Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in North America

Celebrating 350 years in America: Summer 2005

This is an important year for Jews in America. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1654, a small, bedraggled band of Jews sailed into the harbor of Dutch New Amsterdam and sought refuge. They were the leftovers of a major exodus of Portuguese Marranos from Dutch Brazil after Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese. Most of the refugees returned to Holland. Some of the refugees disembarked in Curacao. A few chose North America as their destination. The Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, resisted the entry of the Jews. But the corporate leaders of the Dutch West India Company, including wealthy Portuguese Jews, overruled Stuyvesant’s prejudice. The first self-proclaimed Jews had arrived in North America.

North America was no ordinary desti­nation for the Jews. It was not like arriving in Iraq, Germany, or Poland. America was to become the leading nation of the ur­ban industrial revolution, the dynamo of capitalism and the money economy. Not since the invention of agriculture ten thou­sand years before had a revolution of this magnitude taken place in human develop­ment. The assault of science and technology transformed Western civilization and ulti­mately the world. Although the weary Por­tuguese Jewish refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam had no idea of what would fol­low, they had landed in the place that would change the Jews more powerfully than any other country in which they had sojourned. That change was so powerful that Jews in America today cannot even comprehend what Jewish life and Jewish belief were like three hundred years ago.

America turned into such an attractive destination for Jews that it ultimately became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The immigration came in waves. First came the trickle of Portuguese Marranos, who settled in the coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Then came the bigger wave of German Jews, who laid the foundations of American Jewish life and institutions. After the Germans came the overwhelming numbers of Yiddish-speak­ing Eastern European Jews, who created a powerful Jewish presence in the major cities of North America. In the twentieth century refugees from Nazi and Soviet terror arrived. Even a substantial number of Israelis have established a Zionist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

The roots of American culture lie in many places. One is the incredible potential wealth of the continent we live on. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world from which the reality of a liberal democracy first emerged. Still another is radical Calvinism, which despised aristocracy and glorified human equality. Above all, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the American Revolution, championed the powerful no­tions of science and progress. This country, like England, was an ideal place for the urban industrial revolution to begin. Prosperity and freedom were the consequences. Toleration and the separation of religion from govern­ment became the law of the land. The social reality of America was radically different from any previous environment in which Jews had found themselves. Secular education and public schools were available to everyone. No pedigreed upper class prevented social climb­ing. In one generation, money and education could lift immigrants from poverty to success. New secular professions, from accountant to psychiatrist, offered niches of influence and status. Technology and leisure lifestyles opened the worlds of the media and mass entertainment. In America, all the Jewish com­mercial skills that the peasants and warriors of Europe had despised were the very skills that every American citizen needed in order to succeed in a free-enterprise economy. No social environment had ever been as friendly to the Jews as that of America.

But the influence of America on Jewish life lies in something more powerful. Not only did American secular education un­dermine the traditional beliefs of the past, but it also transformed the value system that Jews historically had embraced. Most of the immigrants had come from families and communities that were authoritarian, male chauvinist, and archly collectivist, a milieu where reverence for the past and pes­simism about the future prevailed. America presented a radically new alternative. There was the celebration of dignity and personal freedom, the radical assertion that I have the right to choose my work, my residence, my politics, my religion – and even my marriage partner. There was empowerment, the chal­lenging claim that my role in life was not to be passively humble but to find my own strength and to forge my own destiny. There was the right to happiness, a provocative alternative to accepting suffering with faith. There was a strong shift of focus from the afterlife to the wonderful options for happiness in the secu­lar choices of a dynamic economy.

American Jews embraced these new val­ues with enthusiasm even though they were dramatically opposed to the Jewish values of the past – so much so that many Jews today believe that these values are contained in the Torah; so much so that most contemporary Jews cannot imagine an ethical world without them. If the revolution at Sinai had been a real event, it could not have been more powerful than the American experience in transforming the Jewish people.

Now, these new values can be problematic. A free, individualistic world breeds stress, self-absorption, loneliness, anonymity, and weak nuclear families. Marxism, hippieism, and religious fundamentalism have emerged as challenging alternatives. But, for the vast ma­jority of the people in the Western world, this value system, with all its problems, remains the most attractive. Even modern Israel is more American than it is traditionally Jewish.

It is appropriate this year that we take the time to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in America and to reflect on the revolution that America has provoked in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism is the child of America.

Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

Building strong Jewish communities has never been easy. It is getting harder all the time.

Close to 40 percent of all Jews in North America are unaffiliated with any religious congregation. A high percentage of these people belong to no Jewish organization at all, secular or religious. Even Jews that do belong to conventional communities often have merely peripheral attachments and are notorious for their fickle commitments. Like many children of the consumer culture, they have difficulty relating to groups that do not provide them with an immediate and obvious benefit.

Modern America is very different from the social environment that spawned the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Poland, there was constant reinforcement of the tight-knit, all- encompassing character of Jewish commu­nity life. Jews saw themselves as aliens in a sea of hostile Gentiles. They were so ab­sorbed with survival that the security of group belonging far outweighed any indi­vidual indulgence they might conceive. And, of course, there were no options. You had to be religious. And you had to be Orthodox. America totally transformed the char­acter of the Jewish community. It provided a setting so different from what had ever existed before in the Jewish experience that old formats simply became obsolete.

In America, affluence replaced poverty, ambition vitiated the attractiveness of sacri­fice and obedience, and individual freedom undermined the power of conformity. State and church were separate. Religion was a private opportunity, which any citizen could embrace or resist. Many “flavors” of Judaism emerged, which received no gov­ernment support and which had to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. The secu­lar university took the place of the yeshiva, and the authority of doctors and professors became more impressive than that of rabbis.

The synagogue congregation became the standard Jewish response to the new envi­ronment. Unlike the old kehilla, with its power to intrude on every aspect of per­sonal life, the American alternative was much more like the secularized urban Prot­estant church, designed to serve the reli­gious needs of a middle-class clientele. The American synagogue was no European gemeinde. It did not seek to embrace all Jews for all of the time. It was a “part-time” institution, which competed with many other institutions to win allegiance, enthusi­asm, and money from the individual Jew. The leaders of the synagogue could no longer command. They had to persuade and cajole, with no guarantee that their efforts would be rewarded. Mandates from on high gradually yielded to a focus on the needs of prospective members. After all, if the “buyer” was not satisfied with synagogue A, he might choose synagogue B, or no syn­agogue at all.

On the whole, the American synagogue community, although radically different from any Jewish community that had pre­ceded it, proved to be quite successful. It dramatized the connection of Jews with their ancestral past. It educated the young with a smattering of ethnic culture and reli­gious ideas. It provided a setting for holi­days and rites of passage associated with family life. It gave a visible, legitimate pres­ence to Jewish identity in the general com­munity where Jews spent most of their time. It was sufficiently ambiguous so that Jews, at their convenience, could pass for either a nationality or a religious denomination.

In fact, the synagogue community proved far more viable in the American setting than the alternative Jewish organizations that emerged. The purely ethnic secular schools, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, and the home-country fraternal societies, the landsmanschaften, although strong initially, ulti­mately found oblivion. They lacked identifi­cation with a “church,” a familiar and respectable institution for most Americans trying to preserve their ethnic loyalties.

In the first phase of its development, the synagogue community relied on certain strengths inherited from the traditional communities from which its members came — props that had not yet been weakened by the transforming power of a capitalist cul­ture. The close-knit family with its high motivation to produce children, the social segregation of an immigrant community, the ethnic ghettos that did not admit strang­ers easily, the sense of duty to ensure group survival — all these transitional remnants of the old world persuaded people to join tem­ples or synagogues.

But the community of the future can no longer rely on this inherited support system. The power of an urban consumer culture has so changed the character of Jewish life in America that the old “glue” simply is no longer available. American Jews today are different from their parents and grand­parents. They have different values. They have different needs. They respond to a dif­ferent environment. If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize. After all, in the free set­ting of a free society, they would have to choose to join our community above many other options available to them.

Most of our membership prospects no longer feel that they must join any Jewish temple or synagogue. The old sense of duty and the attendant guilt have simply van­ished. Jews today are less interested in dis­covering what they can do for the commu­nity than in learning what the community can do for them. In a society in which peo­ple are self-absorbed and see themselves as victimized by the demands of external powers, appeals to obligation tend to fall on deaf ears, especially if the institution, as with a humanistic congregation, has no tra­ditional connection.

Most of our membership prospects now come from small, dispersed families. These individuals have a need to find in a congre­gation or havurah the family feeling and family support they can no longer find in their personal settings. At a time when the old extended family is becoming mere memory, people are searching for substi­tutes. The old congregation used family loyalty to reinforce community loyalty. Now the tables are turned. The new congre­gation must provide family loyalty. For many temple members, the temple seder be­comes their family seder. Friends become more than friends.

Most of our membership prospects are professional people with advanced educa­tional degrees. They have intellectual skills that need recognition, and they enjoy partic­ipation. Repetitive rituals and passive listen­ing are less attractive to them than to their parents. They want high quality opportuni­ties for adult education in Jewish history and philosophy not readily available in the school settings they frequent. They prefer a seminar format of dialogue and interchange to didactic lecturing.

Many of our membership prospects are either single parents with grown children or young couples with no offspring on the horizon. They have very little interest in child-centered activity. Where the old con­gregation could rely on the support of unin­volved adults who were worried about the Jewish identity of their children, the new community has to develop intense pro­grams for adults themselves. Life cycle cere­monies that recognize the growth and achievements of adults become indispens­able. Reaffirmation celebrations of Jewish commitment, recognition of educational achievement at universities and profes­sional schools, acknowledgment of special birthdays and anniversaries—all these cer­emonies of passage become as important as thirteen-year-olds’ puberty rites.

Many of our prospective members are feminists. They do not want to be part of a community in which the major leadership roles are turned over to men. They do not want the “sisterhood” and “ladies auxiliary” segregation that in no way reflects the career world in which they function. They want to be part of a group in which impor­tant female leadership roles are visible and in which women work and study together with men.

Many of our prospective members are intermarried. They will not pay for toler­ance, rejection, or second-class citizenship. The old congregation was hostile to inter­marriage and had no place for non-Jews. The new congregation needs to welcome sympathetic non-Jewish humanists who are interested in Jewish culture. The former sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile is no longer as relevant as it was in a less mobile and less open society. There are many ways of expressing support for Juda­ism. Turning away prospective supporters who could help and be helped by the com­munity, simply because they do not fit into old kosher categories, is neither rational nor moral. At a time when 40 percent of all mar­riages by Jews involve non-Jewish spouses, such narrowness is also suicidal.

If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize.

Some of our prospective members have embraced unconventional lifestyles. They may be living with lovers. They may be senior citizen couples who have chosen not to get married. They may be homosexuals. While the traditional congregation viewed these people with abhorrence, the commu­nity of the future will have to find room for them. From the humanistic point of view, their relationships, so long as they are not promiscuous, are morally valid. Their needs have seldom been acknowledged. And their talents have rarely been used.

Most of our prospective members are overscheduled and overcommitted. They no longer have the time or the energy to be per­manent volunteers. The army of gracious women who used to pour their energy into community work is disappearing. Unless professional leaders are hired, much of the essential labor will never be done. After the euphoria of pioneering is past, volunteers are hard to replace, especially if there is no professional help or direction. Humanistic Jewish congregations need access to a trained professional corps of guides and experts, whether these mobilizers are called rabbis, leaders, or teachers.

Most of our prospective members have multiple identities. As achieving individ­uals, they belong to a variety of career and friendship associations that have nothing to do with the Jewish community. They no longer function in the world of social segre­gation their parents enjoyed, and they no longer have the intense sense of Jewishness that flowed from this segregation. They want more from a Jewish congregation than Jewishness alone. Inevitably encountering in their daily experience ethical dilemmas and personal crises that require the help of a coherent view of human existence and human values, they want more from a con­gregation than Jewish culture and Jewish roots. They want a philosophy of life that can reinforce their self-esteem and give them the strength and insight to make wise decisions. Communities need to appeal to the search for personal happiness as well as to the traditional push for group survival.

Of course, the successful congregation of the future will still have to do many of the things that assured success in the past. Sabbath meetings, youth education and youth groups, holiday celebrations and life cycle events — all these tried and true formats of the past will continue to have their place. But they will have to be sup­plemented by a new openness to deal with new developments.

In many ways, Humanistic Jewish com­munities are better able to take this neces­sary plunge into the present and the future than our Conservative counterparts. Opportunity knocks. It is up to us to open the door.

Being Jewish Today — An American Perspective

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Jewish identity is more than a definition. It is an experience.

Most of the usual definitions of the Jew have very little to do with Jewish experience today. They are propaganda pieces, designed to prove a point more than to reveal a reality.

Interfaith banquet definitions of the Jew express the need of many rabbis and lay people to prove that Jews are a religious denomination, a theological fraternity of like believers. Zionistic definitions of the Jew emphasize the importance of nation and culture to justify the creation of a Jewish state. And anti- Semitic perceptions of the Jew dwell on racial uniqueness, a convenient excuse to justify exclusion or extermination.

Even the familiar fallback position— “Jews are an enigma” — is a con­venient way to avoid examining our reality. It cloaks us in mystery: a preternatural puzzlement in a natural world

Defining what we are is not the province of propagandists with ideological vested interests. What we are depends on what history has made us. Being Jewish today in America is living the results of that history, whether or not those results conform to preferred labels.

A humanistic definition of Jewish identity, being empirical, starts with the Jewish experience and works up to the definition — not the other way around.

What is that experience — espe­cially in North America?

Being Jewish today means that no single set of ideas and values makes you Jewish. There is just too much variety. A group that includes theists and atheists, Lubavitchers and civil libertarians under the same label, with the acknowledg­ment of the outside world, is no ideological fraternity. Dealing with Jewish identity as a belief system is naive. When Jews are behaving normally, they rarely ask each other theological questions. Only when they are interrogated by the Gentile world do creedal presentations be­come important. Converts are forced to affirm convictions that born Jews are never asked to endorse.

Being Jewish today means that philosophic affinity transcends the Jewish connection. Many Jews feel a stronger bond of shared belief with non-Jews than they do with fellow-Jews. The secular Jew can communicate more easily with the secular Gentile than with the Hasidic Jew. And the Hasidic Jew can talk more easily about the Bible with a fundamentalist Christian than with a humanistic Jew. “A Jewish world view” is an illusion. In a world in which religious fanati­cism is on the rise, the Jewish community is becoming polarized. Because Orthodox segregationists share no major belief premises with secularized professionals, each group communicates better with its counterparts elsewhere than with each other. While liberal and fundamentalist Jews may agree on the value of Jewish identity, they agree on very little else.

Being Jewish today means that Jewish holidays are the major ex­pression of Jewish culture. Jewish languages are virtually non­existent in the English-speaking environment of North America. Yiddish is a nostalgic exercise, and Hebrew is an Israeli phenomenon. Ashkenazic delicatessen behavior is only uniquely Jewish when Jews are celebrating Jewish festivals. The holidays are the pragmatic heart of Jewish cultural activity in the Diaspora. Even part-time traditional Jews get more traditional when the festivals roll by. Rosh Hashana, Hanukka and Pesakh become the special signs of Jewish identity. They are the bonding activity which unites all Jews, whether traditional or secular. No other Jewish cultural enterprise has survival value in the American milieu.

Being Jewish today can be a signi­ficant experience even without formal religion and culture. In a world in which Jewish identity is important to non-Jews, Jews are always having to deal with their Jewishness. Anti-Semitism persists and provokes some Jews into reluc­tant confrontation. But it is the over­whelming presence of American Jews in American high culture that makes them a very visible and signi­ficant minority, even to friendly Gentiles. The importance of Jews makes Jewish identity important. Books, newspapers and periodicals deal with Jewish identity to such a degree that even the uninvolved Jew frequently is compelled to reassess his attitude to Jewishness. From Philip Roth to Norman Podhoretz, the American literary scene reserves a special place for Jewish anxiety.

Being Jewish today is often a name game. Cohens and Levis have to deal with their Jewish identity even if they choose to be Catholic. Kurt Svensen does not, even if he chooses to be Jewish. Names arouse expecta­tions. In an urban world of strangers, stereotypes become the only reason­able way to fend off chaos. The Katzmans and Finkels of America bear the expectations of their neighbors and of their fellow Jews. Intermarriage proves the point. Off­spring with Jewish last names have to deal with their Jewish identity. Children with alternative labels have other options. Internal belief is often less significant than appella­tive packaging.

Being Jewish today is living with intermarriage. With two out of five Jews marrying Gentiles, the varieties of Jews proliferate. Converted Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews dot the American social landscape and re­place the comfortable tightknit tribal solidarity of years past. Many Jews, typically American, straddle two or more ethnic origins. They simultaneously enjoy Ashkenazic grandmothers and Italian ones, Jewish cousins and Anglo-Saxon ones. The social isolation that Jew­ishness used to bring is replaced by an ethnic conviviality, characteris­tic of the American experience. Jewish establishment institutions are so geared to dealing with either- or situations that they are having great difficulty handling the mixtures.

Being Jewish today is an ex­perience of more funerals than baby namings. The birth rate of American Jews has very little to do with the reputed fertility of Hebrew women in the Exodus story. Ambition, educa­tion and female liberation have pro­duced the inevitable preference for small families or no families. The focus of Jewish attention is shifting from scarce children to profuse mid-life anxieties. “Passages” and the anxieties of personal fulfilment have now entered the programming of Jewish institutions with a ven­geance. Singles and the unattended old are important elements of com­munity caretaking and concern. The fanatic ultra-Orthodox segments of the Jewish world are bound to main­tain their clout — even with attrition — because they are the only Jews committed to reproduction. Liberal Jews are the ones who have the most reason to worry about maintaining their numbers.

Being Jewish today is always bumping into a discussion about the Holocaust. During the past ten years public awareness of the greatest of all Jewish disasters has spread. The media, university curricula and even presidential commissions have made millions of non-Jews aware of this twentieth century horror. The revival of Holocaust consciousness is coincident with another develop­ment. As Jews throughout America move into the neighborhoods and professions that signify success and power, they prefer to be seen as vulnerable outcasts and victims. In a time when commentators point to Jewish economic and political power, it seems safer to focus on our humiliation.

Being Jewish today is handling the anxiety of Jewish survival. Many Jews in America spend so much time worrying about the future of Jewish identity that they have very little energy left over to enjoy its present. Such worriers take all the fun out of Jewish programming. Unless the book or play, the talk or meditation deals with a uniquely Jewish theme (and how many are there?), the value of the event in a Jewish institution is questioned. Countless community centers and culture providers are intimidated into settling for second-rate pro­grams that demonstrate some vague Jewish connection. American syna­gogues and cultural institutions are less interesting than their members, who are quite universal in their interests and behavior. Israelis have it easier. They just do anything they want to, in Hebrew. Shakespeare in Tel Aviv is a Jewish event.

Being Jewish today means think­ing about Israel a lot. Zionism is the greatest Jewish passion of the twentieth century. Nothing Jewish excites Jews more than Israel. (Even the rabbis who regret this over­whelming attachment have come up with no real alternative; talking about spirituality seems a lackluster substitute.) Jews in America often know more about the internal poli­tics of the Knesset than about the deliberations in their own state legislatures. Political candidates who present themselves to Jewish audiences often find that the major issue of interest is their commitment to the strength and survival of the Jewish state. And Jews who talk about Israel with Gentiles frequently discover that these out­siders view the Israeli prime minister as “their” leader. As American Jews become less ethnic in their own behavior, their self- image and observed image are be­coming more nationalistic. As Israeli Jews — because of their birth rate — become a higher and higher percen­tage of world Jewry, this connection will grow more intense.

Being Jewish today in America is dealing with the guilt of making Jewish identity a secondary iden­tity. Most Jews have professional and recreational agendas that are far more powerful than the religious and ethnic attachments that con­tinue to be an important part of their lives. Since many of them were taught to view their Jewish loyalties as primary, they struggle to nego­tiate between official indoctrina­tion and the reality of their own behavior. The ideal solution would be to acknowledge that Jewish identity in America is indeed secondary, though valuable. But most of the Jewish public are not ready for such a confession. Their historic skills make them much more comfortable with guilt.

Being Jewish today is to feel a sense of extended family with other Jews. Underneath all the veneer of official pronouncements about shared beliefs and shared values is this consciousness of cousin kin­ship, shared history and shared danger. Neither a unique culture nor a unique religion defines the Jews of America in the broadest sense. Sentimental attachments, an awareness of residual hostility from outsiders, and a non-linguistic ethnic solidarity come closer to reality.

The Rabbi Writes – The Relationship between Israel and American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 10

Israel will be 41 years old this month. As the Jewishs state it has served the Jewish people well. The Diaspora has acquired both pride, culture and identity from its achievements. 

But all is not well.  Enormous problems confront Israel that often seem insoluble (sic).  The intifada, the Palestinian rebellions int eh West Bank and Gaza, is still strong after seventeen months.  Although its fury has somewhat abated, the Israeli reserves are still mobilized to suppress the uprising.  The cost of coping is high.  Military deficits, the wear and tear of unpopular police duty and the frustration with adverse world public opinion have taken their toll. 

The confrontation between the religious and the secular continues.  While the Who is a Jew? Issue has been temporarily defused, the fanaticism of the fundamentalists fuels new incidents.  Secularists are beginning to despair that they will ever be able to regain their primacy.  The new immigrants are mainly orthodox and their birth rate is high. 

Economic difficulties are everywhere.  Tourism has slumped because of the intifada.  Unemployment is on the rise.  There are insufficient funds to support the health and education programs that Israel needs.  In fact, the underfinanced school system is a disgrace to a Jewish state. 

The surge of Zionist idealism that gave Israel its special moral character at its inception has waned.  Old people have become cynical.  Young people have joined the ranks of the consumer culture.  Zionism has “normalized” the Jewish people to its disadvantaged (sic). 

One of the mor4e serious problems is the disintegration of the special relationship with American Jewry., the most powerful of Diaspora communities.  In the past American Jewish leaders were content to defer to the will of the Israeli government as an expression of Jewish solidarity.  The prestige of Israel was so high in Jewish eyes that this deference seemed natural.  Today rebellion is in the wings.  The connection is more abrasive. 

There are many signs of this new abrasiveness. 

American Jewish leaders have publicly expressed their reservations about Israeli government policies in the occupied territories.  Newspapers and the other media regularly report these disagreements.  In the past any conflict would have been kept secret.  The facade of unity would have been maintained. 

Advertisements by Jewish dissidents denouncing Israeli policy appear in major newspapers.  The signers are often leading intellectual and philanthropists who would formerly have never given their names or their money to such as assaultive exposure. 

Conferences of dissidents now attract thousands of participants.  Just recently, Michael Lerner, the found and the editor of the liberal magazine Tikkun (who will be speaking for us on May 22) held a major meeting of protest in New York.  He challenged the American Jewish leadership to listen to the dissenting voice in their constituency.  This challenge received wide publicity. 

Delegations of American Jewish leaders now travel to Israel to “lobby” the Knesset and the government.  During the Who is a Jew? controversy dozens of organizational heads took the time to go to Israel to express their indignation over proposed legislative changes.  Their protest was effective in undermining the conservative coalition with the orthodox. 

Many local welfare federations hage threatened to withhold their financial support from Israel unless the fundamentalists are restrained. Such threats would have been inconceivable in the past and would have been regarded as “betrayal”. 

American Jewish philanthropy has decided, independent of Israeli counsel and in direct opposition to Israeli policy, to raise millions of dollars for the absorption of thousands of ew Soviet Jewish immigrants by the United State.  The world Zionist Organization ad the Jewish Agency are fit to be tied.  They simply assumed that Israel would have prior claim to special funds raised for immigrant absorption. 

The recent unity conference called by Prime Minister Shamir in Jerusalem was less an expression of solidarity with the policies of the present administration than a show attempt to cover up the differences that everybody knows exist.  The drama of unity lacks the substance of agreement that would make it effective. 

Many factors have contributed to this new abrasiveness. 

Ever since the Lebanon War American Jews no longer see Israel through the reverential glasses of earlier years.  The “moral intimidation” power of Israel has seriously declined.  Israelis no longer appear, in American Jewish eyes to (sic) be as noble as they once were. 

 A modicum of disillusionment has set in. 

The growing power of the orthodox and their strident bid for political control have frightened many American Jews, most of whom are not orthodox.  It was easier for liberal and secular Jews to identify with the “old” Israel than with the present one. 

Adverse publicity concerning the Israeli handling of the intifada fills the American media and embarrasses American Jews.  Accustomed to seeing themselves as victims of oppression the Jews of the United States are very uncomfortable in the role of military repressor.  They are ambivalent.  While they are concerned about the future security of Israel, they want the bad publicity to stop. 

The Israelis have often behaved arrogantly, counting on American Jewish support without ever consulting with American Jews or eliciting their opinions.  While claiming to be the “voice” of the Jewish people, Israel reflects only its own electorate with no real input from Jewish constituencies in the Diaspora.  The insensitivity to American feeling in the Who is a Jew? issue is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

The responses in the American community to this new dissent have varied. 

Many American Jews view it negatively.  They believe that public arguments give ammunition to our enemies, to all the antisemites who seek our destruction.  Families should not wash their “dirty laundry” in public they say (sic).  Freedom of speech yields to the need for survival. 

Many are enthusiastic.  They feel liberated from the fetters of an irrational control.  They maintain that open discussion will energize the Jewish people and lead to the new and creative solutions to problems.  They also maintain that the old leadership, attached to outmoded responses to problems, will never yield power unless publicly challenged. 

Others are simply ambivalent.  They agree with the protest.  But they are uncomfortable with Jews arguing with Jews in public.  They would prefer a quieter assault, although they are not quite sure how to engineer it. 

Which of these responses is the most valid? 

While many positive thighs can be said for solidarity it is no logger possible-either pragmatically or morally.  But dissent has to be responsible too-not simply a vehicle for a power-hungry new elite to replace a power-hungry old elite.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Four criteria ought to guide the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.                

  1. American Jews are the equals of Israeli Jews.  No special status of nobility attaches to living in the Jewish homeland. 
  1. The voice of the Jewish people is more than the voice of Israel.  When what Israel chooses to do affects the welfare of all Jews the leaders of the Diaspora must be consulted.  A regular forum or “congress” for the formulation of joint policies ought to be established. 
  1. The agenda of American Jews and Israelis are not necessarily identical.  Not every issue in Jewish life, including the disposition of Soviet immigrants, needs central control. 
  1. Publicity is no substitute for dialogue. 

Our relationship to Israel is entering a new phase.  We need guidelines. 

The Rabbi Writes: Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish Humanist, September 1977, Vol. 15, Number 1

Rosh Hashanah 

A time for annual Jewish reflection. 

A time to look back on the year that was and ask the question: 

So what is the condition of the Jews? 

The condition of the Jews is not always easy to assess. What pleases the orthodox may not please the atheist. But the conservative calls progress that liberal may label reaction! 

But there are some current problems which all would agree were (sic) troublesome. 

The problem of Israel. The strong posture of the Begin government may be initially appealing. But it remains pure bravado unless Begin can find the Jews to occupy the territories he wishes to annex. In an ironic sense Begin and the old Arafat agree that Israel (or Palestine, if you wish) should remain undivided. For the Arabs the Begin state will in the long run be an Arab State. A bigger Jewish state, without Jewish immigration is the first step to an Arab Palestine. 

The problem of Russia. Russian anti-Semitism continues. In a recent issue of the magazine Moskva, Anatoly Scharansky asserted that Jewish bankers are not yet in power everywhere… it remains the most important task of the Zionist brain center to capture the key positions in the economic, administrative and idelogical machine of the countries of the diaspora… It is natural that such monstrous teachings could not fail to arouse vigilance, dislike and even hostility on the part of people with even a minimum of sense. The so-called Jewish world conspiracy becomes a convenient diversion on the part of the authorities to explain the inadequacies of the Soviet system and to justify anti-semitism. If three million Jews were not trapped within the boundaries of the Soviet Union, the statement would be ludicrous. 

The problem of Argentina. One of the largest Jewish communities in the world (numbering 500,000) is suffering the evils of an incompetent military dictatorship. Terrorism, inflation and unofficial antisemitism are on undermining the security of our Argentine Jewry. A competent dictatorship would at least (sic), have arranged for economic stability! Since the situation is not bad enough for emigration, ambivalence reigns. 

The problem of South Africa. It is only a matter of time before black (sic) nationalism sweeps away the Rhodesian regime and creates civil turmoil in South Africa. Given the power of the Africaner (sic) army it is unlikely that the whites will be driven into the sea in the near future. But South African whites, including 120,000 Jews will be living in the midst of riots and terrorist provocation. No matter how liberal Jews may choose to be, they are condemned to being white. The present emigration of Jewish professionals is the trickle before the flood.  

The problem of Quebec. Montreal had, until recently, the largest and most vital Jewish community in Canada. It’s English-speaking establishment including the Jews is unfrightened (sic) of the future. French Canadian nationalism, like most nationalism (sic) is economically irrational. But it is politically relentless. Toronto is also beginning to experience the exodus of Jews from Quebec. As recent history has demonstrated neither nationalism nor socialism have served Jewish interests well.  

But enough problems.  

What positive things exist? 

Two assets come to mind . 

1.The Arabs are incapable of uniting against Israel. Their hostility for each other in some cases seems to be greater than the hostility to Israel. During the past year Arabs fought Arabs in both Lebanon and Libya. A new public ally has emerged for Israel. The Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon prefer Jews to their fellow Arabs. 

2. The largest Jewish community In the world (some six million) have managed, for some reason or other, to end up in the most powerful nation in the world. America is today the industrial, intellectual and artistic center of our planet. Either the Soviet Union or Western Europe have the cultural vitality of the United States. Jewish power is a function of the Jewish presence in America. Leadership in the arts and sciences is disproportionately Jewish. While many Jews are embarrassed by our conspicuous presence (and think that we should never mention it in a public magazine), others like me are justifiably pleased and believe that our enemies should be reminded repeatedly of what they already know.  

This is reason enough for Jews to say Happy New Year.  

The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.