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 on a regular basis or external pressures facing American Jewry. Yes, the current American President is no friend of Israel, and Iran is a vast danger to Israel but there is a Jewish state with a Jewish Army.
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 ? Even for those organizations who use a PR Agency, 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- 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. There are so many real problematic issues - Tuition at American Jewish schools averages $14,000 a year – tremendously expensive and without education one wonders how American Jewry can survive.
Rabbi Avi Weiss tells a story about a holy wise rabbi who knew the answer to every question, to any question anyone could ask him. He travelled 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 two answers that would be the opposite of what the rabbi would say: “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 previous American presidential election cycle there was discussion about both major political parties briefly suspending partisan efforts to address the huge economic issues “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 a universal American Jewish focus on defeating assimilation. Week after week we see ads in major media, and tons of money being spent on divisive Jewish issues – but who will be the first to unite and take a call to action to benefit not just this generation but the next generation of American Jewry? Who amongst the Orthodox and Reform, right and left will be the first to actually lead on universal issues of education ? 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 synagogue, a young 3 or 4 year old boy 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 and keep going as he was.
In a moment I won’t forget, the Rabbi insisted in any prayer session those of the children are the purest and most holy and in whatever form they are the prayers are heard by the heavens and elevate all of the Jewish peoples’ prayers. The congregation explained the child needs to stay on the pulpit as that’s the place for Jewish kids. It was a beautiful scene and one the whole Jewish community, of all religious and political beliefs should seek to emulate, in all forms of their prayer or beliefs.
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 remains the foremost Jewish problem in America.