Previously in America, educated, passionate American Jews may have said that their biggest problems were external – anti-Semites, the survival of Israel or other pressing issues. Today, undoubtedly the biggest Jewish problem in America is an internal issue – Jewish assimilation. The great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote over 100 years ago that “spiritual rootlessness is no less horrendous than physical insecurity.” He added “The dangers of spiritual impoverishment were greatest exactly where external pressures were weakest or non-existent.”
Today, in 2012 this quote speaks to American Jewry. While there are isolated cases of anti-Semitism there aren’t real physical problems or many external pressures facing American Jewry. Iran is a vast danger to Israel but there is a Jewish state with a Jewish Army – and as my mother said “This too shall pass.”
The larger problem is one of Jewish continuity. There are very few programs succeeding in educating or exciting the next generation of American Jews. With rampant assimilation, there is precious little leadership in American Jewry. While Newsweek makes a big deal about their Top 50 Rabbis list, how many non-Orthodox do they truly reach, and even amongst those they do reach, how many of their children will be Jewish in America one or two generations from today? How many American Jews have any clue who Abe Foxman or any of the other so-called Jewish “leaders” are?
Those of us involved in the American Jewish community who follow the issues and read Jewish media hear plenty of noise about “Jewish problems” – whether its Ultra-Orthodox pressure, BDS, Jonathan Pollard or those who say American Jews are alienated because Israel “occupies” the Palestinians. The vast majority of American Jews simply don’t care about these or any other Jewish issues and they don’t care about being Jewish.
Other than Chabad and perhaps Birthright, what American Jewish organizations or movement in the last 15 years can claim to have an impact on this generation of American Jewry ? Which one of them will claim to impact the next generation (or 2)? Precious few and it’s simply terrifying.
Rabbi Avi Weiss tells a story about a wise rabbi who knew the answer to every question anyone could ask him. He traveled from town to town teaching and answering questions. One day he arrived in a town and a young girl cried out: ‘I have a question for you, Rabbi, and I’m sure you can’t answer it.’ The rabbi smiled and said ‘Ask.’ She spoke: ‘I have a bird hidden behind my back, held carefully in my hands. Is the bird dead or alive?’ She had already come up with a scheme that would would guarantee the rabbi’s failure, saying to herself, “If he answers ‘It is dead,’ then I will let it go free and if he answers ‘It is alive,’ then I will crush it in my hands and kill it”.
The rabbi knew that the young girl was intent on tricking him. He answered her: “My dear child, you hold the bird in your hands. The answer all depends on you. You can let it live, or you can take its life. The answer is in your hands.” That bird symbolizes the Jewish people and our ability to shape the future of the American Jewish community.
During the 2008 American presidential election cycle there was discussion about both major political parties briefly suspending partisan campaign efforts, in order to address the massive economic issues facing the country “in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people.” The time is long overdue for this effort to take place – a moratorium of some set period of time on monies spent on partisan, divisive issues – and for an American Jewish focus on defeating assimilation. Who will be the first to unite issuing a call to action aimed at benefiting not just this generation but the next generation of American Jewry? Who amongst the orthodox and reform movements, right and left, will be the first to actually lead on universal issues of education and poverty? Which brave leader will say enough is enough, lets all focus on assimiliation ?
On a recent Friday night during services in the Carlebach shul in Manhattan, a young boy – age 3 or 4 – climbed up to the pulpit, and making a lot of noise, as toddlers are apt to do, distracted many of us during services. His father sheepishly went to remove him, but the synagogue insisted the boy stay exactly where he was.
In a moment I won’t forget, the Rabbi insisted that in any prayer session, the children are the purest and most holy, their prayers permeate the heavens and elevate all of the Jewish peoples’ prayers. The congregation explained that the child needed to stay on the pulpit as that is the right place for Jewish kids. It was a beautiful scene and one that the many in the Jewish community including members of all religious and political beliefs should seek to emulate.
Mark Twain in 1899 wrote: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” Answering this question and ensuring the people of Israel remain immortal continues to be the foremost Jewish concern in America.