Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Staying Power of American Jews

The section of the Bava Batra tractate we covered last week spent more than two double pages discussing various aspects of tsedaka, which is sort of a cross between charity, alms-giving, and philanthropy. (No, they're not all the same - and see also the previous post). At one point the discussion focuses on the case where a prominent non-Jewish woman sought a scholar to manage a donation for her. R. Ami turned her down, while Rava accepted the charge. The Gemara assumes they both knew the same halachic restrictions and stipulations on non-Jews and Tsedaka, but ultimately it seems the differing decisions were a matter of geopolitics. The woman was the mother of a Persian king. R. Ami, living in Eretz Yisrael under Roman jurisdiction, could turn her down, while Rava, living under the jurisdiction of her son, couldn't. (Bava Batra 10b).

Borrowing this ancient story for a very contemporary topic, it should be clear that American Jews and Israelis may have legitimate differences on many issues, even assuming either community ever had unanimity an anything on its own side. Geography matters today, as it did eighteen hundred years ago.

My question regarding this editorial in The Forward isn't about it's thesis, but about it's unspoken underlying quandary. The thesis is that the Birthright program which flies young American Jews to Israel for 10 fantastic days isn't enough to forge a long-term bond with Israel; the main follow-up program, apparently, looks sort of like an attempt to proselytize to orthodox Judaism, and this must be countered.

Fair enough for what it's worth. Yet isn't the real problem, even as described by the editorial itself, that for most young American Jews, short of orthodox Judaism there isn't much of a program or option that's particularly compelling?
The community is far less adept at effectively reaching out to single, unaffiliated Jews in their 20s, who marry and procreate later than their parents, and enter adulthood at a time of limitless opportunities as Americans, including the opportunity to ignore their faith and live outside the tribe. Worrying though the Jewish Enrichment Center is, it fills a void left by the inability or unwillingness of more progressive denominations to engage in the kind of passionate outreach characteristic of the ultra-Orthodox. This dynamic is played out on college campuses, where students flock to the warmth and welcome (and, let’s be honest, the liquor) offered in a Chabad house on a Friday night rather than the more institutional atmosphere of the local Hillel or synagogue.
I'm not being judgmental. The historical evidence is that Jews have carried on longer than any other known group, in spite of more adverse conditions, because they wanted to. On past evidence, then, they'll probably continue carrying on to the extent they have the willpower. Where the willpower is insufficient, so will the staying power be lacking.

Pervasive indifference of American Jews to their Judaism is regrettable for Israel, but not an existential threat. It may be such a threat to American Jewry.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, my college kids tell me that the Chabad houses on their campuses attract the less Judaically involved kids, while the ones who are more serious about Judaism/Israel tend more towards the Hillel.

Birthright is great. Cheaper airfares to Israel would be even greater, allowing for more frequent travel.

Victor said...

Birthright worked for me like a hammer to the heart. Chabad has been more like an IV drip.

Young Jews today are not restricted by limitations on owning property or attaining a high level of education, or even marrying a non-Jew. They, as I, are looking for one thing - truth. For everything Zionism is, cut off from our faith, from our soul, it's just another nationalism, no better and no worse.

A lot of secular American Jewish Day Schools attempted to replace G-d with Zionism, as though we didn't need Him because we now had Israel. To teach Zionism without G-d is to teach that Zionism is G-d. Much of the young, progressive Jewish anti-Israel crowd is the crop of these efforts, confused utterly about their identity, taught to worship Israel, rejecting a nationalism they feel is based on lies.

What does anti-assimilation programming by secular Israeli organizations mean? Who are they to be doing this programming? The entire premise behind their programming is offensive - come to Israel, find a Jew (statistically speaking), have babies, stay. That's all a Jew is reduced to? Removed from our faith, that's all they have - secular nationalism facing a demographic time bomb.

Along with bringing American Jews to Israel they should be offering to teach some of the 2 million secular Israeli Jews about their faith, why Israel exists in the first place (it's not the Holocaust!!!), and what their responsibilities are, as Yidden. Truth be told, one can find the same level of ignorance about Jewish faith in Israel that one can in America.

Which brings me full circle, to truth. We Jews need to consider, individually, whether being a Jew is important. Once that is resolved, everything else - intermarriage, Israel, etc. - will fall into place.