The Year In Review
At the start of the Jewish year last Rosh Hashana, American Jews seemed on the cusp of fulfilling all their dreams. This year the major terrorist attack on American soil will no doubt have overshadowed every other event of the year.
Last year, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jew to appear on a major party presidential ticket, was running for vice president. And while his religious speeches at times seemed to threaten the church-state wall most American Jews revere, Lieberman’s Jewishness generally was considered more an asset than a liability in swaying undecided Christian voters.
Even before Lieberman, Jewish leaders had grown accustomed to unprecedented access to the White House under President Bill Clinton, whose dream of Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed about to bear fruit.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had engineered a Lebanon withdrawal expected to ameliorate Israel’s longtime pariah status in the United Nations, and he seemed on the verge of signing a deal with the Palestinians.
With external threats vanishing, American Jewry appeared free to focus on the decade-long struggle to strengthen Jewish identity. Already, panicky rhetoric about continuity and intermarriage had fallen out of vogue in mainstream Jewish circles, replaced by talk of "renaissance and renewal" and "Jewish journeys."
But by the end of the holidays, fortunes and morale had plummeted.
The Palestinians’ rejection of Barak’s Camp David offer suddenly grew into a violent uprising marked by stone throwing, mortar attacks, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings.
The dramatically changed climate sparked confusion and soul-searching among the mainstream American Jewish community. Words like "peace" and "partnership" gave way to the mantra of "solidarity," although few agreed just how solidarity could best be demonstrated.
Instead, Israel criticized American Jews for being sluggish to rush to its defense, while Jewish leaders privately grumbled about the Israeli government’s failure to articulate a clear plan of action or make its case to the world media.
American Jewish college students, many of them ignorant about Israel, were caught unprepared for a wave of anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses.
The federation system’s United Jewish Communities, still stumbling for direction and vision as it completed a lengthy and costly merger, pledged to send solidarity missions, talked about a special fundraising campaign and planned a national rally, which will take place Sept. 23 in New York.
But in the end, no one could agree on a focus for the fundraising campaign, and the 2,600 people who traveled to Israel on UJC solidarity missions couldn’t make up for the thousands of individuals and Jewish groups that canceled trips, leaving Israel’s tourism industry in a shambles.
Tensions over solidarity intensified in June, when the Reform movement — saying that it "never uses other people’s children to make a political or ideological point" — canceled its summer youth trips to Israel.
Around the same time, the American team for the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, urged Israel to postpone this summer’s event, though it ultimately agreed to send a team. The Reform movement resumed trips to Israel this fall, citing improved security measures for group trips.
Israel was not the only locus of angst.
In what was the most maddeningly close and prolonged presidential election in U.S. history, elderly Florida Jews accidentally voting for Patrick Buchanan — a far-right politician often accused of anti-Semitism — may have cast the decisive "butterfly ballots" against the first Jewish vice president.
When George W. Bush entered the White House in January, he installed the
least-Jewish Cabinet in years and brought a right-wing agenda that rankled most Jewish groups.
Just days after Bush’s inauguration, high-ranking Jewish leaders found themselves at the center of a national scandal over Clinton’s last-minute pardon of fugitive Jewish financier Marc Rich.
Rich, who allegedly flouted trade embargoes with Iran and bilked the U.S. government of millions of dollars in taxes, had donated generously to scores of Israeli and American Jewish groups and was one of 14 individuals to give $5 million to Birthright Israel, an international partnership sending young Jews on free trips to Israel.
Lobbying and letters from Rich’s beneficiaries, along with advocacy from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, helped obtain the controversial pardon. Among the friends of Rich were Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League; Marlene Post of Hadassah and Birthright Israel; mega-philanthropist and Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt; and Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and president of Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network.
Greenberg’s pardon letter, sent out on Holocaust museum letterhead, infuriated several members of Congress and the museum’s board, who unsuccessfully tried to force him to resign.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was the only mainstream Jewish leader to speak out forcefully on the Rich matter, saying Rich’s support from the Jewish community was "bought" and that the Jewish community failed an "important moral test" by participating in Rich’s campaign.
Other scandals also rocked the community.
The Orthodox Union confronted public revelations that a high-ranking employee, Rabbi Baruch Lanner, was accused of sexually abusing more than 20 teenagers in the O.U.’s youth group.
An umbrella for hundreds of Orthodox synagogues and a kashrut-certification powerhouse, the O.U. appointed an independent commission to investigate the matter, and the three employees most directly involved in the matter resigned.
However, some angry Orthodox congregants accused top officials of knowingly covering up the issue for years. Others criticized the Orthodox Union for not making public the commission’s full 332-page report.
In another rabbinic sexual misconduct issue, one of Reform Jewry’s titans, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, was suspended from the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis for two years. Zimmerman resigned as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, although his misconduct — the details of which were never disclosed — had occurred before he took the HUC job.
A few months later, Birthright Israel raised some eyebrows when it hired Zimmerman as executive vice president of its U.S. operations.
There were many leadership challenges in Jewish organizations. "The major institutions of North American Jewish life — federations, synagogues and national agencies — are all sort of in a situation in which that which they relied upon in the past is no longer fully relevant or workable, and yet a new set of identities and functions aren’t very clear," according to Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation.
One of the year’s sources of energy and hope, however, was Birthright Israel, despite its ties to the Rich and Zimmerman affairs. The group sent approximately 14,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel this winter and spring, though it had to deplete its once-long waiting lists to fill plane seats.
Several Jewish leaders started speaking of Birthright not just as a potential solution to assimilation, but as an incubator to identify potential Jewish educators and rabbis.
Barely noticed by Israelis last year, the Diaspora 20-somethings were welcomed to Israel this year with open arms.
While some lamented the fact that the crisis in Israel distracted organizations from strategic planning and domestic soul-searching, the Jewish "renaissance" continued.
Several new day schools opened throughout the country, increasing numbers of adults enrolled in Jewish courses and a piece of feminist Midrash — Anita Diamant’s "The Red Tent" — became a national best seller.
Eighteen Reform synagogues signed on to Synagogue 2000, a rigorous program that helps congregations rethink their missions and meet their members’ spiritual needs, and a large multi-denominational bloc of New York-area synagogues is expected to begin the program this fall.
The UJC and Charles and Lynne Schusterman Foundation convened the first national conference on outreach to unmarried Jews in their 20s and 30s, a growing and largely unaffiliated demographic group.
But new research findings highlighted one potential challenge to outreach efforts: the ideological chasm between the institutions and most American Jews. A national survey showed that more than half of American Jews believe it is "racist" to oppose intermarriage and that rabbis should officiate at marriages between Jews and non-Jews.
Such views run counter to the teachings of even the most liberal of Jewish streams: less than half of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis — the only rabbis permitted to do so — officiate at mixed marriages. If anything, Reform is moving closer to tradition, this year approving more rigorous guidelines for conversion to Judaism than had previously been the norm.
Other heavily discussed research — notably Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s "The Jew Within" and Bethamie Horowitz’s "Connections and Journeys" — showed that most American Jews are very individualistic in how they express their Jewishness, and are not necessarily interested in the obligations demanded by traditional Jewish institutions like synagogues.
"We are beginning to understand that Jewish identity is much more complicated than people thought and can’t just be measured in candles lit or ritual behavior,” said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s Jewish Life Program.
How far that understanding will advance in the year that begins this September remains to be seen.