HOPE, NOT FEAR.
A GOLDEN AGE FOR NORTH AMERICAN JEWRY?
When the great mass of Jews immigrated to the United States and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they didn’t come in order to be better Jews. They came in search of a better life, eager to leave behind the poverty and anti-Semitism in those areas of Eastern Europe where Jews were permitted to settle. It was most important to speak English, support their families, and give their children a good education. The rallying cry was not “Be Jewish,” but “Be somebody!”
Jewish identity, for these immigrants, was not something that had to be learned or strengthened. It was a condition of life, defined by their experience of anti-Semitism and separation from the larger society. They didn’t worry about whether their children would remain Jewish. They assumed that like them, the next generation would simply have no choice in the matter; North American society would not accept them other than as Jews. So while they taught their children to fight for the rights of the Jewish people—and of all humanity—to live in freedom, they taught them little of the texts, history, and traditions of Judaism.
If we examine the matter more closely, we will find that the great majority of the immigrants were themselves mostly ignorant about Judaism. As the late Arthur Hertzberg describes in The Jews in America, the Eastern European Jews who came to North America were “penniless and largely uneducated even in Judaism.”1 The shtetls from which they had come were organized so that the very few who knew Hebrew and could study Torah did so in the beit midrash, the study hall. Those students of Torah and Talmud were highly respected, and studying was what they did all day, while their wives struggled to feed the family. The others were taught to read Hebrew but not to understand it. They spoke Yiddish and went to synagogue and prayed, having no idea what they were saying when they chanted the service. Is it any wonder that learning Judaism took a backseat when they came to the United States and Canada?
While their new home offered the first generation of Jewish immigrants far greater freedom and opportunity than the “old country,” they still faced discrimination and hate. In response, the Jewish communal agenda focused on fighting anti-Semitism and ensuring a secure, prosperous future for the Jews. Institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith struggled to make the anti-Semitism in North American society, as depicted in the film Gentleman’s Agreement, fade away. Organizations were built to support the needs of new immigrants, to advocate for Jews in North America and worldwide, and, later, to support the young State of Israel.
To what would have been the great surprise of our immigrant grandparents, we Jews have succeeded beyond their dearest hopes. Jews have reached positions of leadership and status in many fields. In government, an Orthodox Jew, Joseph Lieberman, has been a serious vice presidential candidate and contender for the presidential nomination. In business, Jews are in senior positions in manufacturing companies, in banks and investment banking firms, and in service companies. In education, countless Jews are professors at North America’s universities, and a number of Ivy League colleges have Jewish presidents. When I went to Williams College, class of 1950, I said to myself that long before there would be a Jewish president of that noble educational institution there would be a Jewish president of the United States. Now Morton Owen Schapiro, the second Jewish president of Williams, welcomes students into his home to celebrate the Passover seder. Not only have Jews achieved economic and professional success in North American society, but being Jewish has also lost its stigma. Ethnic identity, once seen as something to be shed in the melting pot of North American life, is now celebrated. Love has replaced hate, as non-Jews use the Jewish Internet dating site, JDate, to find Jewish spouses. Jewish holidays are respected in schools and in the workplace. While anti-Semitism certainly has not disappeared entirely, it is no longer a significant force in North American life.
In the view of many, the North American Jewish community has reached a golden age that far eclipses any golden age in the long history of Jewry. But for those of us who care about the future of Judaism, the news isn’t so good. Something was lost in the transition from the shtetl to the condominium. North America’s warm welcome has led to a new kind of danger: the danger that without others forcing our identity upon us, we will forget who we are. In the past, “the others” made sure that Jews knew they were Jewish. Now that we are free to choose Judaism, our existence is threatened not by the others but by the ease with which we ourselves seem to cast off Jewish identity. “Who is a Jew?” has been the hotly debated question in past decades: Is a Jew a person with a Jewish mother? A Jewish father? A Jewish grandparent? Now the question “Who is a Jew?” is slowly being answered by “a person whose grandchildren are Jewish.”
My mentor Nahum Goldmann had a wise expression: When things are good for Jews, it’s bad for Jewry. Yes, it is a golden age for Jews in North America, with greater prosperity and recognition and fewer physical dangers than ever before. But we now must ask, do North America’s rapidly assimilating Jews possess a Jewish identity that is durable enough for their children’s children to inherit?
Richard Joel, former president and international director of Hillel, now president of Yeshiva University, would say that being Jewish used to be a condition and now it’s an option. How very true. When I was young, I was Jewish because my parents were Jewish, as were theirs. For me, Judaism is what Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC—JIR), called a “habit of the heart,” a deep, inseparable part of where I come from and who I am. “We grew up as either children or grandchildren of immigrants,” Ellenson told me. In that context, he said, “ ‘Do I choose to be Jewish?’ was an absurd kind of question.”
When I asked Rabbi David Hartman, founder and codirector of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to put into words the biggest problem the Jewish people face, his answer was, “How to survive with freedom … When Jews were being persecuted, they had a way of coping with suffering. Now the issue is not suffering. The issue is the freedom to become anything you want while living in an open society which doesn’t constrain you.”
Is there something that we can do to keep Judaism alive, and significant, in North America? Yes, if we care enough. But first we must recognize just how serious the situation is. For Judaism to survive with the freedom Jews now enjoy, we must unite to fight the new enemies: our own ignorance and apathy. If we can cure the apathy about Judaism, then we will be able to cure the ignorance. It’s not too late to act, but the prognosis is not good if we do not.
I dreamed up the phrase “Jewish renaissance” with Richard Joel when I first began my work with Hillel in 1994. We used it to describe what we wanted to accomplish at Hillel and throughout the Jewish educational system. (We thought of “rejuvenation” and discarded it as a pun in bad taste.) At the time, the Jewish community was still reeling from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of over 50 percent. The immediate response was panic, as the Jewish community asked itself, “How do we keep our children Jewish?” “Jewish continuity” became the new communal buzzword.
As a slogan, “Jewish continuity” lacks vigor and challenge. What are we asking young Jews to continue? The Judaism of their grandparents can no longer exist. The shared language, culture, and community of the immigrant experience is several generations behind young North American Jews. As the years march on, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, which bound Jews together in mourning and in celebration, disappear from memory and become history. What is taught about Judaism in most Hebrew schools is uninspiring, at best. In the vast majority of cases there is little Judaism in the home and no one to explain to Jewish children why they take the extra classes, away from many of their friends. For most young Jews, the strongest connection to Judaism is through family celebrations, but connection to family does not always extend to a sense of responsibility for the larger family of the Jewish people, a feeling that their grandparents possessed without question. The threat of Jewish disappearance, so alarming to me, is not enough in itself to persuade young Jews today to make Jewish choices, to build Jewish homes, and to raise Jewish children. If we want young Jews to choose Judaism, we must help them to understand what that choice means.
One thing is perfectly clear: The only way Judaism will survive in the Diaspora is through Jewish education. North American Jews, so sophisticated in all areas but their own heritage, must learn something about Judaism. Many of North America’s Jewish institutions were built with the goals of finding acceptance in the larger society and fighting anti-Semitism. Now, at the opening of the twenty-first century, Jewish education must be our new mission. We must help Jews, young and old, to build a sense of connection to the Jewish people. We must help them to understand the joy that can be found in Judaism, and remind them that in the midst of joy we cannot forget those in pain. We must impart some knowledge of the texts and history of our tradition. We must show, through education and example, the value and relevance of Jewish ethics.
It all gets back to Jewish pride. To me, there is something very satisfying in knowing who I am and where I come from. By asserting my Jewishness, I am keeping faith with my ancestors and being true to myself. I am proud of the fact that Jews gave the Ten Commandments to the world. I am proud of the Talmud, that body of Biblical interpretation that contains our ethics and so much more. I like the fact that we each have a direct relationship to the Almighty and our rabbis are here to teach, not to forgive our sins. Only God can do that; hence we ourselves are responsible for our actions. I love the Jewish mystical concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, based on the idea that man is God’s partner in creation. Our tradition teaches that we must not only take care of the world but also improve it.
To realize what Jews have contributed to civilization is a giant step on the road to understanding what we as Jews stand for. In every field we have excelled. Why? Because our tradition makes us ask questions. Persecution has only made us work harder to succeed. It isn’t any accident that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has the best string section in the world—it’s full of Russian Jews who are superb musicians. It’s no accident that the best doctors in the world are Jews. But it’s not enough for young Jews to revel in the accomplishments of other Jews. They must also have some understanding of what Judaism means. Pride without knowledge is empty and won’t last. You can’t be truly proud of something you know nothing about.
I asked Rabbi David Hartman if there had ever been a time and place in Jewish history when all Jews were educated about Judaism, and he replied, “No.” A call for renaissance is a call for rebirth, not for a restoration of an earlier age or a continuation of what we were doing before. Jewish renaissance must challenge the Jewish community to see where outdated ideas and structures must be discarded and our Jewish story created anew. We must use our unprecedented security and success in North America to cultivate a new kind of Jewish life, one that can flourish with freedom. We need a new flowering of a Judaism based on knowledge and pride, a Judaism of hope, not fear.
When I first took on the presidency of the World Jewish Congress, the great Rabbi Joseph Ber Soleveitchik told me, “Jews were not put here just to fight anti-Semitism.” His words resonate even more deeply for me today. For centuries, Jews have fought heroically to defend other Jews, and we must continue to do so. Anti-Semitism remains a global threat that has taken new forms with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But the Jewish people have not stayed alive for so many years only to fight, and fighting alone will not sustain us for the future.
What do we need to ensure that Judaism not only survives, but thrives? In 1990, the late Rabbi Isidore Twersky wrote a statement that called for galvanizing change in Jewish education. His words beautifully express a vision for Jewish renaissance:
Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith.2
To achieve this goal will be to reach a true golden age for North American Jewry.
Copyright © 2008 by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. All rights reserved.