism has become a divisive issue for American Jew
s. On the one hand, it has been coopted by, and thoroughly confuted with, religion. The result, as shown in the AJIS survey
, is that identification with Zionism is a function of Jewish religious belief. There is evidently no organizational framework or belief structure for propagating Zionism outside of religion. At the same time, instead of being an asset and a point of pride, Zionism has become a liability for many Jews. It is a "dirty word" that has supplanted Jew
as an epithet in polite company. This has to change. Jewish organizations, particularly Labor Zionist ones, have to stop making believe that bigots who rant about 9-11 conspiracies, Neocon Zionists, "Zionist Control" and the "Israel Lobby" don't mean them, and have to pick up the gauntlet of defending Israel
and Zionism against unfair attacks that are thinly disguised anti-Semitism. At the same time, Israel has to do a lot more to ensure that its conduct is beyond reproach. We won't ever satisfy the real enemies of Israel, but we need to listen more to our friends, and we need to do more to correct real injustices, not just for the sake of others, but for the sake of a healthy Israeli society. Israel has to do its part
- I have previously advocated that Jewish education must be a central part of Zionism abroad
. It should be a concern of Israel
as well. Some lip service has been paid to this idea, but the Israeli government must give more than lip service. We need to establish and subsidize teachers' training programs for American Jewish teachers and perhaps we need to send some of our young people abroad as teachers or teacher's assistants in the framework of an enlarged national service program. This cannot be a tiny corner of the Israeli budget and national effort. It has to be a vast effort. It is a much better investment than subsidized ultra-orthodox Yeshivot
. Israel has a trade surplus and a healthy economy. It is past time to start weaning Israel from American Jewish charity and time to start paying back to the American Jewish community, while there is still an American Jewish Community to support. Israel must come to the American Jewish community with hands outstretched to give, rather than to take, and the American Jewish establishment likewise has to come to individual Jews bearing spiritual and actual gifts, rather than only bringing charity boxes.
Give Judaism back to the people, and at least some of the people will come back to Judaism. Ami Isseroff
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Replies: 2 Comments
There is always money to do what is important and what is needed and I hinted at some of the ways to raise that money. Perhaps I was not explicit enough:
- Chabad and other ultraorthodox do everything on the cheap and they get a lot done.
- A lot of labor costs can be eliminated by volunteer work.
- Web sites are NOT expensive.
- Israel can give about half a billion dollars or more that is currently being used to pay for Yeshiva students.
- United Israel Appeal money can and should be used for Jewish causes in the USA.
- U.S. Jews should be paying for content and substance rather than BS and ostentation. The $8,000 wasted on a Bar Mitzvah party should go to pay for a year of someone's education. Pay scale of Rabbis seems to be in inverse proportion to their knowledge and commitment to Judaism. Hebrew education can be done by volunteers from Israel and by others once they are trained.
- A synagogue does not have to be housed in a great expensive edifice. It can have more floor space and seats and less false grandeur if that is all that people can afford. Store-front black baptist churches often have a lot more content than fancy edifices. Judaism should not be the exclusive province of a rich establishment who dictate the tone. Students and young people especially would probably be happier in less ostentatious surroundings.
Ami Isseroff, Friday, October 17th
Shalom Ami -
I share many of your opinions, but I note a fundamental contradiction. You are saying on the one hand that money should not be the issue, but on the other you are advocating what would appear to be a VERY expensive program, and worse, one that would require a highly decentralized organizational structure that would make fundraising very difficult. For that reason, as much as I like and approve of what you are saying, I fear it has almost zero chance of ever becoming reality.
Unfortunately, I am afraid that all any of us can do to stem the trends you correctly identify is to simply live our own lives as examples, showing others that one can be Jewish without being a fanatic, one can identify without living in a ghetto, and that being a member of our people is part and parcel of whatever other professional or social identity we might have - AND that we are proud of that, and that we are knowledgeable. That is not a program, that is not a movement, it is just the actions of individuals.
I wish there were better news.
Mark Kennet, Friday, October 17th
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