The One & the Many
To the Editor:
In “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People” [June], Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer lament the recent decline among American Jews of a commitment to Jewish peoplehood, citing among other things anemic giving to Jewish causes and lackluster attendance at pro-Israel rallies. They contrast the current situation with numerous examples of Jewish solidarity from the 19th and 20th centuries, like lobbying efforts on behalf of endangered European Jews, the establishment of aid organizations, greater support for Israel, and the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. As they see it, intermarriage, American individualism, and the distraction of “universal” concerns are to blame for the worrisome trend.
We share their concern for the soul of American Jewry, but there is more to the story than they let on.
It is hard not to notice that all of the authors’ examples of ethnic cohesiveness came in moments of crisis. Indeed, American Jewish identity and community cohesion have depended almost exclusively on the need to respond to Jews in peril. In this way, Jews are like distant relatives who sporadically reunite for a period of mourning: the shared tragedy brings short-term intimacy, but this is not in itself a recipe for continuity. The declining commitment to k’lal yisrael—the Jewish community as a whole—is a direct result of our having failed to create a positive model of Jewish peoplehood. We will continue to be stunted if we root our connection to one another only in a shared concern for our own.
There is an alternative model of Jewish peoplehood, at the heart of which is the very social-justice work that the authors cite as symptomatic of the problem. As the inheritors of a tradition that emphasizes human liberty, dignity, and justice, we must see both the welfare of our own people and issues like genocide in Darfur, poverty, AIDS, and the worldwide lack of affordable health care as distinctly Jewish problems.
Of course, this requires a paradigm shift in the classic American Jewish consciousness. In the 1960’s, Abraham Joshua Heschel harangued the Jewish community for not seeing civil rights as a Jewish cause, a miscalculation that he saw as a bruise on the Jewish soul. The same is true regarding the critical issues of our day.
Messrs. Cohen and Wertheimer point out that while the idea of peoplehood has declined, synagogue membership and ritual observance have soared. The problem is that in America, Jewish observance is increasingly seen as a personal, rather than communal, activity—a sort of Yiddish yoga, more focused on self-improvement (tikkun atzmi) than the pursuit of justice in an unjust world (tikkun olam). At the same time, many Jews who are interested in social justice fail to see its deep connection to the Jewish tradition, let alone to the Jewish people.
The sense of peoplehood among American Jews is also tied to Israel, and since 1985 we have seen in Israel the “who is a Jew” debate, the first intifada, the rise of a hard-Right religio-nationalism, the turmoil of the Oslo years, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the second intifada. Just as our institutions have not created a rationale for k’lal yisrael that is not dependent on crisis, neither have we modeled a way of loving and supporting Israel that can sustain connections in difficult, complicated times. For many American Jews, especially young ones, reading the news and watching CNN raise questions about the Israel-Palestinian conflict that cannot be answered by simple slogans. We must offer a more nuanced way of being “pro-Israel,” one that goes beyond the notion of “Israel right or wrong.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Los Angeles, California
Progressive Jewish Alliance
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
In their article on the demise of Jewish peoplehood, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer stack the deck more than slightly. Their definition of “peoplehood” amounts to supporting Israel and rallying around Jewish crises, and they dismiss Jewish giving that focuses on universal causes like hunger and poverty or even needy individuals within the Jewish community itself.
The authors lament that Jewish charities have made a conscious effort to keep more of their funds at home for schools, identity-building programs, family services, and the local needy. But it is not clear why giving money to assist an elderly Jew in Hadera, Israel is considered “peoplehood” while doing the same to assist a Bronx retiree is “symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self-respect.”
The authors romanticize a distinct postwar moment in American Jewish history when “we are one” could be said with a straight face. Before the horrors of the Holocaust and the redemptive rise of the Jewish state, did Jews really act as if they were “a single collective whose religious civilization must be nurtured”? Hardly. In any case, the history of Jewish communal institutions shows that the first and foremost charitable impulse was always to help the widow and orphan, with support for the Holy Land and the far-off yeshiva somewhat lower down on the list of priorities.
Nostalgia will not solve what ails the Jewish people; what thinkers and institutions must ask is how they can help craft an identity that is not dependent on crisis for its health. The question is not “whatever happened to the Jewish people?” but “what’s next for the Jewish people?” Cast the question this way, and one might find that the universalist impulse of a group like the American Jewish World Service or a federation campaign that urges individuals to “Live Generously” are signs of an evolving definition of Jewish peoplehood, not symptoms of its decline.
New Jersey Jewish News
Whippany, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer make a strong case that American Jews are losing their sense of Jewish peoplehood. But they fail to take note of contrary evidence, even when they themselves mention it in passing. If, as they say, congregational membership has held steady and ritual observance has increased, this suggests that Jews are looking to be connected to each other and to their faith. It is our obligation to respond to these Jews and to challenge them and others to embrace new structures for peoplehood.
The authors argue that, historically, being Jewish has meant “seeing Jews as a global extended family, exhibiting concern on these grounds for one’s fellow Jews.” But it is also one of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism that we must act universally and be a light unto the nations (or la-goyim)—that is, to behave in such a fashion as to inspire humanity’s respect and imitation. When Jews mobilize to help victims of a hurricane or to stop genocide—efforts that the authors come close to dismissing—one might argue that they are being their most Jewish.
American Jewish World Service
New York City
To the Editor:
The decline in a sense of peoplehood among American Jews that Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer chronicle should not be surprising. Over the course of three generations of freedom in America, Jews moved rapidly into the American intellectual and cultural mainstream while largely rejecting serious engagement with Jewish religion and culture.
Ironically, from the 1960’s to the 90’s, the organized Jewish community focused almost exclusively on Jewish peoplehood and support for Israel as the center of Jewish life while underfunding or ignoring such crucial binding elements as religious, spiritual, and intellectual renewal. In the absence of a strong commitment to Judaism as a religious civilization, the idea of peoplehood declined.
Messrs. Cohen and Wert- heimer seem to diminish the importance of recent signs of energy in this neglected area of American Jewish life. They write: “Membership in both synagogues and JCC’s has held steady and measures of ritual observance . . . have held their own or better. American Jews have also increased their participation in educational programs at all levels. But this heartening development has not noticeably contributed to augmenting their ethnic cohesion or their sense of peoplehood. Instead it has gone hand in hand with its diminishment.”
I would counsel patience. The growth of vibrant congregational life, Jewish learning, personal spirituality, and a genuine commitment to social justice based on Jewish values were not the cause of the problem, and their amazing resurgence may be the first step toward a revival of peoplehood.
For the same reason, Messrs. Cohen and Wert- heimer need not worry so much about diminished giving to traditional federation campaigns. Many federations have successfully developed new, more personal ways to encourage involvement with the Jewish community and the Jewish people. Examples include designated giving to specific projects (rather than to a general fund) and the building of bridges between Israel and Diaspora communities through local initiatives. Indeed, the rebuilding of peoplehood must begin with the personal. Meaning, purpose, learning and a commitment to social justice and real spirituality will mark the renaissance of 21st-century American Judaism and the rebirth of peoplehood.
Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston
To the Editor:
Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer correctly highlight the fraying of the bonds of Jewish peoplehood today. In the latter half of the 20th century, Jewish leaders proudly proclaimed the virtues of “civic Judaism” as a mainstay of Jewish identification. But other currents—American individualism, the rise in mixed marriages, and the quest for personal (or customized) spirituality—have been undermining the fundamental teaching that Jewish living entails responsibilities to the greater Jewish community.
Is the trend as dire as the authors suggest? For one thing, they may have underestimated the role that Israel plays in preserving Jewish cohesiveness. The success beyond all expectations of the Birthright Israel program constitutes a powerful statement that being a Jew in the 21st century means having a relationship with the Jewish state. Perhaps even more significantly, the authors minimize the hastily organized 2002 demonstration in support of Israel in Washington, D.C. Contemporary estimates placed the size of the crowd in attendance at over 100,000—hardly a “meager turnout.”
Of course, much more remains to be done. With the decline in Hebrew literacy, no common vehicle of discourse exists to unite Jews around the world. Knowledge of Jewish history remains minimal at best and distorted at worst. The Holocaust has become the one seemingly obligatory chapter of the Jewish experience that Jews are expected to know while the full sweep of their history as a creative and vital people is unexamined. The increase in mixed marriages has been met with the near collapse of two critical values of Jewish peoplehood—the importance of marriage within the faith and conversion to Judaism as the single best outcome of a mixed marriage. The definition of who is a Jew has been blurred, undermining the memory of Sinai as the unifying theme of Jewish identity. Lastly, the much-touted vocabulary of spirituality emphasizes personal narrative and self-actualization over linkage with the larger collective narrative of the Jewish people.
Nevertheless, in speaking of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish leaders too often emphasize threats to Jewish existence. Although real dangers should not be trivialized, a language of Jewish woes hardly forms an effective base on which to construct sustained and meaningful identification with the Jewish people. American Jews are too well integrated into American society and have too many other doors open to them to respond to cries of panic. Jewish leaders need to respond to the challenge of preserving peoplehood by invoking positive memories of the Jewish past and infusing meaning in the importance of a collective Jewish future.
American Jewish Committee
New York City
To the Editor:
Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer write: “Jews have always understood that the two sides of [their] dual identity—the religious and the ethnic/national—are inextricably intertwined.” True enough, historically, but the formula has evolved in modern times. Today, one can comfortably be a member of the Jewish people by embracing one or the other element; in fact, only a small minority of Jews has retained both.
Moreover, as bases for identity, both nationhood and religion themselves have changed. For the last hundred years, Jewish nationhood has been shaped by Zionism and the modern nation-state of Israel. Religious identity, for its part, has been expanded to a kind of cultural affiliation that no longer depends on piety or observance.
Under the new arrangements, the term “Jewish people” encompasses much more and has a looser meaning than in the past. This allows for diversity, which has its virtues, but it also comes with a price in weaker bonds of commitment. The common denominator among Jews may be no more than a kind of diffuse cultural heritage to which Jews of varying attitudes feel attached in undefined ways.
I agree with Messrs. Cohen and Wertheimer that there has always been a moral center to the Jewish tradition, and that the idea of responsibility to the collective is at its core. If the tradition is reduced to holiday ceremonies, it does not amount to much.
Here American Jews find themselves in a paradoxical situation, for American culture fosters an outlook on life that is more or less explicitly hostile to social solidarity. Thus, it will not do for the authors to blame the waning of care for common Jewish causes on the “therapeutic” inclination to favor personal meaning over social responsibility. This tendency is an ever-present one in a society like America that promotes self-reliance.
A radical form of individualism is also increasingly sweeping over Israel, and the ideal of mutual responsibility is on the wane there, too. What is weakening is not just a tribal bond but the moral spirit that transforms mere kinship into a meaningful, binding social vision. If Judaism renounces its checks against the excesses of individualism, it will lose its moral identity. And without that, peoplehood stands little chance.
To the Editor:
I want to add a note to Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer’s urgent wake-up call. One of the things that has “happened” to the Jewish people over the past century is Zionism. Now, nearly 60 years since the founding of the Jewish state, the larger implications of this upgrade for Jewish peoplehood are becoming more evident.
There are myriad ways to lead a full Jewish life in Diaspora communities, but chiefly in subjective terms like living one’s faith, imbibing one’s group culture, and expressing fellowship with the Jewish people.
In a nation like Israel, no such effort is required. The Hebrew language is everywhere, religious and civic traditions are marked publicly, and parliamentary politics by their nature seek consensus among the populace. Citizens pay their dues to peoplehood by remitting taxes and serving in the army (at a minimum), and everyone knows that he has a stake in the community.
To live in the Diaspora and achieve something comparable requires constant dedication, which as Messrs. Cohen and Wert-heimer argue, needs to be reinforced. I agree, and all those who are active on that front have my respect and admiration. But the challenge is not just a matter of nurturing attitudes at the level of individuals and communities; to the extent possible in a voluntary society, the “nationhood” model has to be emulated.
Messrs. Cohen and Wertheimer relate that Jews in America once invested great energy in Jewish peoplehood: “intervening on behalf of imperiled fellow Jews abroad”; establishing the Joint Distribution Committee “to channel funds for the same purpose”; providing “massive financial and emotional support to an embattled Israel.” But what these efforts had in common was that they were undertaken on behalf of “the other guy,” who in this case were other—i.e., non-American—Jews. Being always for the other guy may be laudable, but it can also mean hardly ever being for oneself. Such a basis for Jewish identity can be difficult to maintain.
It is time for American Jews to think “national”—that is, to democratize and to empower the Jewish self within the American collective. It is time to establish a Jewish public trust, which would issue a national bond for Jewish education. Purchasers of these securities would be entitled to, say, virtually cost-free tuition for their children in a formal or informal Jewish educational setting of their choice. Synagogues that purchase a set amount of bonds annually, proportional to their membership, could also receive a communal subsidy.
Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer write:
Our correspondents are divided in their assessment of our central thesis, namely, that American Jews, particularly those in younger age cohorts, are disengaging from identification with the Jewish people. Barry Shrage and Andrew Silow-Carroll downplay the seriousness of the problem, albeit in different ways. Mr. Shrage, whose leadership of the Boston Jewish community is legendary, counsels patience, citing vitality in the religious and educational domains. As he sees it, these positive developments “may be the first step in the rebuilding of strong bonds between Jews.”
But American Jews, like their Christian neighbors, can easily embrace a passionate and learned religious orientation and yet still lack any collective responsibility to a specific group. In America, strong religious commitment and vibrant local religious communities can (and do) go hand-in-hand with weak transnational or transcommunal bonds.
At one time, those who chanted “Shema Yisrael,” the credo of Jewish faith, at morning services could be counted on to proclaim “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Jewish people lives”) at Sunday afternoon rallies. This seems to be no longer the case. In this regard, we agree with Rabbi Sharon Brous and Daniel Sokatch when they write that “Jewish observance is increasingly seen as a personal, rather than communal, activity.” We are disturbed by the growing tendency of American Jews to engage in Jewish learning, spiritual pursuits, and ritual observance while at the same time professing little attachment to Jews as a people and Israel as a Jewish state. The individualism of American culture is so pronounced that even the most learned and observant Jews manifest fewer signs of political interest, national identification, and ethnic involvement than did their equally religious (and possibly less educated) counterparts 20 or 30 years ago.
Mr. Silow-Carroll claims that our perspective is too nostalgic. To this we plead guilty; having lived through the activist years of the 1960’s and 70’s, when American Jews rallied again and again for the good of the Jewish people, we feel an acute loss when we observe the anemic scene today.
Mr. Silow-Carroll also denies the veracity of our thesis by questioning the meaning of one piece of evidence among the many that we adduced. He claims that shifting philanthropic donations from Israel to domestic causes is not a sign of diminished commitment to Jewish peoplehood. We disagree. But more important, he ignores the weight of evidence we present demonstrating that American Jews today are also less concerned than they once were with Jewish widows and orphans in the United States. Despite great increases in wealth, fewer Jews today are supporting domestic Jewish institutions and programs than was the case just two decades ago.
The last few years have witnessed a surge in volunteering and civic engagement grounded in Jewish teachings. American Jews have been in the forefront of the struggle to call attention to genocide in Darfur, in good part thanks to the work of Ruth Messinger and the American Jewish World Service. Similarly, Rabbi Sharon Brous and Daniel Sokatch are two of this country’s most effective leaders in the growing movement to connect social-justice work with Jewish teachings. But our admiration for their work (and our concurrence with their view that Jewish peoplehood must encompass both constructive as well as defensive dimensions) cannot obscure our differences with them on the priority of aiding fellow Jews who are needy or (as in the case of Israel) who are under attack.
They write: “We will continue to be stunted if we root our connection to one another only in a shared concern for our own.” We suspect that Ruth Messinger would concur. In response, we say that Jews will be stunted (and diminish as a vital people) if their activist passion focuses exclusively on concern for others. A glance at the literature of our critics’ organizations reveals a decided if not overwhelming preference for mobilization on behalf of the larger society and general good, with little if any activity directed at the specific needs of fellow Jews. Of the dozen “tikkun” projects listed on the website of Ikar (the spiritual community headed by Rabbi Brous), only two have Jews as their principal beneficiaries. Of the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s eighteen public statements since the end of 2003, only one (supporting the Gaza disengagement) dealt with matters arguably particular to Jews and the Jewish people. The American Jewish World Service supports an impressive project aiding communal life in the former Soviet Union; but it is apparently the lone featured project with specifically Jewish beneficiaries.
Something is amiss here. In their zeal to engage in so-called “repair of the world” (tikkun olam), these leaders have advanced a model of activism that underplays the well-being of the Jewish part of it. They recall Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in the civil-rights movement, but they forget that Heschel was also a prescient and pioneering advocate of human rights for Soviet Jews, a staunch defender of Israel in the weeks before the Six-Day war, and deeply committed to the improvement of the Jewish people through Jewish education. Are there not similar needs today?
We write in the wake of a war in northern Israel that has left scores of Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, dead and injured, widespread ecological damage to the land of Israel, and massive damage to the Israeli economy. This can only mean acute hardship for Israel’s neediest citizens. The generous financial contributions American Jews have made in the last few months notwithstanding, where is the volunteer engagement of the most socially-conscious Jews in relieving the suffering of Israelis? Why are the leaders of Jewish organizations who nobly organized efforts to aid the victims of natural disasters in Asia and the southeastern United States now suddenly struck dumb in the face of Jewish victims?
When we read the dismissive letters of Jewish leaders who cannot or will not bring themselves to fight for distinctively Jewish needs, we are puzzled. Have they lost their nerve because they believe the claims of peoplehood no longer resonate with American Jews? Do they prefer to leave the work to some unnamed others? Or is it that they genuinely prefer that Jews expend all or most of their resources on universal causes while allowing the needs of the Jewish people to languish?
The enormously talented and successful Jewish social activists of our day need to help all of us avoid the mistake of an earlier generation of leaders who saw activism as an either/or proposition: either you devote your efforts to the larger world, or you devote your energies to helping your fellow Jews. In fact, universalistic and particularistic passions are not mutually exclusive; Jews committed to helping their own are more likely to help the world.
Three of our correspondents, Steven Bayme, Gadi Taub, and Eli Lederhendler, concur with our thesis that the connection of American Jews to the greater Jewish people is eroding, and move the discussion beyond the descriptive and analytical to the programmatic by identifying potential resources for the re-invigoration of Jewish peoplehood. There are great merits to each of their proposals, and we encourage communal leaders to explore ways to act upon their ideas.