April 19, 2019

Club Z Panel Focuses on Zionism and American Jewry

Photo courtesy of Club Z.

Club Z, a Zionist youth organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, held a panel on January 20 during their Youth Zionist Leadership Forum discussing Zionism and American Jewry.

The panel began with Kasim Hafeez, the founder of The Israel Campaign, who discussed how the biggest challenge facing Diaspora Jews “is the Jewish community” because he thinks there seems to be an attitude of doing nothing in response to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism because “it could be worse.”

“I’ve never seen that attitude in my life,” Hafeez said.

Hafeez later added that it seems to stem from this “neurosis” about asking “what can I do to stop you from beating me up.”

“It makes no sense,” Hafeez said.

Hafeez said that there are always going to be people who are going to “make you feel bad about who you are” and the way to confront it is to “be proud of who you are” and not view Israel as a “burden.”

Ryan Bellerose, founding member of Canadians United for Israel, recalled how, in downtown Calgary, six Jewish Zionists that he knew were attacked by a crowd of 100 pro-Palestinian protesters for showing support for Israel. Bellerose said that there was initially “absolute silence” from the Jewish community in Calgary over the incident.

He added that four of the pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested and, as a result of Canadian law, their sentence was a fine and to write an essay.

“Beat up some Jews, get some homework,” Bellerose said.

Bellerose singled out the progressive Jewish groups IfNotNow and All That’s Left for trying to “ostracize me out of the Jewish community, which is funny because I’m not Jewish” over his pro-Israel activism.

“The problem with IfNotNow and those groups is that they don’t have a firm Jewish identity,” Bellerose said. “They always talk about ‘my Jewish identity.’ Come on.”

Ran Bar-Yoshefat, the deputy director of the Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, said that the difference between American Jews and Israeli Jews is that American Jews view Judaism as a religion, whereas Israeli Jews view it as a nationality.

“Israelis are particularistics, usually American Jews are very universalistic,” Bar-Yoshefat said, an idea that Israelis take pride in being different while American Jews take pride in being like everybody else.

For instance, Bar-Yoshefat argued that American Jews tend to base Jewish identity “on being a good person,” a trait that he doesn’t think is unique to only Jews. He also doesn’t believe in there being Jewish values and leadership since he thinks that being Jewish is mainly a form of “identity.”

“For me to be Jewish, there has to be other words connected to it,” Bar-Yoshefat said.

He suggested that American Jews need to focus on establishing a Jewish identity among the youth, and that identity should include an unconditional love for Israel, even when there are disagreements in government policy.

When asked about the nature of pro-Palestinian students on college campuses, Hafeez said that such students, who are typically members of organizations like Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), will either walk out of his speaking events, ask questions or become “hostile.” Hafeez said he loves it when they become hostile since they typically “get laughed out of the event.”

Bellerose said that the best way to debate anti-Zionists is to “talk about identity” and ask them “what specifically is it about Israel that they hate so much.”

“They usually expose themselves pretty quickly,” Bellerose said.

On 41, 43 and the Original George Bush

George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, George Bush

Little noted in the remem-brances of former President George H.W.  Bush, including his loving eldest son’s, former President George W. Bush, is their namesake ancestor, professor George Bush (1796-1859), the distinguished 19th-century pioneer of Christian Zionism.

The scholar said of the Jewish people: “The dispersed and downcast remnant shall, one after another, turn their faces to Zion … find their way to the land of their fathers. … This will not only benefit the Jews, but all mankind, forming a link of communication between humanity and God.”

Professor Bush asserted this vision long before the activities of the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, and before the rise of the Zionist movement among world Jewry.

Bush was an ordained Presbyterian minister who became a professor of Hebrew and Oriental literature at New York University. His biblical scholarship convinced him of the prophecies foretelling the people of Israel’s return to their land.

In 1844, the professor published his studies in a landmark book, “The Valley of Vision: or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived,” rooted in the prophecies of Ezekiel in the Bible. “The Valley of Vision” sold more than 1 million copies, a publishing rarity before the Civil War. It turned Bush into a national voice calling for the restoration of the Jewish people to their historic homeland.

His writings had a deep impact in shaping the public’s views about the Jews and their ancestral homeland, including informing author Mark Twain and Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

Bush and other courageous voices of Christian Zionism set the stage for America, a century later, to be the first country to recognize the reborn State of Israel and to remain its steadfast ally in the decades since.

Although President George H.W. Bush (41) and his advisers James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, particularly, had some rough moments vis-a-vis Israel, namely confronting the Israeli government and halting funding for refugee resettlement, Bush 41 went out of his way to assist in the liberation and rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. His advisers were deeply troubled by the Jewish left and the ideological partisanship of American Jewry. Though President Ronald Reagan had warm support in the American Jewish community, his successor did not.

However, by the time President George W. Bush (43) came into office, the son had a deeply pro-Israel perspective, famously underscored in his helicopter ride over the Israeli landscape, where he saw how tiny the waist of Israel was and how endangered it was by its enemies. He remarked, “We have driveways in Texas longer than Israel’s width.”

Bush 43’s grandfather, Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, like elder statesman Ambassador Joseph Kennedy in the 1930s, was closer to the German government and the Arab nations than to the victimized pre-Israel European Jewish community. But, like President John F. Kennedy and his brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was murdered by a Palestinian Arab in Los Angeles for being “too supportive of Israel,” President Bush 43 grew to respect Jewish history and to adopt the original and classic philo-semitism, restorationism and Christian Zionism of his namesake ancestor.

In the two-term presidency of George W. Bush, American Jews and Israelis alike came to admire his deeply affectionate moral commitment to the longstanding strategic alliance between the United States and the restored Jewish state.


Larry Greenfield is a fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.

1,500 Attend L.A. Vigil for Pittsburgh Shooting Victims

An estimated 1,500 people from all Jewish walks of life turned out to the vigil in Westwood for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. Photo by Allie Levin

On Oct. 27, Shiva Mehrannia was observing Shabbat at the Young Sephardic Community Center in Pico-Robertson when someone stood up to announce that a terrible shooting had taken place at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Mehrannia could not believe her ears.

“I was very disturbed,” she recalled while attending a candlelight vigil at the West Los Angeles Federal Building in Westwood on Oct. 28, one day after alleged gunman Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and shot at worshippers during Saturday morning services, killing 11 and wounding six.

L.A. Vigil for Tree of Life

The L.A. Community honors and remembers the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting.

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, October 29, 2018

An estimated 1,500 people — seeking comfort, answers and solace in the wake of what has been called the deadliest attack ever against American Jewry — came to the vigil that featured interfaith leaders, elected officials and Jewish community members of every denomination,

Jay Sanderson, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was among the speakers.

“The truth is, 11 people died in that synagogue and a piece of all of us died in that synagogue, Jewish and not Jewish,” Sanderson said in a phone interview the day after the vigil. “We are all one community. We all go to a house of worship, a synagogue in this particular case, because we feel safe and want to pray and feel connected to God.”

“I remain heartbroken about the event,” he said.

Additional speakers and participants in the gathering included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg; Rabbis Sharon Brous, Jason Weiner, David Wolpe, Benjamin Ross and Susan Goldberg; Cantor Lizzie Weiss and organizer David Bocarsly.

“The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the people who were murdered in the shocking massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh,” Grundwerg said. “On behalf of myself, the Consulate of Israel here in Los Angeles, the Government of Israel and the people of Israel, from the depth of our hearts, I send our condolences to the families who lost their loved ones.” 

The event also featured Christian and Muslim religious leaders, including Pastor Carlos Rincon of Centro de Vida Victoriosa Church in East Los Angeles, the Reverend Kelvin Sauls of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

“The breadth of people at this event — of all different ages, of all different religious backgrounds, standing with one another — it’s hugely powerful to our hearts and souls,” said Temple Akiba Rabbi Zach Shapiro in an interview. “Just as people said ‘I am Charlie Hebdo,’ just as they said ‘I am Charleston,’ today the entire world is saying ‘I am Jewish,’ and it means the world to us.”

“Just as people said ‘I am Charlie Hebdo,’ just as they said ‘I am Charleston,’ today the entire world is saying ‘I am Jewish,’ and it means the world to us.”
— Rabbi Zach Shapiro

Wearing a T-shirt that said “Love is Love,” featuring an image of five Jewish stars forming a multicolored chain, Shapiro attended the vigil with his husband, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, who told the Journal the shooting in Pittsburgh “is a wake-up and a reminder we have so much work to do in this country.”

An estimated 1,500 people from all Jewish walks of life turned out to the vigil in Westwood for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. Photo by Amira Alhassan

While the event aimed to be apolitical, the more than 75 groups organizing or endorsing the event included progressive groups such as Bend the Arc: Jewish Action and IfNotNow, which have criticized President Donald Trump’s rhetoric for emboldening extremists, including the Pittsburgh shooter. 

Aside from the occasional anti-Trump sign — one large sign held on the edge of the vigil called for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to go — the gathering focused on denouncing anti-Semitism and expressing Jewish pride. 

Addressing the crowd as they held memorial candles glowing in the darkness just after sunset, Temple Isaiah Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles turned to Proverbs 20:27.

“The soul of the person is the candle of God,” she said, before reading the names of the victims, leading the crowd in the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and calling for a moment of silence. The chanting of “We are Jews” followed.

The vigil was one of several tributes held in Los Angeles in response to the attack in Pittsburgh. On Oct. 29, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles held a private ceremony at its Beverly Grove headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. That evening, L.A. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield held a vigil at L.A. City Hall and several Modern Orthodox synagogues held a prayer session at Beth Jacob Congregation.

The Federation and the American Jewish Committee also encouraged people to attend Shabbat services on Nov. 3 in solidarity with the victims of the attack.

At a vigil at the Wilshire Federal Building for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue, people brought along memorial candles to mourn those killed in the attack. Photo by Amira Alhassan

“We are convening nationally this ‘Solidarity Shabbat’ on Saturday to make sure every single synagogue in this community, as well as every synagogue nationally, gets to celebrate Shabbat but also recognize the tremendous loss of life in Pittsburgh,” Sanderson said.

Mehrannia said she did not need an organized initiative to compel her to go to synagogue. As the vigil crowd began to disperse, she said the only way the Jewish community can demonstrate that extremists like the Pittsburgh shooter have not won is to continue leading a Jewish life. 

“We’re Jews,” she said. “I feel connected to people all over the world, and I want to show [the anti-Semites] they can keep trying to kill us, but we’re united and we’re not scared. We’re going to continue going to synagogue and continue being together and loving each other and showing support.” 

Conservative Rabbis Can Now Attend Interfaith Marriages

Conservative rabbis are now allowed to attend interfaith weddings according to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Though many have found ways to celebrate interfaith simchas since the rule wasn’t strictly enforced, the new rule allows rabbis to attend ceremonies without facing penalties.

The decision was made last Friday, Oct. 19 in a vote of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on JLS, which determines Conservative Jewish legal rulings.

According to a statement provided by the Rabbinical Assembly, the committee’s ruling states “Attendance as a guest at a wedding where only one party is Jewish is not included in this Standard of Religious Practice.”

The decision reverses more than four decades of rumors that the movement’s rabbis would lose their position if they even attended an interfaith wedding.

According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, as of 2005-2013, 58 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith marriages. Before 1970 it was 18 percent.

“Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States,” according to the poll. “One-third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism.”

The decision to lift the ban shows American Jews that the Conservative movement is slowing changing the way they look at interfaith marriages in order to make the Jewish community more inclusive.

This important standard [officiating Jewish couples], however, does not preclude our welcoming and reaching out to intermarried couples and families, as we believe it is also important to create positive rabbinic relationships with both the Jewish and non-Jewish member of such a couple,” the RA said.

To read the full Conservative Movement code of conduct click here.  

Note to the General Assembly: We Need to Listen

“We Need to Talk,” the theme of this year’s Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly in Tel Aviv, sounds like what people usually say before they terminate a relationship. Of course, for Israeli and American Jewry, termination is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The relationship may be strained but a break-up is inconceivable. The very purpose of this annual gathering is to strengthen communal bonds.

As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in his welcoming address at the three-day conference on Oct. 21, “We are not strategic allies. We are a family. We are one big family. We don’t have only shared interests — we have a shared faith, history and future.”

This family, though, has become dysfunctional. The relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry seems to be getting worse every year.

Chemi Shalev, the Israeli commentator for Haaretz, wrote that the General Assembly’s bold theme was a “desperate plea” to save Israel-U.S. Jewish ties.

In other words, things have gotten so bad and have been allowed to fester for so long that this is no time to mince words. So, we might as well go for an intervention: “Hey, Israel, it’s gone too far.  We need to talk.”

Shalev may be right that the theme betrayed a sense of desperation, but that is precisely why it wasn’t the best choice of words. If we are desperate to save a relationship, we shouldn’t use a phrase that reinforces that desperation. 

I can appreciate how the organizers needed to show that it’s no longer business as usual in the relationship. As Shalev wrote, “Even if one interprets ‘We need to talk’ in the most positive way possible, it still denotes serious disagreements that can no longer be ignored.”

“Listening is more difficult to do than talking. Jews talk all the time. The problem is that, too often, we talk past each other.

We can agree, then, that it was time to make a provocative statement that would capture the urgency of the moment. But is “talk” the right word? I don’t think so.

Imagine if the theme would have been, “We need to listen.” That would have been even more provocative, because listening is more difficult to do than talking. Jews talk all the time. The problem is that, too often, we talk past each other. 

What we need is not more talking but more listening, from both sides.

Am I making too big a deal of an event slogan? Not if you consider that the theme for such a major gathering is not just for the attendees; it’s also for the whole Jewish world. It sets the tone for the rest of the year. “We need to listen” should become the driving mantra to repair communal bonds throughout all Jewish communities.

I wasn’t at the GA this year, but I hear it had some terrific events and panels. I saw a few online. I’m sure there was a lot of listening. My point is that, in terms of communal aspiration, the word “listening” is more powerful than the word “talking.”   

I’m sure the GA’s organizers would agree. In fact, JFNA President Jerry Silverman, in an interview on JPost.com, said that “increased understanding was required both from Israelis and Diaspora Jews of each other’s concerns.”

How do we get to “increased understanding”? Through better and deeper listening.

As we move forward, American Jews could listen better to Israelis’ new security concerns. For example, according to a report this week on Ynet, instead of basing precision missile factories in Syria, Iran is now transferring the missiles directly to Hezbollah. Why is this a potential disaster? Because precision missiles can wreak havoc not just on civilian centers but on military centers, air force bases, power stations and even Israel’s nuclear reactors.

“We should also recognize another imbalance: There is no Israeli GA that shows up in New York or Los Angeles to critique the failures of American Jewry.”

This kind of existential danger ought to put our relationship problems in perspective. It’s not just a talking point on one side of the ledger. It’s fundamental to appreciating the completely different context in which Israelis live.

We in America have every right to express our concerns about Israel’s failures, and we will continue to do so over the coming year. And yes, Israelis should listen. But American Jews can also be better at internalizing the Israeli reality of living in a state of virtual siege, under constant threat of annihilation. If that doesn’t buy a little understanding, I don’t know what does.

We should also recognize another imbalance: There is no Israeli GA that shows up in New York or Los Angeles to critique the failures of American Jewry — like, for example, the failure to address the new generation’s vanishing Jewish identity.

When that day comes, I hope we in America will listen as well as we expect Israelis to listen. After all, we are one big family.

Reinventing Liberal Judaism

The drop-off in congregational membership, the aging of mainstream religious supporters, and the corresponding rise in the number of nonpracticing Jews represent some of the striking indicators of a religious free-fall that today defines American Jewry. These demographic realities pose significant challenges to our respective liberal Jewish movements. In this post-modern world, it is time to reinvent liberal Judaism.

Nor are these patterns of religious disengagement distinctive to American Jewry. The 2015 Religious Landscape Study sponsored by the Pew Research Center confirms similar trends within Christianity. The data among Protestant mainstream congregations indeed are striking and instructive. Since the 1950s, mainstream churches have represented only one-fifth of all Protestant congregations. In the past 50 years, mainstream church membership has declined by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people. We are the beneficiaries of the American church experience and the behavior of the broader marketplace, where institutional transitions are the norm.

In the 19th century, American Judaism adopted the denominational patterns of the Christian world. Today, the luxury of maintaining these various distinctive religious expressions that dot the Jewish landscape can no longer be sustained. We are the inheritors of a bifurcated system of multiple, even duplicative and competitive forms of Jewish offerings that may no longer be structurally, ideologically or economically viable. “Silo Judaism” is not the model for 21st-ccentury American Judaism. More to the point, can we establish a shared understanding of what liberal Judaism might represent for this century?

Proposals for religious recalibration are occurring across the landscape among American church organizations. Mergers and collaborative arrangements are driving institutional transformation elsewhere within American society. Over the past several decades, there have been various constituencies within the liberal Jewish camp seeking primarily to reinvent the structures and functions associated with the institutions of liberal Judaism. “Synagogue 2000 (3000)” operated as a manifestation of this approach to change specific activities and operational cultures. Various think tanks and individual writers have put forth articles and books offering new models of liberal Jewish practice in line with the changing operational framework that today is defining and shaping American religious life. In several different quarters, one finds proposals introducing alternative dues structures, governance arrangements and management models.

The very idea of “denomination” or the imposition of such terms as “affiliation,” “membership” and “dues” reflect language and practices that are out of favor with millennials. But the issues before us must not be seen as merely a structural reinvention of liberal Judaism.

Do we really require separate denominational movements that reflect the ideological mix of a liberal Jewish tradition formed more than a century ago? The structural patterns currently in place within American Judaism are based on a competitive economic model. It will be incumbent on the Jewish community to emulate what others in the nonprofit sector already have established. The practice of institutional competition will need to give way to a culture of collaboration.

In moving forward with these ideas, will we be able to find common ground among our rabbinic leaders and synagogue laity representing our respective movements? What forms of intellectual synergy can occur among seminary scholars? Ultimately, how might our congregations and seminaries benefit from such cross-denominational exchanges, and what will be the impact on the quality of Jewish life for congregants and those beyond its doors?

Can anyone imagine in this city, for example, that instead of having three seminaries for the training of our next generation of liberal clergy and Jewish professionals, we consider the merger of the American Jewish University, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Academy for Jewish Religion? Is it possible to envision that if one belonged to one congregation within Los Angeles that synagogue membership would permit individuals and families the opportunity to enjoy the resources, services and activities of the affiliated liberal institutions that are part of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal communities of Southern California?

What might be the possibilities of a collaborative religious educational system, enabling our kids to study in jointly sponsored, community-supported Jewish learning centers? Could we establish a program ensuring that all kids affiliated with one of our participating congregations be guaranteed a Jewish camping experience or the opportunity to become part of one of our youth movements? Can we consider a collective effort to invite every young family to enroll their kids in Jewish pre-school programs underwritten in part by synagogues, foundations and federation? Can we conceivably imagine our institutional rabbis operating as community resource educators?

We are reminded that “movements,” and for that matter, religious institutions in general, were designed to be vehicles for permitting our congregants the access points to express their Jewishness. And indeed, over the past 150 years, our synagogues and schools in this nation did successfully assist Jews in articulating their personal and collective religious expressions. This has been no small accomplishment, as our seminaries and umbrella synagogue organizations have served these past generations of our people, helping them to construct a viable and dynamic collective Jewish experience. As the religious economy expanded, we as a community benefited from the competitive presence of multiple institutional options, where American Jews have enjoyed an array of choices.

On a number of occasions in American history, this society has experienced periods of religious revivalism and renewal. American Judaism has been responsive to these trends. Throughout the course of American-Jewish history, we can identify various patterns of institutional expansion, only to be followed by countervailing periods of organizational integration, leading to mergers or to the formation of new entities designed to expand upon the work product of their predecessor institutions. Organizations, we need to realize, experience a form of life expectancy. When they no longer resonate with the body politic, they atrophy and become caught up in the economics of downsizing, ultimately leading to their demise.

In formulating any new arrangements, it is imperative that any such joint initiatives respect the legitimacy of the principles of faith and halachah of our various partners. Indeed, there are creative ways to give standing to these distinctive and essential expressions.

However, in today’s Jewish marketplace, it is necessary to consider innovative forms of Jewish religious expression, and the proposals introduced above merely represent a few of the exciting possibilities. Without rethinking our existing system, we will continue to witness a patchwork of institutional practices, possibly leading to further decline and ultimately to the demise of some of the core components of this experiment in Jewish-liberal religious culture, a condition not radically different from what has been unfolding within Protestant America.

The attention here toward re-creating this religious model is driven by the emergence of a “new American Jew.” These transformational behavioral changes are taking place as Jews enter the fourth and fifth generations of their American experience. Younger Jews are increasingly modeling the social mores of the mainstream culture. The shift away from the collective welfare of the community to a distinctive focus on the “sovereign self” may represent the central feature to this new order. In this context, “individualized choice” has minimized the value and primacy of institutional affiliation. What seems to be evolving is the emergence of a different type of American Jew and a privatized American Judaism.

The very idea of “denomination” or the imposition of such terms as “affiliation,” “membership” and “dues” reflect language and practices that are out of favor with millennials. But the issues before us must not be seen as merely a structural reinvention of liberal Judaism. More immediate and compelling will be the messages we seek to convey as a religious tradition in an age when new social behaviors and patterns of institutional loyalty are strikingly different. Are we in a position to reach out to those who describe themselves as “seekers” and others who define themselves as religious “nones,” individuals who no longer view themselves as having any formal ties to a faith community? Do the liberal voices of American Jewry have something compelling to share with contemporary audiences?

It is an age when those who hold congregational affiliation and those who sit outside our synagogue doors are struggling with the same issues about the essence of life, the role of ritual, the importance of faith, the nature of our connection to Israel, definitions of God, etc. This may be an extraordinary moment to energize these conversations and create new models of practice by providing a framework for reimaging contemporary liberal Judaism.

American-Jewish liberal religion represents a broad spectrum of ideas, practices and rituals, and that in reality ought to be seen as the strength of such a collective endeavor. Four principles will need to drive this national conversation concerning our future, where our movements’ leaders together envision a new framework for collective action:

Intellectual engagement: We have much to learn and share with one another. To date, such exchanges have occurred sporadically but now need to be systematic and with intention.

Economic entrepreneurship: There are multiple ways in which our movements can creatively collaborate in order to construct new economies of operation and in turn be able to reach out to serve more Jews who remain disconnected and unaffiliated. The changes that are occurring on the ground must be driven in part by the realities that exist today around America’s “religious economy,” which has not maintained its competitive edge. Rising costs along with diminishing numbers do not represent a prescription for maintaining the status quo or growing our messages.

 

This venture will not occur without the presence of a bold and creative cohort of Jewish leaders who are prepared to ask the difficult and unsettling questions, setting aside their egos and self-interests in favor of embracing the revolution that must occur within board rooms and beyond.

Political partnerships: This moment marks an appropriate point to frame a shared progressive Jewish agenda, especially at a time when many within our communities of faith are seeking the input of religious leadership in being responsive to the social and cultural challenges before us.

Collective responsibility: Our movements have a unique opportunity to serve the thousands of Jews who today simply define themselves as “just Jewish” as well as to reach out to college students and young adults bereft of an understanding of the richness of Judaism, its traditions and core values.

Beyond the Jewish world, we now have evidence about the various beneficial aspects of such a mega-union of congregations and related institutions within American Christianity; I would argue the merits of a collaborative model can capture the best that each of these individual institutions and movements can provide. Possibly more significant, and clearly more impressive, are the structural and policy changes being introduced into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Francis, who is constructing a new vision of how the Vatican and the other primary instruments of church practice will be organized. Even more dramatic are the new messages of the Roman Catholic Church today around critical issues of a spiritual and social context designed to appeal to a different generation of believers.

Successful synagogues, innovative “startup” models of religious engagement, and other forms of creative spiritual expression ought to be our first laboratories of learning. Inside the Jewish world, there already exists ample evidence of the integrative practices associated with our movements, as curriculum, liturgy and professional personnel are crossing institutional borders on a daily basis. Synagogue mergers involving at times congregations from different denominational tracks are taking place, further confirming that the seeds for this national endeavor already have been set in motion.

For most of those sitting in our pews, attending our camps and day schools and studying in our religious school classrooms share a similar mindset about their Jewish religious encounter. Their behaviors reflect an inherent sameness in terms of how they understand and practice contemporary Judaism. For certain, denominational labels and loyalties do not generally shape their identities as 21st- century Jews. Yet, most liberal Jews take great pride in being Jewish and in acknowledging their shared Jewish connections with other like-minded co-religionists. But as active participants in this age of consumerism, our congregants fully appreciate the costs associated with “doing Jewish.” The lay and professional leaders involved in operating synagogues and providing for our national organizational systems ought to foster a conversation on the Jewish future keeping in mind the collective interests and social behaviors of the thousands of families and individuals who will be the beneficiaries of this new partnership.

What might be the essential benefits that emerge from such an initiative? These may well include an expansion of programmatic and service options, the introduction of operational efficiencies, expanded brand recognition, the growth of political influence, the capacity to encourage and promote professional excellence, the acceleration of social media and the introduction of other forms of communication technology. In managing its contentious relationships with the religious and political authorities inside the State of Israel, a united liberal Jewish voice would seem to be of particular importance.

Four key components will be essential for leading this denominational transformation:

Embrace the challenge: Vision and the capacity for audacious thinking must trump mediocrity and narrow options.

Leadership assertiveness: This venture will not occur without the presence of a bold and creative cohort of Jewish leaders who are prepared to ask the difficult and unsettling questions, setting aside their egos and self-interests in favor of embracing the revolution that must occur within board rooms and beyond.

Reaffirming the essential: Reclaiming the essential and the sacred of our tradition ought to be the essence of this new venture, as we empower and engage the next generation of liberal Jews.

Build from the bottom: Historically, we organized from the top down; in this culture, the principles of best practice require that we build from the bottom up as well. This is about testing different models of educating and involving Jews as it is about redesigning the roles that rabbis, educators, cantors and communal professionals perform in serving our youth, embracing our elderly and educating our young families and in transforming our institutions.

The re-envisioning of American Judaism needs to begin. It offers, in my mind, a variety of unique opportunities and no doubt, a level of unknown challenges. Such conversations will require creative leaders operating out of a different organizational paradigm. It calls upon communal institutions and funders to rethink the economic framework of how we invest and reallocate resources necessary to frame this new organizing model.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writings can be found on thewindreport.com. A version of this article originally appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com.

Elie Wiesel a Dissident? 

Elie Wiesel.

When one thinks of the late Elie Wiesel, one envisions him as the embodiment of Jewish values and a central part of the Jewish community. In an essay in the Daily Beast in July 2016, Gil Troy, professor of history at Montreal’s McGill University, wrote,  “[His] faith in democracy and humanity, despite being scarred by totalitarianism and inhumanity, embodies America’s legendary optimism.”

However, at a recent talk at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Holocaust professor Michael Berenbaum said Wiesel was a dissident at heart, a man who actively challenged established doctrines, policies and institutions.

According to Berenbaum, Wiesel’s “dissident” status was revealed in five major areas:

The Holocaust
For Wiesel, the Holocaust was the central event of the modern Jewish experience. Said Berenbaum, “He was angry with American Jewry for not caring enough, not doing enough and not moving heaven and earth to save Jews during the Holocaust.” Berenbaum added that Wiesel said Jews have a responsibility to testify to what happens when there is no restraint on evil and idolatry triumphs.

The Nature of God
Wiesel asked: “How do we deal with a God who was absent during the Holocaust?” Berenbaum said although Wiesel wouldn’t state outright that God is dead, he saw man as God’s favorite toy. Berenbaum said, “Wiesel finally arrived at the conclusion: ‘We can’t depend on God to save us. We have to save ourselves.’ ”

“Elie Wiesel was angry with American Jewry for not caring enough, not doing enough and not moving heaven and earth to save Jews during the Holocaust.” — Michael Berenbaum

Soviet Jewry
In his book “The Jews of Silence,” Wiesel condemned world Jewry for not being willing to put everything on the line for Soviet Jews. Berenbaum said Wiesel was adamant that American Jewry had the power to act this time and they should, given that they had failed to act during the Holocaust.”

Bitburg Cemetery
When Wiesel met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House in April 1985, he said of the president’s proposed visit to Bitburg — a German military cemetery where some SS members were buried — “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” As a result of that meeting, “Reagan also visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and promised that America would “never forget” and went on to say, ‘Never again.’ ”

Challenging Jews to Fight Genocide
One of Wiesel’s central messages, according to Berenbaum, was that “in extreme situations when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin.” Wiesel condemned American Jewry as the Jews of Silence, and raged against Jewish passivity, indifference and complacency.

What was this dissident’s greatest gift to us?
Perhaps it was his insight into the nature of transformation. Said Berenbaum, Wiesel acknowledged, “You cannot transform the entire world, but you can transform your part of it, starting with transforming yourself. If you cannot cure the disease, you can still heal the person.”


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and various sitcom staffs. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

An assessment: Is Charlottesville a watershed moment for American Jews?

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his responses to the deaths and injuries at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (L) at his side in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Moral clarity is an important part of political life. Thus, that the first few days after Charlottesville were dedicated to shock and indignation is understandable. Pragmatic assessment of a situation is also an important part of political life. Thus, it is time to examine Charlottesville and its consequences with clear eyes and search for its true practical meaning.

I will try doing this from a Jewish perspective.

What is the Jewish perspective?

There is a wider definition of a Jewish perspective in this case and a narrower one. The wider perspective is to argue that all elements of this crisis have something to do with a Jewish perspective. For example, according to this perspective the questions concerning the fate of Robert E. Lee statues across America – e.g., should they stay or be removed? – are Jewish questions. They are Jewish questions because Jews in America have something to say about them, and because many of these Jews will be using Jewish sources and their understanding of Jewish morals to formulate and justify their positions on this matter.

A narrower Jewish perspective is the one of Jewish survival. Of course, such an approach to Charlottesville is somewhat problematic, as Jews, rightfully, feel that they have a lot to say about the larger issues haunting America. But in other ways the narrow approach is useful. It is useful because it does not involve debatable notions about the meaning of Jewish values. It is useful because it is more focused and hence can allow a clearer analysis.

I will stick with the narrower approach.

The perspective of Jewish survival

The American Jewish community is one of the most impressive in Jewish history. It is vibrant and strong, confident and influential, self-sustaining and outward looking. It is truly a marvel, the jewel in the Jewish crown.

All Jews ought to want this community to keep thriving.

So the question about Charlottesville is as follows: was this an event that somehow threatens the continuous thriving of the American Jewish community?

To answer such questions, we need to examine the different scenarios that could potentially lead to Charlottesville becoming a watershed event in the life of the American Jewish community.

How many neo-Nazis?

Neo-Nazis are generally bad for Jewish survival. They make the lives of Jews less comfortable, they make Jewish institutions vulnerable, they impose on every Jew a dilemma: Is Judaism important enough for a Jew to take the risk of a clash with bigoted and violent people?

There were Jew haters in Charlottesville – that we know. Their numbers were not great – that we also know. According to many reports, “Hundreds of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and others were involved, by some estimates, in what Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, called the nation’s biggest such event in a decade or more.”

So, it was “hundreds.” And it was the “biggest such event in a decade.” If the biggest such event can only draw hundreds of racists, the threat to Jews does not seem significant, not if we count the sheer visible power of these groups of anti-Semites.

What is the public’s reaction?

The public has no inclination to support the type of racist rhetoric and views that we’ve seen in Charlottesville. Support for the Ku Klux Klan is 2 percent, according to a recent survey. Support for “white nationalists” is 4 percent. Only a quarter of Americans said in this poll that the response of President Trump to events in Charlottesville was “strong enough,” with a majority believing it was not strong enough – thus emphasizing that in their view condemnation of the racist demonstrators should have been stronger.

So the Jews are worried, and should worry, about a small number of neo-Nazis. But they currently have no immediate reason to worry that America is becoming less tolerant towards Jews or more supportive of racist groups. Is it likely that Charlottesville will be a watershed moment from which racist groups benefit? It is possible, but not likely.

What about the President?

The President clearly erred in his response to Charlottesville. His press conference was hardly his finest moment.

It was not his finest moment because, yet again, he proved to be deaf to the society over which he presides. There is also context to what a president must say at a certain time. Educating Americans on the importance of heritage and of statues, or on getting all the facts before making statements, or on the perils of using clubs on demonstrators – all this has a time and place. But in the context of Charlottesville, after a woman was murdered, after demonstrators chanted abhorrent slogans against other Americans, the president failed to grasp the moment. He failed to grasp that when he spoke in the same sentence or the same paragraph about “bad people” on “both sides.” What the good people hear is him putting all bad people on the “same moral plane.”

What does this tell us about Trump? It does not tell us that he is a racist or a bigot. It does not tell us that he supports racists or bigots. It does not tell us that he puts political priorities before morality (no sane person can see him politically benefiting from the occurrences of the last few days). It tells us what we already know – that he is an undisciplined, disorganized, contrarian, immature president. It tells us bad enough things about him, without us having to attribute to him what he did not intend to say.

So what about the President?

If you accept my understanding of the President’s actions and words – admittedly, a relatively benign understanding of it – worries about the president ought to also be benign. Yes, there is reason to worry, because a key element in keeping fringe groups isolated and small is to have them delegitimized by the political system, and the president was not clear enough in doing that.

Still, because I assume that Trump is not a secret admirer of white nationalist groups, I also assume (and hope) that he will find the time to make his position clearer, and that he will instruct his administration to keep these bad people subdued.

But many Americans would not accept my understanding of the President’s actions and words. These Americans believe that the president is a supporter of white nationalist groups and their ideology. These Americans believe that Trump’s intention is to aid and abet the rise of groups with ugly ideologies.

If they are correct, there are two reasons for worry. One, support from the president gives these movements credence and prestige that they never had, and thus could gradually draw more Americans to support them. Two, support from the president means a less vigilant effort by the administration to battle against these groups. For example, it could mean a less than vigilant effort to identify and arrest Americans who act violently against Jewish institutions.

What will Jews do?

The response of Jews to Charlottesville is also important as we ponder our question: was this an event that somehow threatens the continuous thriving of the American Jewish community?

Jewish response to anti-Semitism, or to the threat of anti-Semitism, varies. But it has two main versions. One – to unite and fight. Two – to lower the profile and hide.

In Europe, where anti-Semitism is a more present problem for Jews, many of them choose to lower their profiles. As my colleague Dr. Dov Maimon of JPPI (the Jewish People Policy Institute) once described it: “the largest portion of European Jews has chosen to adopt a discrete Jewish profile, putting aside their commitment toward Judaism, Israel and their fellow Jews and often also abandoning the traditional Jewish commitment to the underdog. In other words, and to use the same categorization, they choose the INDIVIDUALIST positioning, drifting progressively toward assimilation.”

America is different. It is different because American society is welcoming of Jews. It is different because American Jews, for a long time now, have become used to having a high profile. Indeed, what we have seen in the last couple of days is proof of American Jewry’s confidence in asserting its position, coupled with its instinctive and high sensitivity to racism. What we have seen in the last few days is an American Jewish community that is being reminded of how it has a shared stake in having a tolerant America.

Is the outcome unity? Not exactly, but this is surely a moment of less division. When Jews see a common enemy, they push aside their differences, even if just for a little while,.

This is the short-term outcome of Charlottesville, but there can also be a long term, less positive outcome because of two things:

1. If the American debate on racism becomes a constant central feature of political life, this can still make many Jews decide that it is more convenient for them to lower their profile and be less visible as Jews. If the confidence of racist groups rises, and Jewish institutions are threatened, many Jews could decide that their security justifies disengagement from the community – this is something we saw earlier this year when bomb threats targeted Jewish institutions.

2. The debate over the proper way of responding to racist America can become in itself a source of tension and inner-Jewish bickering – especially so because of its political undertones. We already see signs of that in the attacks hurled at Rabbi Marvin Hier, “Trump’s rabbi.”

Jews and politics and anti-Semitism

Three days ago, I made the case against Jews portraying Trump as a bigoted anti-Semite. “It is not wise for Jewish institutions, organizations and leaders to paint President Trump as an ally of anti-Semitism because it is very unlikely he is anti-Semitic and because such accusations, when repeatedly hurled at people, tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Jews have to be vigilant in fighting against bigotry and anti-Semitism. They also have to be wise about it, and being wise means keeping anti-anti-Semitism bipartisan. Portraying all political rivals as racists and bigots and anti-Semites is the lesser policy, as it shrinks the camp of Americans that can be allies in combating against anti-Semitism. Isolating the fringe groups of racists and bigots and anti-Semites and keeping all others as allies is the better policy.

Will the Jews be wise? There is a fine line separating disappointment and frustration because of Trump’s response to Charlottesville and turning this incident into a partisan political tool with which to hammer a political party or camp. Some Jews walk this fine line delicately, and many cross over it irresponsibly.

The bottom line

Clear and harsh response to racism is justified.

Expectations for a proper presidential response are justified.

Sober assessment of the need for heightened security measures is justified.

Politicizing the fight against anti-Semitism is unwise.

It is much too early to panic.

 

Charlottesville and the Jews: The peril of cognitive dissonance

White supremacists stand behind their shields at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

What did we learn from Charlottesville that we did not know?

That there are Nazis in America? We knew that.

That Nazis, and their white supremacist bedfellows, are bad people? We knew that, too.

That when such people have grievances they always find reasons to implicate the Jews in some twisted way? No news there.

That most of America neither identifies with nor supports these bigots, their views and their actions? We hope this is still true – there are many signs it is.

There are many explanations for Jew-hatred, and a hefty number of them focus on its psychological roots. I deal with these in a chapter of my latest book (in Hebrew), “The Jews: 7 Frequently Asked Questions.” The chapter begins with a story from about a thousand years ago and goes on to remind readers that due to the Nazi persecution Sigmund Freud was forced to leave his home in Vienna and move to London, where he died a year later.

In Freud’s book “Moses and Monotheism,” this great Jewish revolutionary offers an interpretation of Jew-hatred, claiming that Christians have an Oedipal relationship with Jews. Judaism is the father religion, and Christianity is the rebellious son. Since then, many non-Freudian explanations have also viewed the psyche and human consciousness as key to understanding the hatred of Jews. Many of them highlight how Jews have always played into the hands of people who have a hard time deciphering the meaning of a puzzling and erratic world, especially in times of crisis.

Anti-Semitism becomes deadly “when a culture, nation or faith suffers from a cognitive dissonance so profound that it becomes unbearable,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in “The Return of Anti-Semitism,” his January 2015 essay in The Wall Street Journal. He was referring to societies that cannot quite figure out the changing world around them.

When you ask what happened in Charlottesville, why they “go after Jews” (as Yair Rosenberg puts it) or why the Jews were targeted in Virginia, there is your answer. Not necessarily a new or surprising answer, but an answer nonetheless.

“A cognitive dissonance that becomes unbearable” is a fair description of how more than a few Americans feel today. This cognitive dissonance led to the election victory of Donald Trump, a perplexing yet tolerable political outcome. This cognitive dissonance, when it gets more severe, can lead to much more dangerous outcomes.

So, what did we learn that is new?

We learned — yet again — that President Trump was unable to condemn such bad people in the harshest terms possible (and not because of his tendency for politeness) — at least until the firestorm in reaction to his initial remarks became so strong that he had to issue a second, more-reasoned statement. Erick-Woods Erickson, the conservative blogger, made this point succinctly in his call for moral clarity: “This is the same president who routinely mocked and attacked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for failing to call Islamic radicalism by its name. In Charlottesville, evil has a name, and it is white supremacy.”

This is not the first time I write such a thing, and I have the feeling it will not be the last. It is not wise for Jewish institutions, organizations and leaders to paint President Trump as an ally of anti-Semitism because it is very unlikely he is anti-Semitic and such accusations, when repeatedly hurled at people, tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

A few months ago, when Trump erupted after he was asked a question about anti-Semitism, I wrote: “In Trump’s view, a lot of the growing level of talk about anti-Semitism is no more than a political strategy to destroy his credibility.” When college campuses in several states (anyone here from California?) became an intimidating setting for Jewish students because of attacks from the left, the Jewish establishment did not unite to blame President Obama and his confrontational approach toward Israel. But now, when vile attacks on Jews come from the right, many Jewish leaders are ready to point a finger at the White House.

Trump is a divisive figure in a divided and confused world. He has many deficiencies as a leader, some of which were in display when he meekly condemned the violence in Charlottesville. Jews will gain nothing from portraying him as their foe.

My first visit to Charlottesville was about eight years ago, to meet Prof. Vanessa Ochs and learn about the invention of new Jewish rituals. Ochs has studied and written about this issue, and in one of her books she explained that “two forces have influenced the abundance of ritual innovation. The first is the spiritual stance shaped by democracy and open access, and the second is the dramatic change brought by Jewish feminism.”

The story I wrote about Ochs focused more on the feminist aspect. But thinking about recent events in Charlottesville has made me ponder the “democracy and open access” aspect of her theory and how far we have come from the old to the new: From anti-Semitism to inventing Jewish ritual; from hatred of Jews to America’s love of Jews; and from Jewish fears (read Ron Kampeas’ “The Day the Nazi Called Me Shlomo”) to Jews having the confidence to protest and respond without mincing words.

If you want more Jews in America, you cannot ignore these facts

A Bar Mitzvah ceremony

There’s a good chance you’ve read The New York Times report about the political affiliations of American clergy. If so, you probably were not surprised to learn that most Jews are Democrats and that Jewish clergy tilts even more Democratic.

“Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues,” the analysis says. It finds that Conservative clergy is relatively old, while Reform and Orthodox clergy are relatively young, and all Jewish clergy, generally speaking, lives comfortably in neighborhoods of high-income, well-educated (and white) residents.

That is an interesting study, but it’s hardly the most important one about Jews in America in the past week. The Jewish People Policy Institute, for which I work, just released a study called “Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention.” It ought to make anyone who cares about having a Jewish future in America pause. It ought to make anyone who refuses to ignore the data at least somewhat anxious.

The authors found that 50 percent of non-Charedi American Jews ages 25 to 54 are not married, 21 percent are married to Jews, and 29 percent are intermarried. Just under one-third, 31 percent, are raising children as Jews in some way. They concluded that “a solid majority (perhaps 60 percent) of American non-[Charedi] Jewish adults will never have the experience of raising children in Judaism.”

The tables presented in the study are illuminating and sobering. Non-Orthodox Jews in America do not have spouses in large numbers, and if they do, then the spouses are not Jewish. They also do not have many children, and when they do, they do not raise them Jewishly. Like it or not, criticize it or criticize those who criticize it, believe that it can change or believe that it is a fact Jews must learn to live with — whatever you think, ignoring it would be a mistake.

This is a picture of a numerically declining Jewish community — unless you believe that an infusion of non-Jews into the community could keep its numbers up.

Family configurations for all non-Haredi American Jews ages 25-54

Alas, the numbers do not support such a belief. Having a Jewish spouse means a much better chance for a demonstrably Jewish home. On most questions — Are you a member of a synagogue? Do you have Jewish friends? Is being Jewish important? Are you attached to Israel? — the intensity is similar: Those with a non-Jewish spouse score low, those with no spouse score somewhat higher, those with a Jewish spouse score highest.

The authors of the study make it clear: “Marriage to Jews and the raising of Jewish-by-religion children are key to the current and future Jewish vitality of American Jewry, as well as to its transmissibility. The family first, and then community and friendships, create the conditions for formal and informal Jewish education to take place.”

Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg situation here. If one does not believe that being Jewish is important, one is less likely to insist on having a Jewish spouse and a Jewish home. If one does not have many Jewish friends, one also is less likely to have a Jewish spouse and less likely to have a Jewish home, even in cases where there is an initial desire to have one. If one does not have a spouse, one is less likely to have children to carry on the tradition. If one marries late, one might be less picky choosing a spouse of a certain tradition.

The bottom line is clear: If non-Orthodox Jews keep doing what they do, and if current trends do not change, the decline is all but guaranteed. The authors see a remedy for that in bolstering and emphasizing “the revival of Jewish social capital for Jewishly ‘impoverished’ families through the establishment of new Jewish social circles.”

I hope they are right, but for this to work, there is a need for Jewish leaders to acknowledge the challenge, define it as a problem and accept this remedy and its implications. Obviously, certain recent political developments have made a bad name for any call for parting with political correctness. But there’s clearly a need for that, too.

This is not, nor should it be, about disparaging Jews who make life choices as they see fit. And it is not, nor should it be, about alienating the non-Jewish partners of Jews. It’s not about forcing young Jews into marrying partners they dislike. And not about telling Jews what they should do. And not about saying that Jews who decide not to stick with Jewishness are in some fashion lesser people than those who choose to remain Jewish.

This is about looking at facts, acknowledging them and learning from them. It is about what we — those who want to see more Jews and more engaged Jews — can do to improve our chances of getting them.

The ‘Why?’ exchange, part 3: ‘Groups, like individuals, need friends’

People celebrating the liberation of Denmark. 5th May 1945. At Strøget in Copenhagen (Source: National Museum of Denmark)

Peter Hayes is professor of history and German and Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies Emeritus at Northwestern University and chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Professor Hayes received his PhD from Yale University and taught at Northwestern for thirty-six years from 1980 to 2016. He is the author or editor of twelve books, including the prize-winning Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (1987, 2001) and Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World (1991).  

This exchange focuses on Professor Hayes’ new book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

***

Dear Professor Hayes,

In the final section of your book – which you call “Aftermath: What legacies? What lessons?” – you make some pretty controversial assertions about what Jews and other American minorities could learn from the Holocaust:

Lesson Two of the Holocaust for minority groups in America and Jews in particular is: Be self-reliant but not isolationist. That means taking care with two very dangerous and common words nowadays: memory and identity. We tend to glorify both with cries such as “never again” or “never forget” and assertions of our heritage or loyalties before every utterance. But both practices have downsides.…

The history of the Holocaust suggests that minorities run risks when they depend too much on others, since the others generally will be guided by self-interest, but also that cutting oneself off from others poses its own, perhaps equal, dangers. Groups, like individuals, cannot make their ways alone; they need friends.

Now, even mildly suggesting that the Jews’ isolation before the Holocaust was a matter of choice rather than a result of tragic historical circumstances and contingencies, that they somehow “cut themselves off from others,” could easily rub some people the wrong way. Moreover, seeing that the Nazis targeted assimilated Jews just like they targeted shtetl Jews, and that the majority of American Jews are successfully assimilated liberals in American society, the lesson you mention seems a bit in need of further explanation.

I want to ask you to elaborate on this point: how do you think the Holocaust should inform minority attitudes toward isolationism, and Jewish attitudes in particular? What type of mindsets and mistakes are you warning against, and is there anything Jews in America should be doing differently?

Thank you again for your interesting book and for doing this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

I began my book with a chapter on antisemitism that identified the historical roots of Jews’ isolation and persecution in Christians’ efforts to confine Jews to disdained occupations and locations in order to limit any possibility that Christians might convert to Judaism. As a result, I don’t think anyone reading in good faith can conclude that I was “even mildly” engaged in blaming the victim. Nor do I think a reader of my book can be in any doubt about my view that the persecuting and the persecuted during the Holocaust inhabited completely different moral planes.

That said, indicating that Jews sometimes acted in ways that contributed to or reinforced their isolation may rub some people the wrong way, but challenging preconceptions sometimes comes with the territory of interpreting the past. The historical record suggests that Jewish minorities that preserved conspicuous distinctions of dress and observance, predominantly spoke a different language than their neighbors, and stressed endogamy appeared to stand somewhat apart from those neighbors, and that this apartness undermined the degree of solidarity that they exhibited toward Jews during the Holocaust. Yes, the Germans drew no distinctions, shunning and slaughtering the assimilated and the traditionalist alike (a point to which I referred explicitly), but the German allied or -occupied populations that showed greatest readiness to protect Jews (Bulgaria, Denmark, and Italy) had highly acculturated communities. This was not the only characteristic that distinguished them, as I also mentioned—the communities were relatively small, and the Nazi regime moved against them comparatively late in the war, after Germany’s defeat became likely. But acculturation significantly counteracted German efforts to depict Jews as aliens, let alone as menacing demons, in these places.

Evgeny Finkel’s new book, Ordinary Jews, which appeared shortly after my book, buttresses my analysis through a comparative study of three Eastern European ghettos during the Holocaust, those of Cracow, Bialystok, and Minsk. He concludes that the ability of Jews to “evade” Nazi persecution, i.e., to go into hiding and survive, correlated strongly with the degree of pre-existing “interethnic integration” in each of those locales. The greater it was, the better these individuals’ prospects. Gunnar Paulsson’s study of Jews’ survival in Warsaw (Secret City, 2002) also correlates their success strongly with having cross-cultural ties.

As for the implications for minorities, and Jews in particular, the words I wrote mean exactly what they say: groups, like people, need friends. In multicultural societies, minority groups, like individuals, should cultivate dialogue and alliances; stick up for themselves but try not to take offense too quickly; be willing to take yes for an answer; highlight the common principles upon which everyone’s security and liberty depend; and insist on being treated fairly and with dignity while treating others that way. The risks of behaving otherwise are isolation and abandonment. To be sure, majorities have even greater obligations to act respectfully and with restraint toward minorities because majorities have more power and generally can do more harm; but minorities have obligations, too. A passage by Eva Hoffman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, toward the end of her book Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, captures much of what I had in mind while writing the paragraphs about which you are asking:

It seems to me what the Polish-Jewish experiment suggests … is that “identity politics” may be inadequate without a sense of solidarity. If we are to live together in multicultural societies, then in addition to cultivating differences, we need a sense of a shared world. This does not preclude the possibility of preserving and even nurturing strong cultural, spiritual, and ethnic identities in the private realm, nor does it suggest collapsing such identities into a universal “human nature.” But if multicultural societies are to remain societies—rather than collections of fragmented, embattled enclaves—then we need a public arena in which we speak not only from and for our particular interests, but as members of a society, from the vantage point of the common good.

I did not have in mind—and I would never presume to give—any additional advice to the richly internally diverse community of American Jews, not least because they seem to have found precisely through that diversity a golden mean between preserving institutions and identity, on the one hand, and becoming integrated and accepting parts of the American family, on the other. That is a great achievement, precedented and paralleled perhaps by the Danish and Italian cases during and after the Holocaust, but still a testimony to both the community and to our country. At least that is the way conditions look to a non-Jewish agnostic who wishes Jews well and deeply appreciates their manifold contributions to American society.

 

Will Jewish Americans defy anti-Semitism or hide from it?

Headstones lay on the ground after vandals pushed them off their bases in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Mihalek

1.

Is there a wave of anti-Semitism in America? Last week I argued that it is complicated. This week, as the threats continue and the incidents keep piling up, it is becoming clearer that something is going on. Maybe – hopefully – a passing wave. Maybe – possibly – a self-fulfilled prophesy. Maybe – possibly – a wave that feeds itself. Maybe – possibly – a more sensitive Jewish American community reporting more vigorously every suspicious incident.

2.

We still haven’t seen suspects arrested for anti-Semitic behavior. This is, among other things, because of the nature of acts committed against Jews. Cowardly phone calls to JCCs and night raids on cemeteries are easy to commit and hard to catch. The result is that we don’t yet have much to say about the perpetrators. We don’t know anything about their motivations, about why the Jews, about why now. We don’t know if the perpetrators come from a certain group of people, or if maybe we are talking about an awakening of anti-Semitic sentiments among several groups.

Not that there’s any good excuse for anti-Semitic acts. Still, understanding the people whose actions rattle the Jews could be helpful and important. It could also feed, or refute, some of the allegations made against the Trump administration in lieu of recent attacks.

3.

Last week I asked here – backed by numbers – “Have we (Jews) been wrong to assume – as a group – that anti-Semitism is in decline? Have we – as a group – showed a misguided tendency to ignore the reality around us?”

The question lingers.

4.

The other day, Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog argued that Israel ought to prepare for a massive immigration of Jews from the US. He was rightly mocked for this trigger-happy alarmism. US Jews are not packing, and are less likely to come en-masse than Herzog assumes (we are still waiting for the expected, but never materialized wave of French immigrants). In fact, as Moshe Arens told me last week, this lack of enthusiasm for Aliyah can serve as proof that the anti-Semitic wave is not as threatening as our response seems to suggest.

Still, thinking about Herzog’s early prediction, one wonders: Many of the US Jews immigrating to Israel are Orthodox Jews. Many of the Jews who cannot hide from anti-Semitism because of their high visibility – those wearing special clothes, walking around with a Kippah, going to synagogue more frequently – are Orthodox. That is to say: Orthodox Jews in America might be more inclined to consider Aliyah and might have more reason to consider Aliyah.

Let’s change the question then: Are we about to see an intensification of Orthodox Jewish American Aliyah to Israel? (If the answer is yes, the Labor Party might not be the main beneficiary of such a trend, politically speaking.)

5.

Jews respond to anti-Semitism in various ways.

Some prefer to disappear, to lower their Jewish profile, so as not to put themselves under risk.

Some prefer to strengthen their Jewish ties and to become more active and more proudly, even defiantly, Jewish.

Some prefer to come together as Jews, while others search for alliances with other minority groups.

Some do not let anti-Semitism – when it is at the current level – become a disruption in their lives. But some obsess about the rise of anti-Semitism and feel that the skies are about to fall.

Some have the self-satisfaction of “I told you so.” Others are shocked: they never suspected that anti-Semitism is still a real thing.

Some are looking for specific culprits – President Trump, Israel’s hawkish government, the BDS movement, radical Islam – while others believe anti-Semitism is a constant feature of society and isn’t worthy of too much specific parsing.

6.

The responses listed above are personal responses. But they could also be the joint responses of certain groups of Jews. If the wave of anti-Semitism continues, expect studies of American Jewry to change accordingly. Rather than asking which Jews are more connected to Israel, more likely to light a Menorah, more likely to say that they want their children to be Jewish, less likely to have a Jewish spouse – we will ask which Jews prefer to lower their Jewish profile, and which prefer to defiantly strengthen their Jewish ties.

Look at the synagogue in your neighborhood: is it becoming more crowded, or unusually empty?

Look at Jewish day school registration numbers: are more parents deciding that it is safer to avoid such schools – or do more parents feel that now is the time to insist on a more thorough Jewish education?

Look at how young students behave on campus: do they have a growing tendency to forget to mention that they are Jewish, or are they congregating in Hillels more than in the past?

The answers to all of these questions will often be predictable: the stronger one’s Jewish identity, the lower the chance that he or she will hide. But sometimes they can be unpredictable: anti-Semitism has a strange ability to motivate Jews and make them defiant. We are, after all, a stiff-necked people.

7.

To be clear: I do not intend to judge any of the above-listed responses. Israelis like me should be careful not to judge diaspora Jews for their response to a problem from which we Israelis do not suffer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Quiet! Quiet! quiet!’ was not necessarily the wrong response to a question about Trump and anti-Semitism

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he leaves the podium after a news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

1.

Anti-Semitism is an old and sticky phenomenon. It rises and subsides, but never disappears. In the U.S. today it seems to be on the rise, and that is scary. Jews in America have got used to living without having to think much about anti-Semitism. And if they did, it was usually because of their concern for Jews elsewhere, those who suffer in places like France or Belgium.

Understanding the sources of anti-Semitism is not easy. Collecting data with which to determine whether the level of anti-Semitism is rising is also trickier than you might think. Is there really a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, or merely a rise in awareness to anti-Semitic incidents? Are we witnessing a dangerous wave of hatred, or merely becoming more sensitive? Is it anti-Semitism that is rising, or maybe it is the general atmosphere in America that has become less tolerant towards everybody (Jews included, but not singled out for any special treatment)?

Consider this: just a few days ago, a new study from PEW found, and not for the first time, that “Americans express warm feelings toward Jews, with half of U.S. adults rating them at 67 degrees or higher on the 0-to-100 scale. Four-in-ten Americans rate Jews in the middle of the thermometer, between 34 and 66, and only about one-in-ten express feelings that fall at 33 degrees or cooler.”

So Jews are still highly popular in a largely Christian America. But they also feel that something bad is happening as they see a cemetery in St. Louis desecrated, as their institutions get bomb threats, and as newspapers tell them a story about a “shocking rise of antisemitism” (as do some of their organizations).

How would we know?

Since there is no institutional action against Jews in America – nor do we expect any such thing – the only way to know is to patiently gather data and compare it responsibly to the data we have from previous years. And note: this data is often problematic. It is problematic because it is based on reports by institutions and individuals, whose tendency to report every incident rises when public awareness rises. It is problematic because you don’t always know what constitutes anti-Semitism, and interpretations of incidents and trends vary.

Take, for example, the case of a Jewish student supportive of Israel who finds herself having to confront an anti-Israel protester that accuses her of many things. The protester tells her that she supports an illegal and immoral occupation, he tells her that she condones racial cleansing, he tells her that she should be ashamed of her support of a colonialist regime, he tells her that she is hurting American interests and is guilty of dual loyalty.

Are these anti-Semitic allegations? All of them? Some of them? Where does one draw the line by which to distinguish legitimate political criticism from illegitimate anti-Semitism? Does the line only take into account the words used, or maybe also the tone, the posture, the level of aggressiveness, the implicit threat?

Or take, for example, the case of a city in which the level of bigotry rises. Black people hear more slurs, Asian people get more nasty responses when they need something, Hispanic people are suspected by every passing policeman of being illegal immigrants, and Jews also get a less-than-hospitable treatment. Is this a rise in anti-Semitism that merits special attention – or a rise in something from which Jews suffer along with many others and hence merits a different kind of attention?

And what if the rise in hostility towards these Jews in this town full of bigotry happens in parallel to a vigorous effort by Jewish institutions to defend and assist their fellow Black, Hispanic, and Asian citizens. That is: what if the Jews get a taste of anti-Semitism as a result of their high visibility amongst those who are fighting to change this town’s culture? Is this also anti-Semitism in the regular sense, or maybe it is the natural (if ugly and reprehensible) response of people who rightly view the town’s Jews as their political and cultural rivals?

3.

President Trump was clearly annoyed when he was asked a few days ago about anti-Semitic

Incidents. His response to the question was uncalled for – brutal and disrespectful. But I must say that I have a certain sympathy for his annoyance. Clearly, in the case of reporter Jake Turx from Ami magazine there was no attempt to blame Trump for the rise in anti-Semitism. But Trump knows that in many other cases that is exactly the point: to make him responsible for anti-Semitism, to portray him as a leader tolerant of anti-Semitism, to argue that he condones and benefits from anti-Semitism.

In fact, Turx, who asked the question that prompted Trump’s wild attack, understands this too. “It is very unfair what’s been done to him,” he said. “I understand why he’s so defensive. I’m with him when it comes to being outraged about him being charged with this anti-Semitism.” In Trump’s view, a lot of the growing level of talk about anti-Semitism is no more than a political strategy to destroy his credibility. When some campuses became a hostile environment for Jewish students because of vile attacks from the left, the Jewish establishment did not rush to blame President Obama and his confrontational approach toward Israel for it. But now, when vile attacks on Jews seem to come also from the right, many more Jewish leaders are ready to point a finger at the White House.

Well, a Jewish leader currently visiting Israel told me yesterday, “but Trump is responsible in more than one way for the rise in anti-Semitism.”

Maybe. It is not easy to prove that he is, or to argue that he isn’t. But three things should be kept in mind when such allegations are made:

A. Make sure your hands are clean. That is, make sure you aren’t blaming Trump for anti-Semitism because you generally dislike his politics, but rather because you are convinced beyond doubt that he is indeed responsible for something as serious as a rise in anti-Semitism.

B. Make sure the rise is real and not imaginary. And by raising the profile of this phenomenon try not to contribute to an atmosphere that makes anti-Semitism seem common and almost normal.

C. Ask yourself: is pointing a finger at Trump helpful in any way? If it is not helpful, maybe a better tactic ought to be found.

4.

President Trump’s angry response to a friendly reporter’s question was not necessarily the wrong response.

Sure, it was wrong because no president should speak the way Trump speaks, and no president should be as vulgar as Trump is.

But it was also the right response: it shows that Trump cares, that he does not accept lightly the implied allegation that he is, in some way, friendly towards anti-Semitism.

The fact that Trump cares about such allegations means that Trump sees anti-Semitism as evil. It means that Trump refuses to be portrayed as someone aiding and abetting evil. Yesterday, the White House denounced those who threaten Jewish centers. “Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters. Trump’s Jewish daughter Ivanka tweeted: “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC”. (Update: President Trump addressed the anti-Semitism incidents himself earlier today.)

Proposed nation-state law crosses American Jewish red lines

I wish I could draw.

A few years back, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoonish drawing of a bomb meant to illustrate Iran’s march toward achieving a nuclear weapon. He pointed to a red line across the top of the image, indicating the point of no return at which the mullahs were sure to go nuclear.

If I could draw, I would send the prime minister a picture that represents American Jewry — say, in the shape of the Liberty Bell — and draw a red line across some part of it. That line would represent how far Israel can push against its democratic principles before it loses American-Jewish support.

Netanyahu got a lot of ridicule for his picture, and I’m sure I’d get some for mine. But sometimes, as the prime minister must know, you just have to break it down for people, so they get it.

So, here goes: There exists, I believe, a red line in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, and that red line is democracy.

The reason the nation-state identity bill, which the prime minister supports, has precipitated a crisis in Israel is that those red lines exist for the Israeli public, as well — both Jews and Arabs.  They, after all, have the largest stake in this debate, which is about the very nature of their country. 

The bill, called “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” would formally identify Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, affirm Jewish law as the inspiration for its legislation, and delist Arabic as an official language. Unlike the country’s Declaration of Independence, the bill makes no mention of Israel as a democratic country or of the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.   

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the law’s intent cannot possibly be to affirm Israel as a Jewish state — something the country’s Declaration of Independence already accomplished. That document also promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

In the region where Israel thrives, those words are as rare and precious as water. Drain them of their power and Israel as we know it withers and dies.

Instead, the proposed law would seriously undermine those rights, privileging one group, demeaning others and, eventually, frighteningly, laying the legal groundwork to single out and mistreat Israel’s minority. Can I be blunt?  This proposed law lays the legal framework for apartheid.

And that, I’m certain, is the red line.

American Jews cherish the fact that Israel is a Jewish state. It may be hard for some to wrap their heads around, but a country can be a haven for one people, and utilize its symbols, holidays, and religious and cultural inheritance as the basis for civic life without disenfranchising other citizens who live there, or impeding their prosperity or religious practices. There are countries around the world with state religions that embody varying degrees of freedom and democracy, from Anglican England to Muslim Saudi Arabia to Buddhist Cambodia. By objective international measurements of democratic norms, Israel, within its Green Line, ranks pretty high among them. 

Is Israel, at 66 years old, a perfect democracy?  No. America at 66 was a slave-holding, white Christian male redoubt, with some beautiful words and ideals to live up to. And, as the news constantly reminds us, the United States is still a work in progress. Israel, too, is a functioning, struggling democracy.   

As it strives to be a more perfect union, Israel has the moral, financial and political support of American Jews, who know from experience stretching back to 1776 that no country and no system of government, in the history of civilization, has done more to defend our rights, protect our heritage and unleash our potential.  

The irony here is that it is democracy that protected American Jews and enabled them to flourish here. It allowed American Jews to express their identity by joining in the struggle for a Jewish state. They were not cheerleaders or even bit players; they were instrumental in procuring the funds, weapons and political support that made Israel possible. Because of the United States’ political system that gave Jews a voice as a minority, they were the key to getting the world’s largest and strongest nation to back one of the world’s smallest and most vulnerable nations. In other words, the system of government so threatened by this proposed law is the same one that enabled the Jews who support it to thrive in the land of Israel in the first place. 

Will American Jews support Israel no matter what?  Some will — a minority of a minority. But it is a Jewish and democratic Israel that American Jewry signed up for, and it is only that Israel that will inspire, and deserve, their support. 

I know Benjamin Netanyahu knows all this. He is a very smart man. He certainly doesn’t need me to draw him any pictures.

Stations of the Six-Pointed Star

The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel.

Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Bob Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.

One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise. But both these grand inventions have two things in common.

One is Jewish writers. We all know about the importance of Jewish writers in Hollywood — we wouldn’t have “Porky’s 3” or “Halloween 4” without them.

But Israel also was birthed in the mind of a Jewish writer. It began as an idea, and then as a series of essays, then some books by a fine journalist and mediocre playwright named Theodor Herzl. Last year at UCLA, the great Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua said he always wondered what would have happened if Herzl had been a better playwright.

The other commonality is that both Hollywood and Israel provided a means of refuge from the real world. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; they founded Israel to help Jews escape the world.

Thus, 60 years ago this week, the State of Israel came into being to provide a refuge for the Jewish people.

So, how’s that working out?

For one, it’s clear the idea of Israel as refuge has evolved over the past six decades. In 1948, Israel was the place Jews could go to recover from the last Holocaust and the place from where they could defend themselves against the next one.

To this day, many — if not most — Jews hold to the belief that Israel’s prime importance is as a kind of safety zone if or when things start to go south on us again.

But for American Jews, who make up the bulk of the Diaspora, this Panic Room Zionism is a hard sell. We may still feel that Israel is a place of refuge, but reality, whether we acknowledge it or not, argues against this.

Our life here is more stable and secure than that of Jews in Israel. Many more Jews leave Israel to come here than leave America to settle there. We also know, without actually saying it out loud, that Israel is only safe so long as America is. If the situation worsens for Jews in America, it won’t bode well for Israel, either, because Israel depends on America’s support.

If Israel is no longer our physical refuge, it is nevertheless a kind of psychological and spiritual refuge, a place we American Jews can escape to in our minds. Instead of becoming, as its founders hoped it would, our final destination, it is has become one more station on our pilgrimage of spiritual growth.

And this holds true at every phase of life. For young Jewish men and women, in college or just out, Israel is a place to visit for emotional and intellectual growth, and even, perhaps, to explore their sexuality. It is but a chapter in the bildungsroman of Jewish life, where you can deepen your youthful soul in an ancient land.

When we reach middle age, Israel also holds a powerful psychic allure. Not long ago, in the same week, a major Hollywood producer and a prominent politician each confided to me that they constantly toy with the idea of chucking it all to go and live in Israel — just drop everything and go.

They won’t. They’re too old to pick oranges, and anyway, in Israel, Jews no longer pick oranges — they import cheap Asian or Eastern European labor to do it.

But the idea is that Israel can give meaning to your life. That you can renew your aging soul in a new country.

Retirees dream of going there to make those golden years useful, to make a statement, to finally put their bodies where for so many years their mouths and their money had been.

And finally, many elderly American Jews dream of going there when they die, to rest, so to speak, until the messiah arrives and from where, as the Talmud promises, one’s soul “will rise directly through the gates of heaven.”

It is very difficult to find statistics on the number of American Jews who go to Israel to be buried. I suspect because it’s much higher than the number who go there to live.

It is a great gift to have a home away from home, to know there is a place, to quote Robert Frost, where if you have to go there, they have to take you in. Sixty years on, Israel has become the “Cheers” of the American Jewish soul. Go there, even for a visit, and you will find, inexplicably, it is more like home than home.

None of this is to take away from what Israelis have achieved, what a remarkable, accomplished society they have built against debilitating odds. I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about us.

The reality is, we Jews in Los Angeles don’t need Israel to live, to survive. But 60 years on, when we search our hearts and souls, we need it to thrive.

As Jewish communities unite, disconnects persist

Howard Rieger, the top professional of organized American Jewry as president and chief executive officer of the national organization United Jewish Communities (UJC), figures that criticism comes with the territory.

“Any time you make changes, some people will admire you and some will not,” he said in a phone interview. “If you can’t keep that in perspective, you become immobilized and don’t belong in this position.”

That’s a fortunate attitude, for Rieger and UJC have been on the receiving end of a volley of brickbats remarkable even for the contentious Jewish community.

UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of three North American umbrella organizations, the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and United Israel Appeal (UIA), which together oversaw nearly a billion dollars annually in fundraising proceeds for domestic and overseas programs.

Fueling the historic merger, following seven years of discussions and negotiations, were demands by UJA for a more efficient fundraising system, and by the federations for more control over the proportion and use of funds going to Israel.

According to a number of Jewish leaders, many of whom played key roles in the merger discussions, their expectations for UJC have remained largely unfulfilled, to put it diplomatically.

Part of the fault, the critics say, is structural, and some are missteps, such as the elimination of the popular UJA brand name.

But most of the criticism focuses on the performance of the UJC leadership, which is faulted for operating in a vacuum, avoiding vigorous discussions before implementing decisions, lack of passion and energy, and terrible staff relations, marked by the departure of five key senior staffers during the past year.

One frequently heard charge is that UJC is “owned” by the executives of big metropolitan federations, at the expense of smaller communities and overseas needs.

If so, Los Angeles, with the nation’s second largest Jewish community, appears largely absent from the decision-making table.

One highly knowledgeable source in another part of the country observed that there had been a “disconnect” between the Los Angeles Federation and UJC for years, but he hoped that once Stanley Gold, the new Federation chair, focused on the problem, things would change.

Gold acknowledged that relations between Los Angeles and UJC headquarters in New York had been “stop and start” for many years. He said that both the national and local organizations must adapt to changes, and at a faster pace, to put the long-term relationship back on track.

Veteran community and Federation leader Frank Maas, recently appointed by Gold as the local representative on the UJC executive committee, said that the “disconnect” in Jewish organized life between the West Coast and the New York-Boston-Chicago-centered leadership was one of long standing.

“It’s largely a matter of geography,” Maas said, with West Coast leaders losing one day in travel to attend an East Coast meeting, and one day coming back.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles currently contributes $2.1 million annually toward the UJC overhead, for such expenses as resource development and campaign assistance, which yield relatively few benefits for Los Angeles, with a well-developed structure of its own.

Nevertheless, “We are committed to a strong collective and collaborative effort with UJC for the benefit of the national and international Jewish communities, and we want to see UJC as a strong and viable entity,” Maas said.

Another veteran Federation leader, who asked that his name be withheld, put the long-term gap between the left and right coasts more bluntly.

“It’s just a different ballgame out here,” he said. “We’re a different community in Los Angeles than in Cleveland, Baltimore or Atlanta. But New York thinks that if we only followed its directions, everything would work out.”

Los Angeles Federation president John Fishel declined requests for comment.

The lives of UJC top executives have been made even more unpleasant lately by an unidentified blogger (www.disunitedujc.blogspot.com), who seems to have a direct pipeline into UJC’s inner workings, although Rieger said the blogger was not a UJC employee.

The blogger devoted a recent column to a three-year-old piece of unfinished business that refuses to go away.

In early 2005, Gerald (Jerry) Bubis and Steven Windmueller, respectively founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and its dean, came out with a 165-page paperback titled “From Predictability to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Community System.”

Based on interviews with 88 men and women, most of who participated in the 1999 merger talks, the study concluded that these “stake holders” were largely frustrated and disappointed by the outcome of their labors.

Despite everybody’s good intentions, the merger reveals “a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multi-layered power games,” the authors wrote.

Just before publication of their report, Bubis and Windmueller met in New York with a cross-section of national lay leaders and professionals for a daylong dialogue on their study.

There was vigorous discussion, with both critics and supporters having their say. Among the former was Stephen Hoffman of Cleveland, who preceded Rieger as UJC’s top professional, and who said in an interview that the study went “180 degrees in the wrong direction” and propounded “academic theory that had no relationship to reality.”

Rieger saw some good and some bad in the report, but was mainly offended by an incident during the dialogue, which he recounted with some emotion: “In the waning moments of the meeting, Jerry [Bubis] made a statement to the effect that the majority of American Jews don’t like the Jewish federations. I thought that statement was outrageous.”

Bubis agreed that he made the statement, and that he believes it was unfortunately true.

“You can see it in the decrease of givers to federations all across the country, with very few exceptions,” he said.

By virtue of his lifelong personal and professional dedication to Jewish communal work, his writings and his academic research, Bubis is one of the senior figures in the field, and even his critics generally avow their respect for the man.

Benefits bolster the case for reciprocity

The past few months saw rising temperatures of accusations and counteraccusations among sections of the Jewish community. Leftist Jews criticized Israel,
professor Alvin Rosenfeld criticized anti-Zionist Jews, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) published Rosenfeld’s article, Rob Eshman criticized Rosenfeld (“Shutting Jewish Mouths,” Feb. 16) and Jewish Journal readers criticized Eshman (Letters, Feb. 23).

True, thus far it all fits the ordinary, lively Jewish debate to the tune of “Chad Gadya,” and, honestly, I would not have mentioned it here, save for one ingredient that I thought deserves our attention — somehow, the AJCommittee was the only player in the ring accused of the cardinal sin of “shutting Jewish mouths.”

For the life of me, I fail to see why Rosenfeld’s criticism of anti-Zionist Jews is stifling Jewish voices more than Eshman’s criticism of Rosenfeld.

Eshman was right in asking: “Has the AJCommittee taken a stand against Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli minister who has called for the forced expulsion of Israeli Arabs from their towns?” Eshman was also right in comparing Lieberman to Tony Kushner and stating: “One could argue that Lieberman’s opinions endanger a democratic Jewish state at least as much as Kushner’s.”

I would go even further and argue that both Kushner and Lieberman are racists, each in his own way. What I fail to understand, though, is why saying so to Kushner makes me a stifler of open debate, while accusing Lieberman turns me into a champion of lively discussion.

It is time that we articulate this symmetry as loudly as we can. Both Kushner (and Tony Judt and Jacqueline Rose) and Lieberman are racists, guilty of callous discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin — Lieberman by denying Israeli Arabs their basic rights as individuals, Kushner by denying Israeli Jews their basic rights as a nation.

Lieberman targets Israeli Arabs for dispossession, while Kushner targets Israeli Jews for a genocidal experiment called a “one-state solution.” The difference lies mainly in their respective modes of justification. Whereas Lieberman speaks in the name of “ein breira” (lacking alternative), Kushner speaks in the name of righteousness and morality. History is still undecided whom we should fear most.

But symmetry does not end here.

The vast majority of Jews do identify with the historical aspirations of their people and their right to self-determination. Are they prepared to grant Palestinians those same rights? Large sections of American Jewry, including the Zionist Organization of America, object to the idea of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. Is this broken symmetry justified? Is it wise?

The arguments against a Palestinian state are strong and familiar.

First and foremost, given the current sentiments and fragmentation of Palestinian society, such a state would be a serious threat to Israel’s security. Second, from a historical viewpoint, Palestinian nationhood is a recent phenomenon; Palestinians did not cultivate distinct national identity till the turn of the 20th century. Even Rashid Khalidi’s books, “Palestinian Identity” (1997) and “The Iron Cage” (2006), set out to discover and affirm Palestinian national roots, have uncovered a glaring void.

Unlike the Jews, Palestinians are not heirs to national holidays, national heroes or cultural lore connected with the land. There simply was no sense of peoplehood among Palestinians prior to their encounter with Zionism, and Golda Meir’s famous saying, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” — pardon my political incorrectness — was not entirely void of historical reality.

Still, despite these differences and asymmetries, I argue that the Jewish community should reciprocate and support the idea of a Palestinian state.

Reciprocity empowers us with some of the high moral ground that we lost by winning the 1967 war. Reciprocity today is our most potent weapon in the fight against the delegitimization of Israel, because our adversaries are still imprisoned by a me-take-all mentality and the one-state delusion.

Saree Makdisi, Israel’s No. 1 dehumanizer in Los Angeles, turns utterly grotesque when confronted with the challenge of reciprocity, (e.g., “Are Jews and Palestinians equally entitled to some sovereignty, in some part of Palestine?”). His latest column in the LA Times, on March 11, expresses his frustration in handling this challenge.

By forgiving the deficiencies of the Palestinian national narrative, we obtain forgiveness for our own deficiency — physical absence of 1,800 years. Reciprocity is a reminder that nationhood is a state of mind, not a historical document.

Reciprocity of utopias does not compromise security conditions on the ground. Tough precautionary requirements on the process leading to a two-state utopia will be better accepted under the blessing of reciprocity.

An example of such a requirement could be a doctrine that no irreversible concession of one side (e.g., in territory or settlements), would be implemented without an equally irreversible concession of the other). On the Palestinian side, potential irreversible concessions include thorough uprooting of terrorist organizations, public recognition of Jewish historical ties to Eretz Yisrael, education and media programs in the spirit of shared nativity, permanent housing for refugees and more.

In summary, tactical steps need not be hindered by reciprocity, while advocacy and strategic vision will benefit from it immensely.

Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Sherman Oaks Branch Library

L.A.’s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!

In Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world, we Jews have grappled long and hard with our sense of place in America. Ultimately, having found our “place in the sun,” we have forged meaningful relations with many of the communities that make up this complicated goulash.

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that Jews are the most admired religious group in America — more than Catholics, Muslims and Evangelical Protestants. Jews received a favorable rating of 77 percent, compared to Catholics’ 73 percent, Evangelicals’ 57 percent and Muslims’ 55 percent. Unfavorable ratings for Jews are at 7 percent, Catholics at 14 percent, Evangelicals at 19 percent and Muslims at 25 percent.

An American Jewish Committee (AJC) study in 2005 found that American Jews exceed all other identifiable religious and ethnic/racial groups in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, mean years of schooling, years of higher education of spouses, prestige level of jobs, household income and net worth (and these are just a few of the measures).

Another AJC study revealed that the trend lines for Jewish acceptance and success are clearly aiming upward. Over the past 30 years, Jews with four-year college degrees increased from 39 percent to 61 percent, occupational “prestige” increased from 46 percent to 52 percent, self-identification as “upper class” increased from 10 percent to 20 percent, self-identification as being “above average” in income level increased from 41 percent to 51 percent, and self-evaluation as having been raised in an “above-average income” home sky-rocketed from 24 percent to 52 percent. According to every measure of success since the 1970s, the trends are consistent and favorable.

Jews are a forceful presence in academia — not only on faculties and in student bodies, but also in the highest levels of administration (from Williams to UCLA to Harvard). Jewish studies centers have proliferated and numerous non-Jews take classes with them. Jews in the corporate arena have headed not only DuPont but also Bank of America and too many other Fortune 100s to name. In the political world there are two Jews on the Supreme Court, two female Jewish senators from California, and more than a minyan in the Senate. There have been Jewish governors in states from Vermont (Kunin) to Hawaii (Lingle) and an Orthodox Jew was a major party nominee for vice president of the United States with virtually no negative questions being raised about his religious affiliation.

My career as a professional in the L.A. Jewish community has spanned almost 30 years. Over those decades, as a participant in Jewish community leadership, I watched and celebrated the transformation of the reality of Jewish life while also observing the community’s self-perception gradually, if reluctantly, keep pace — almost as if acknowledging that positive news would bring about its end (e.g., invoking the evil eye, ayn horeh). But reluctant though it may be, there has been a dramatic shift in status and self-perception, and that shift has radically altered how we relate to other ethnic groups and to our own leadership.

In order to understand the shift that has occurred, it might be illuminating to trace what has happened over the past 30 years and to look at where the community and its leadership are now and where we should go next.

Jews and blacks. Jews and Latinos. Jews and Muslims. To be a Jew in Los Angeles is to be in constant relationship with the other ethnicities and religious groups that make up the complex fabric of the city.

It is also crucial to realize that, despite the dark exhortations of some of our East Coast leaders, the outlook for American Jewry here is bright and sunny.

When I joined the staff of the local Anti-Defamation League office in 1975 as its western states counsel, the community was focused on the security of Israel and the increasing economic clout of the Arab world, the impact of the Arab boycott of Israel overseas and, domestically, the rise of “Third World” antagonists on college campuses, the continued vitality of the Ku Klux Klan and various right-wing extremist groups that were enjoying a rebirth.

Jews were insecure about their incipient rise in America’s corporate structure, which was reflected in the enormous amount of attention accorded Irving Shapiro’s becoming the chairman of DuPont in 1973 — the first Jew to head a Fortune 100 company. It hadn’t been all that long since the civil rights laws of the 1960s initiated the transformation of the corporate suite. The doors that had been opened a decade earlier resulted in a Jew being elevated to CEO of one of America’s blue-chip companies, a powerfully symbolic and significant milestone for the American Jewish community.

Because of our still-lingering level of discomfort at the time, we retained a certain level of defensiveness. An off-color remark on a late-night talk show, a dim-witted sitcom episode, or a politician or preacher’s errant comments became targets for swift and unambiguous condemnation. Very few slights were too minor to be ignored or allowed to go unanswered. We were, after all, a disadvantaged minority with a tortured history of discrimination that was only beginning to harvest the fruits of a free and open society. We were still in the shadow of the Holocaust and hadn’t yet adjusted to our dramatically improving status.

The insecurity that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s frequently colored our dialogues with other groups. Whether black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish interactions, those relations seemed to be shaped by the memories of the “grand coalitions” formed during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s and animated by the notion that as an aggrieved minority we needed allies for protection against potential bigotry and hate from the white Christian majority. Frankness and recognition of frequently divergent interests were often sublimated in favor of efforts to sustain a united front.

During those years, the community leadership’s efforts at “outreach” often ran counter to what Jews perceived as their real, everyday concerns. In Los Angeles, no single issue demonstrated the gulf between what the Jewish “Joe six-pack” wanted and what leadership pursued than that of public-school busing. Jewish organizations, virtually unanimously, endorsed the transfer of tens of thousands of kids across Los Angeles, while the parents of kids in public schools were divided — at best — and permanently alienated from their community organizations — at worst.

Safety in Numbers

The immediate effect of a new, painstaking, multiyear, $6 million population survey of American Jewry has been to convince Jewish professionals that whatever they’ve been doing is the best thing for American Jewry.

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 (NJPS), just released on Tuesday, says there are 5.2 million Jews in America, a 5 percent decline since 1990, when the last survey was done. The latest NJPS may not evoke the calls for alarm of the 1990 study, whose reports of a 55 percent intermarriage rate spurred what Rabbi Irwin Kula calls "the Jewish continuity industry."

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles noted, "I don’t think anybody involved in Jewish life will be surprised [by the initial figures]."

Those figures (the ones for intermarriage will be released in November) show U.S. Jewry trending downward. The American Jewish population has fallen by just over 5 percent at a time when the general population has increased. Jewish women have an average of 1.8 children, which is below the replacement level of 2.1, and the Jewish population is getting older (thanks for reminding us) with the median age of American Jews going from 37 in 1990 to 41 in 2000.

Reactions to these semi-dire numbers, at least according to press accounts, were predictable. Orthodox rabbis said the figures proved that more money was needed for Jewish education and that Orthodox practice is the best safeguard against assimilation. Those involved in Jewish senior care say the numbers prove that we are overinvesting finite dollars in Jewish continuity and neglecting the needs of our aging population. People who’ve been saying for years that Jewish life is too expensive say the numbers would be better if the cost of Jewish involvement were cheaper. The Jewish continuity experts, their programs by now firmly entrenched, said the declining numbers prove that their programs are needed now more than ever.

The point is, all of us concerned about the health of American Jewry want to believe we’re part of the cure. And we are — all of us have our hands on part of the elephant. "By almost any measure we’re doing better than ever," David Lehrer told me. If you head a Jewish defense or lobbying organization and you believe there is strength in numbers, then the downward trend in population might be worrisome, said Lehrer, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. But if you look at Jewish political and cultural influence, Jewish wealth and success, the utter fecundity of Jewish expression just in this city alone, you’d have to be a committed pessimist to worry. Lehrer reminded me of Simon Rawidowicz’s description of Jews as "the ever-dying people" and warned that too often we see an existential crisis where there is none.

What there is, is opportunity.

Two weeks before the NJPS was released, Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, released another survey that found an American Jewish population increasing to 6.7 million. The difference in the numbers is, at root, a debate over this opportunity. Tobin’s methodology defined Jewish involvement more broadly and, therefore, came up with more Jews. Demographer Pini Herman derided the Tobin approach as a "marketing ploy" and said he thinks the NJPS numbers are more sound.

That may be. But both surveys have in common a larger and more expansive approach to "Who is a Jew?" than what Jewish law, or even previous surveys, have traditionally advanced. Both surveys counted thousands of people on what could be considered the fringes of organized Jewish life. The Tobin survey extended the criteria even beyond that.

Many people believe that there are even more circles that can be drawn into a meaningful expression of Jewish life, its traditions and its values. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino told me that we have to do a better job of reaching out to intermarried couples and their families. He and others have long argued that it is time to set aside the taboo against proselytizing and demonstrate to non-Jews what Jewish faith and culture have to offer. There might be something to that. We have been managing our religion like some exclusive country club. We fret that our members are aging or have quit showing up, even as we pride ourselves on the barriers to entry. With the proper outreach, we could have tens of thousands of more Jews by 2010, not thousands less.

None of this is new. In a remarkable book, "The Beginnings of Jewishness" (University of California Press, 2001), Shaye J.D. Cohen documents a period in antiquity (around the beginning of the first millennium) when it wasn’t at all clear who was a Jew and who wasn’t.

"The uncertainty of Jewishness in antiquity curiously prefigures the uncertainty of Jewishness in modern times," Cohen writes. "Then as now, individual Jews are not easily recognizable; they simply are part of the general population."

I called Cohen, a Harvard professor, at his home near Boston to ask him why it is that we Jews are, 2,000 years later, still arguing over our definition.

Assimilation, he said. Jews living in what was then ancient Greece needed a way to mark themselves off from a culture in which they were almost fully immersed.

For us, today, the immersion is even greater. We have more intermarriage and our society is far more open. In such a society, the loss of the sense of "other," of "them," challenges our notion of "we."

"The issue is not intermarriage," he told me, "the issue is theloss of the sense of ‘otherness.’" The difference between the Jews of antiquity and ourselves, Cohen said, is that, "they had a clear sense of what they were about."

The question is, do we?

Ramah’s Policy in Black and White

In the latest effort to define its religious boundaries, the Conservative movement has directed its summer camping system to notify parents that prospective campers must be Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, to be accepted.

The notification, included in this year’s application, marks the first such written statement of policy in the 53-year history of the Camp Ramah system, said its national director, Rabbi Sheldon Dorph. Rabbi Dorph said the move is merely a reaffirmation of the system’s long-standing unwritten policy. He said Ramah officials decided it was necessary to put the policy in writing now because of the sea changes in American Jewry, including increases in intermarriage and the Reform movement’s 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent — accepting a child whose mother is not Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require the mother to be Jewish.

“When Ramah was established in 1947, there was no question, kids had to be Jewish, and there’s been no question all these years,” Rabbi Dorph said. “However, because of changes in the Jewish community and because of patrilineal descent in Reform … we felt parents needed to understand clearly that there were religious standards for Ramah.”

The Ramah notification comes at a time when the Conservative movement has been issuing much stricter guidelines for its leaders.

In recent months, the congregational arm of the movement has banned intermarried couples from serving as professionals and Hebrew school teachers, and is pressing synagogues to adopt standards of religious observance for its officers.

Ramah, comprised of seven sleepaway and four day camps, with an enrollment of about 6,000 campers, operates under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary. About 90 percent of Ramah campers belong to the Conservative movement, while 7 percent are Orthodox and the rest from Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated families.

Rabbi Dorph said the move was made as well to reassure Conservative parents that their kids are mingling with like-minded Jewish kids.

“Let’s face it, at Ramah we make a lot of shidduchim [matches],” he said.

Rabbi Dorph said each camp will be able to formulate its own version of the statement. The one he provided, called “Statement on Religious Qualifications for Children,” says that “Ramah camps admit only halachically Jewish children and educational staff. This requires that the applicant either was born to an halachically Jewish woman or has been converted to Judaism according to halacha.”

Ramah’s application process has always required that the camper’s congregational rabbi and Jewish educator sign off. Ramah also requires that campers be enrolled in religious study programs: six hours a week for preteens, four hours a week for teens.

Reform leaders said the Conservative movement has the right to set its own policy, and didn’t believe many children would be affected.

Rabbi Allen Smith, director of the Reform movement’s Youth Division, said the policy clearly excludes patrilineal Jews.

But whether Ramah would ban candidates converted by Reform rabbis was unclear, said Rabbi Smith, who directs the movement’s 13 camps with 10,000 campers. Many Reform conversions are not performed according to strict Jewish law, he noted.

“The only impact is it would say to members of Reform congregations that … we don’t belong in Ramah,” Rabbi Smith said, adding that Reform camps also require rabbis attest to the Jewishness of a camper.

Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, said he was surprised by the Ramah notice, but not that Ramah is affirming its requirements.

“There’s pressure on many institutions to sharpen their boundaries,” said Rabbi Arian, who runs the 2-year-old foundation designed to strengthen Jewish camping nationwide. “It would surprise me if very many people are affected by articulating a policy this way.”

He said there are enough Jewish camps of different philosophies to meet the need.

But not everyone embraced the new policy.

“Our board hasn’t even looked at it yet,” said Brian Greene, director of Camp Ramah in California. “We want to look at the wording and consider the implications.”

But perhaps more important, he noted that it was too late for consideration this year anyway. “We already filled our enrollment months ago,” Greene said.

A Debate on Focus

Jewish community leaders across the country are buzzing nervously these days about a family feud within the Jewish philanthropic world that could help shape the political profile of American Jewry for years. It’s one of those spats where both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and everyone else wishes they’d just cool off before they break something and get us all in trouble. So far, sadly, there’s no sign of temperatures dropping.

The feud pits the nation’s two biggest and richest Jewish welfare federations against a little-known agency that serves as a sort of public-policy think-tank for Jewish federations nationwide. The agency, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, or JCPA, is supposed to coordinate the federations’ policies with those of national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. The federations in New York and Chicago think it’s actually off pursuing its own liberal agenda. They want to shorten the leash.

The council claims to be the most broadly representative group in American Jewish life. Its members include a dozen of the biggest national Jewish organizations, Orthodox to Reform and left to right, plus 120 local Jewish federations and community-relations councils. Its annual policy statement, hammered out through a year-long process of negotiation among the groups, ranges from Israel to school prayer to abortion, welfare reform and the environment. What results is an astonishingly broad consensus across the Jewish spectrum.

The problem, say New York and Chicago federation leaders, is that the consensus isn’t genuine. They say the council operates through a flawed process that leaves too many Jews outside. “There is a portion of our community who question if it is even appropriate for an organization to speak on behalf of the Jewish community on some of these issues,” wrote the president and executive director of New York UJA-Federation, James Tisch and Stephen Solender, in a June 30 letter to the council. The Chicago federation endorsed most of the New Yorkers’ complaints in its own letter Aug. 6.

The New Yorkers want the JCPA to prune its agenda and focus on things “germane” to federations, like aid to immigrants and care for the Jewish elderly, plus no-brainers like Israel and anti-Semitism. They particularly want the council to abandon subjects like affirmative action and school vouchers, where they say the old Jewish consensus of the 1960s and 1970s has collapsed.

Jewish conservatives are hailing the tiff as evidence that Jewish liberalism is finally in retreat, something they’ve prayed for since the Nixon administration. But insiders on both sides say conservatives have little to celebrate. The issues the two federations want the council to focus on — increased federal aid for immigrants, seniors and the poor — are big-spending liberal ideas, not right-wing causes.

In part this is just local politics, especially in New York. The federation there has long been at odds with its local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is dominated by a poorer, more conservative population and often resents federation’s “Park Avenue liberals.” Not surprisingly, the community council doesn’t have much use for national JCPA, either. Some say the New York federation is leaning on JCPA in a machiavellian bid to bring its own community council closer.

But many outside New York and Chicago say the dispute’s causes run deeper, and may actually be more worrisome than any simple ideological shift. Some say it’s about money: a bid by federations and their donors to control Jewish public policy and make it serve fundraising needs, rather than the wishes of average Jews. “Every poll shows the majority of the Jewish community cares about the prophetic charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick,” insists Marcia Goldstone, outspoken director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But money talks. Federation leaders concede money is a factor, but deny it’s a power-grab. They just want to make every dollar count when cash is tight. “The question is whether the issues that JCPA is tackling are germane to the UJA-Federation mission,” says New York’s Tisch, son of Laurence and CEO of Loew’s Corp.

Beyond money, the dispute reflects an alarming decline in the Jewish community’s ability to take positions of any sort with credibility. More and more, it appears, Jews are simply unwilling to agree. Federation leaders call it “lack of consensus.” But that’s only half-true. Jews aren’t more divided than they were three decades ago. Dissenters haven’t become more numerous. They’re simply less willing to defer to the majority.

This comes in many forms. Orthodox Jews are more defensive, more fearful of a liberal majority that seems ever further from tradition. Republicans are more defiant, less willing to let their money be used to advance a liberalism they consider bankrupt.

As for federation leaders, they’re more dependent each year on smaller numbers of bigger donations. Each gift becomes more important, and each threat to withhold a gift more frightening. Each time another conservative complains about “JCPA liberals,” supporting the council seems more like an expensive habit.

In part JCPA’s problems are of its own making. Over the last decade it’s abandoned part of its mandate. It was born to juggle the different needs of its two constituencies, national agencies and local federations and councils. The local councils wanted it to be their voice on the national stage. The agencies — especially the fiercely competitive ADL, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress — wanted it to keep low and not compete with them. Balancing them was JCPA’s key to survival. In recent years, under executive director Lawrence Rubin, JCPA has tilted sharply toward the local councils. Three years ago it changed its structure, downgrading the power of the national agencies. Some agencies responded by dowgrading their role in JCPA. “They became de facto another defense agency,” said ADL national director Abe Foxman. “That turned us off.” The result, ironically, was to reduce JCPA’s visibility and clout. Given all those troubles, it’s a wonder the New York and Chicago federations haven’t received more support from other cities. The reason is that most communities realize clipping the JCPA’s wings is more expensive than supporting it.

“JCPA doesn’t merely take positions for the sake of it,” said Burt Siegel, director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council and dean of local council directors. “Black politicians stood with us on Soviet Jewry because we stood with them on poverty and health care. JCPA offers an opportunity to help shape society in many ways that make life better for most Jews.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

The Young Leaders

Israel is on its way to becoming a back-burner issue in much of the American Jewish community. Studies show that the younger the Jew, the less connection he or she feels to what is, let’s try to remember, the Jewish homeland. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which used to give Israel 50 percent of the funds it raised, has cut that figure by nearly half. One of the Federation’s “old leaders” pointed out to me that Israel isn’t even mentioned any more in Federation advertising — it’s bad for business. Israel has become a wormy apple for many American Jews — all this unpleasantness with the Palestinians and, on top of that, a hot, fuming plateful of disrespect for Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Judaism they practice.

Meanwhile, Israel no longer needs the money of American Jews, and American Jewry is noticing its own needs, especially addressing the ignorance and apathy of its native constituency. So priorities are shifting. That the Federation, despite all this, cares enough to mount projects in Israel and to maintain an Israel liaison office, directed by the indefatigable Marty Karp — well, it makes a person happy.

And, now, here come Los Angeles’ young leaders — aged 25 to 40, the next generation of Jewish Federation movers and shakers, currently still in training. As part of the “twinning” of Tel Aviv with the Los Angeles Jewish community, 14 of them came to Israel to see what has already been accomplished by the partnership, to meet their counterparts in Tel Aviv, and to think up new joint projects.

These young leaders too know all the bad news back home — the great sea of the intermarried; their uneducated children, high and dry out there in America; the great masses of the unreachable unaffiliated; and a dwindling of any sense of connection to Israel or to other Jews. Even anti-Semitism is way down, as if the rats are abandoning the sinking ship. Certainly these are profound issues for their generation to face, but, as one of them asked rhetorically, “How can anyone be a Jewish leader without a connection to Israel?”

Nonetheless, they came with a lot of inaccurate preconceptions — that, for example, your typical Yossi on the street, since he speaks Hebrew, knows all about Judaism. In fact, a surprising number of Yossies don’t know nuthin’, just like in America. Then there’s the surprise that the denominational labels and divisions that are the fabric of American Jewish life mean little in a country that knows only “religious” and “secular.” More confusing still, many “secular” Israeli Jews turn out to be quite religious by American standards.

For this generation of American Jews, Judaism has become, as one of the young leaders put it, “fully optional.” These people have chosen yes, and many of them have set themselves the project, not just of learning about the Jewish community they hope to lead but of investigating Jewish spirituality and Judaism’s classical texts, drawn to texts and observance because that is Judaism’s irreducible core. What one of the group called “mere ethnicity” will not long sustain Judaism in America; in the end, only religion will. That much has become clear.

So what do the young leaders want? One stated ambition is to “change the corporate culture” of the Federation. Another is to get “our generation’s agenda” recognized. They were light on specifics, though — none could name a “cultural” change more far-reaching than not scheduling meetings during workday hours or an agenda item more revolutionary than outreach to the unaffiliated, which the Federation has been trying to do for years, with limited success.

But their tone and style is new, and so is their focus. Maybe it takes fully acculturated American Jews, born in the second half of the century, to draw in others like themselves. “We’re role models,” said one woman, pointing out that Dor Shalom, the Israeli “peace group” founded after the Rabin assassination (whose young leaders our young leaders met with), has been successful in involving apathetic Israeli twentysomethings in a social movement.

But it’s not really so surprising. There’s an old story about a student who asked his rabbi what a person could learn from a modern invention such as the locomotive. The locomotive, his teacher replied, shows us that one hot one can pull along a hundred cold ones. I hope these young Los Angeles leaders can do the same. It seemed to me they were definitely going to try.


David Margolis writes from Israel.

Body Building

Some 3,000 delegates from Jewish welfare federations across North America convened in Jerusalem on Nov. 16 for the yearly General Assembly of their roof body, the Council of Jewish Federations. It’s the first assembly held in Israel in the council’s 66-year history.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. The Council of Jewish Federations, or CJF, is in the final stages of a long-awaited merger with its squabbling twin sister, the United Jewish Appeal. The two are supposed to combine by next March to form a new body, still unnamed. With annual revenues of $1.5 billion and branches in every local community, the new body will instantly become the most powerful institution in organized Jewish life. Yet nobody’s sure how it will be governed, who will run it or just what its mission will be.

The delegates in Jerusalem haven’t been discussing any of that, though, not officially. They’ve been spending their week touring the countryside and listening to speeches on the meaning of Jewish life. The future shape of American Jewry’s most important institution is being worked out by a committee.

This would normally be the place for a joke about guys in smoke-filled rooms. But the truth is, local community leaders seem happy leaving things to a committee. “A lot of the people who go to the General Assembly don’t get into the nuts and bolts of who’s running the national organizations,” says delegate Paula Steinberg of Hartford, Conn. “They just want to know how to raise money to help support the old folks in the local Jewish home. The other stuff doesn’t interest them much.”

In fact, after four years of stop-start merger talks, the top negotiators aren’t much interested anymore, either. Despite numerous secluded conclaves and in-depth studies by expensive consultants, they haven’t settled some of the most basic questions about the new body. Many are just fed up.

Unfortunately, this stuff matters. The new body will have a huge impact on how Jews live in the next century. Will it have the power to launch national crusades — for day schools or senior care, for example — or merely coordinate local efforts? Will local federations be required to send a share of revenues for overseas relief programs, as Israeli leaders demand? Or is overseas aid nearly obsolete, as some locals insist? Will synagogues and other groups come in as partners in the new federated philanthropy? Or will the ball remain in the hands of big donors?

Even more unfortunately, these questions have been so divisive that, by last summer, the talks were at a virtual standstill. UJA and CJF leaders were snarling at each other. Volunteers were fed up with professionals, and vice versa. Some of the biggest givers, billionaire “megadonors” such as the Bronfman brothers and Ohio clothier Leslie Wexner, were losing interest in the whole notion of federated philanthropy.

Fortunately, relief appeared in September, in the form of Jeffrey Solomon, respected former deputy director of the New York federation, who now heads a Bronfman family foundation. At the pleading of several big-city federation executives, the Bronfmans agreed to lend Solomon on a part-time basis as coordinator — “midwife,” he says — of the merger.

Since then, says one federation chief, “it’s finally coming together. What the field was experiencing was a lack of leadership. The top staff positions at both UJA and CJF are being filled by caretakers. The volunteer leaders aren’t necessarily of the first rank, not with the power and influence that the earlier generations had. Things have been drifting for a long time. But it’s all been unlocked in the last two months.”

Solomon’s biggest contribution, besides boosting morale, seems to be getting negotiators talking again. Details are being cleared up by compromises on all sides. Whether to require overseas funding will be put off for two years; federations have agreed to freeze their payments at current levels until then.

The most ingenious compromise is on the awkward question of just what the point is. Defenders of overseas aid, Jewish education and local social services have been at each others’ throats for years, each insisting their cause was number one. Now, a committee is drafting a “mission statement” that ties all three causes together in one vision. The result sounds suspiciously like — well, Judaism.

The other big change is a turnaround in megadonor attitudes. Led by Charles Bronfman, Solomon’s boss, the group is showing renewed interest in federated philanthropies. There’s even talk that a few will be recruited to lead the new organization: Bronfman as founding chair, Wexner as his fund-raising deputy. New York superbroker Michael Steinhardt would head a new division for Jewish “renaissance,” the insiders’ term for education, culture and religion.

If people of such influence come aboard as leaders, they could add a tone of authority and glamour too long missing. But it’s a double-edged sword. If they become the entire leadership, other Jews could feel left out. It might help if a few schoolteachers or cabdrivers were named co-chairs.

The problem is leadership. Nobody’s sure what it means in Jewish life. That’s doubly apparent in the search for a chief executive. The hunt has been delegated to a 24-member search committee, which has appointed a screening committee and hired a headhunter. Some two dozen possible candidates have been approached.

What they haven’t done yet is define what they’re looking for. “We’re looking for the best person we can find,” says committee co-chair Dan Shapiro, a New York attorney. “Nobody is out of bounds.”

That’s for sure. Federation executives want to hire a federation executive, someone who understands the complex system and knows the players. Lay leaders want a public personality — politician, college president — who can unite the community and put the new body on the map.

Right now, the searchers are talking to everyone, hoping that someone surfaces with all the conflicting qualities. Odds are slim, though. Sooner or later, they’ll have to make some tough choices. Choices that will affect all of us for years.

At that point, maybe they’ll talk, somehow, to the rest of us.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

The Valley

Binyamin Netanyahu’s crises never come singly. One, of prime interest to American Jewry, was put on hold this week. Another, which hogged the headlines for Israelis, ended with blood on the saddle.

Leaders of American Reform and Conservative movements reached an agreement, in principle, with the prime minister and other secular members of his ruling coalition to find, by Sept. 15, a compromise solution to their confrontation over a proposed conversion bill that Diaspora Jews feared would reduce them to second-class status in Israeli eyes.

On the same Tuesday night, Dan Meridor resigned as finance minister after a Cabinet showdown that most Israeli commentators attributed to a clash of personalities rather than its ostensible cause — exchange rates and the pace of economic liberalization. “Binyamin Netanyahu,” as political analyst Hanan Crystal put it, “no longer wanted Dan Meridor in his government.”

The conversion bill compromise was based on a position paper presented to the prime minister and his colleagues by a Reform and Conservative delegation.

“I believe this is a great gain for us,” said one delegate, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Rabbi Uri Regev, the foremost Israeli campaigner for religious pluralism, was “cautiously optimistic.” He recognized that the emerging formula still had to overcome the opposition of Netanyahu’s religious coalition partners, who control 23 of the 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

The three Orthodox parties did not endorse the deal. One of their Knesset members stalked out of a Knesset committee room when the American delegation entered. “Chutzpah,” said a fuming Rabbi Moshe Gafni, a member of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party. “They have no place here.”

“Potentially,” Uri Regev told me, “this is an historic breakthrough.” He celebrated the degree of seriousness with which the prime minister and coalition representatives approached the issue as “an unprecedented turn of events.” The politicians were evidently shaken by the depth of Diaspora anger on a matter that tends to be consigned to the margins by most Israelis.

Regev, one of the first Israeli-born Reform rabbis, pinned his hopes on two possibilities. Either some of the Orthodox Knesset members would pull back from the brink, recognizing that they would not command a majority if the bill was presented again. Or a combination of secular government and opposition Knesset members would vote it down. However, that does not mean, as some of the delegation expected, that the government would now grant them equal standing in Israel.

Under this week’s compromise, the legislation was pulled from the Knesset agenda. In return, the non-Orthodox movements agreed to withdraw their petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court, which precipitated this crisis. The justices had given legislators until June 30 to clarify the law if they so wished.

The tug of war between Netanyahu and the governor of the Bank of Israel, Ya’acov Frenkel, on one side and Dan Meridor on the other ended less amicably. After announcing his resignation, the finance minister told reporters that he was not resigning over economic policy alone. He had, he said, lost faith in the prime minister.

Tension between the two Likud leaders goes back to early 1996, when it looked as if Netanyahu was going to lose the May elections. Meridor was reported to have plotted to replace him as the Likud candidate for prime minister. After winning the elections, Netanyahu was forced, against his will, to include Meridor on his government team.

Although they agreed on the need for liberalization, the prime minister repeatedly humiliated the finance minister over economic tactics. Meridor responded by openly criticizing Netanyahu’s handling of the Bar-On affair, the abortive appointment of an underqualified party hack as attorney general in questionable circumstances.

Following his resignation, Meridor blamed Netanyahu’s hatchet man, Avigdor Lieberman, for undermining him. Lieberman had, indeed, made no secret of his determination to get rid of his boss’s troublesome rival.

“I have served in the government of Menachem Begin,” Meridor said. “I served in the government of Yitzhak Shamir. I have never seen anything like this. A chapter has closed, and I cannot continue anymore. As long as I had faith in the prime minister, I remained in the government.” Nothing, he contended, had changed since the Bar-On scandal.

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