Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Effect of Standing With Israel on the Falling of Judaism - Part 3

The Effect of Standing With Israel on the Falling of Judaism
© 2007 Ronald W. Fox

Isaiah 1:17,27 “Learn to do well – seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow .. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.”


Also, as the temples failed to respond to personal issues of their members in so many of these areas and continued to focus primarily on Israel, the critical decrease in membership became obvious. Income needed to thrive was not there. The temples’ perceived lack of purpose, one that seemed to be limited to the performance of customs and rituals, provided little incentive for new residents to join. Fortunately for the temples, many Jewish parents still felt an obligation to have their children Bar and Bat/Mitzvahed – this often because the parents were not being aware that since a male IS bar mitzvahed simply by turning 13 and a female by turning 12, there is no required rites and you could do what we did in our Havurah – create a service in a back yard with no Torah and no rabbi. So temples were able to insure some semblance of survival by requiring membership in order to use the temple facilities. But this was not sufficient. Merger discussions began and in 2006, two of the formerly large Conservative congregations locally were forced to merge in order to survive

There is a pervasive belief in my area that the Jewish community is united as it Stands for Israel. It is true that when there is an event – the painting of a Nazi symbol on a house or a rocket attack on Sderot - peer pressure results in a large gathering. The reality is that there is very few in the community who are passionately committed to Israel and very few who know what is happening in Israel and the occupied territories – the feelings range from being ashamed of what the government of Israel is doing to indifference.

Young (and not so young) Jews for 60 years have been asking the community “Why should I be Jewish?” The lessons that the Jewish community was being taught over the last few decades was that the purpose and highest value of Judaism was survival – survival of “me”, survival of the temples, survival of Israel.

That is not a strong enough reason to stay attached to a religion and men, women and children voted with their feet. They simply began to stay away from the institutions in droves. Who has left the religion? Thousands of young people who were active in civil rights, environment, family, education and other causes who had no reason to believe that Judaism was relevant.

So now the Jewish community “suddenly” realizes that there is a crisis – actually a wholly predictable decline in those who profess to be Jewish. For fifty years the Jewish community has promoted a Judaism based on survival and self-interest rather than focusing on the message of universality of Judaism that holds itself out as a beacon unto the nations – a religion that has survived and calls out “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” – a religion that promise to repair the world. We have not tried to fill in the blank in the end of the question Leonard Fine demands be answered “It is important that the Jews survive – and, by extension, that I persist as a Jew – in order to _________ .”


And what has been the response of Jewish institutions. At one annual meeting a few years ago, the substance of the message was that we should forget about the many Jews who are no longer active in our institutions. They have left us. They should be considered lost and we should concentrate on those who have been loyal. By that he meant those who have “proudly” proclaimed “We Stand with the Temple” We Stand with the Jewish Federation” “We Stand with Israel”.


There have been recent activities that on first blush appeared to hold promise. In 1995 the local federation sponsored a Futuring program which asked the members of the Jewish community to gather to discuss issues of concern and attempt to come up with solutions. Unfortunately, the project was doomed form the beginning; first, because the facilitator was limited both in his understanding of the range and breadth of Jewish concerns such as the depth of the isolation and alienation of so many participants from the Jewish community. In addition, the federation leadership said before the process began that there was no intention of implementing the recommendations into the allocations of the organization. What that meant was that whatever the desires of the community, there would not be funding provided to implement recommendations. The year long process was simply a public relations, marketing effort.


What is also quite significant is that the process by which the Mission of the local Jewish federation was arrived at was flawed. I was asked in early 1997 by a member of the staff of the federation to work with others to draft a mission statement to present as an alternative to the expectedly narrowly defined “Pledge” which was going to be presented by the Continuity Committee which was a vehicle of the largest contributor to the local federation. I worked with a local rabbi and we presented this draft Mission statement:

“We should teach adults and children what it means to be and "do" Jewish. We should also encourage religious and other text study and provide models for constructive interaction based on Jewish ideals and values. Moral teaching based on Torah is indispensable as a basis for addressing social problems and enabling ourselves and others to become increasingly self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Our goal is to encourage Jews to reestablish their priorities away from parochial, materialistic, self-interested concerns towards a willingness to strengthen their inner spiritual lives while repairing a world (Tikkun Olam) beset with problems. We need to reach out to all Jews, both those who are currently engaged in some form of personal or institutional Jewish endeavors, and those who are at best marginally involved. Only if we work together towards this end with the cultural, organizational and fiscal means at our disposal can we rekindle a sense of significant Jewish living and genuine community.”

At the next federation board meeting in June, the reaction to the Continuity Committee’s “Pledge” was criticism along with some concern that this was not what a mission statement should look like. The above Mission statement we presented was met with much interest. A motion was made to table the adoption of a mission so that the Rabbi and I could meet with the Continuity Committee and draft a mutually agreed upon mission statement. Immediately after the meeting I suggested to a federation staff person some dates in July that the Rabbi and I would be available.

We were never contacted and about March of the next year I read that the Federation had adopted as its Mission the Pledge – the narrow view of the Continuity Committee – “Our Primary Mission is to provide our children, grandchildren and young adults with positive Jewish experiences, programs and services so they will be and remain committed Jews. We seek to foster the development of knowledgeable, passionate, proud, committed Jews. We strive to counter the effects of indifference, intermarriage and assimilation.”

So continuity will be assured if we send our children to Jewish schools and camps and send them to Israel. Simply learn the customs and rituals and what is happening in Israel and our children will remain Jewish.

Learning and performing rituals and customs is a hollow action. The rituals and customs are only relevant if they symbolize all that is meaningful about Judaism. Eating gefilte fish is not enough if we don’t know that Judaism will always fight oppression and discrimination. Spending eight hours in temple on Yom Kippur is meaningless if we don’t recognize the lessons that Judaism teaches us about the treatment of the poor, the sick and the homeless, including strangers and Palestinians

Exodus 22:20-21 - You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And this federation believes that continuity will be assured if we counter intermarriage. Yes our young people may be intermarrying at a rapid rate but intermarriage is not the problem. It is a symptom of the same issue "Why Be Jewish"

"How can we ensure the continuity of the Jewish people if our own grandchildren are being raised by non-Jews? ...It's not a crisis of intermarriage, it's a crisis of meaning. The population survey showed that only about half of Jews felt that being Jewish was very important in their lives" says Schrage (Barry Schrage, President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies). "Rescuing Jews became the be-all and end-all of Jewish identity for a vast majority of the Jewish world," says Schrage. When children asked "Why be Jewish" the answer was circular, if not xenophobic: "To rescue Jews and fight anti-Semitism." But that answer no longer satisfies, nor should it, says Shrage - not with a 3500 year old tradition from which to draw meaning and purpose.

Having our children spend time in Israel may not help them learn the values of Judaism. In my opinion, the strength and teachings of Judaism about social justice would best be taught if we bring young Israelis here to visit the Jewish communities in this country.

The Mission of the local federation, by stressing the same tired methods exacerbates and hastens the decrease of those affiliated with Jewish institutions and even Judaism.


Fast forward to 2006. The government of Israeli unleashes a brutal attack on Lebanon and destroys the power plant in Gaza which supplies all the electricity to 1.2 million Palestinians and the local community participates in a number of “We Stand with Israel” events.

At the same time, a local Jewish Federation committee entitled Solel, issued a statement in which it said that the local Jewish community:
lacks knowledge about Judaism;
lacks a communal Jewish identity;
lacks a communal Jewish purpose;
is uninspired by local synagogues, rabbis and Jewish educational programs; and
has weak professional and volunteer leadership.

It was then given $100,000 to fund a one year study at the end of which time, it issued a report in July, 2006, which identified six priority areas, among them revitalizing synagogue life, promoting lifelong Jewish education, and increasing participation in the concerns of Israel and world Jewry. The report recommended greater organization of the synagogue community by establishing a synagogue council and strengthening the North Shore Rabbinic Association. It called for creating a North Shore collaborative on Jewish education and for taking advantage of Boston’s educational resources. And it recommended establishing committees on social action and Israel relations to counter what the report calls the “insular” nature of the North Shore community.

It is now almost a year since the report was issued and the most recent issue of our local Jewish Journal says “Project Solel is stalled possibly for good”.Sadly, it appears that Solel will enter the roster of failed attempts to revive Judaism in my community. What is not likely to be known is why. When asked for comments on this, the project chair declined comment and the chair of the implementation did not return a telephone call. In a most extraordinary telephone exchange, the consultant who was paid $100,000 to be the point person on the project when asked what happened said “ ‘it is beyond reprehensible’ that the journal would ask him the question. Calling the reporter unethical, he added, ‘I have absolutely no comment in any form! That’s my only comment! Are we clear on that?’ ”

As they say, that went well. What was he thinking? It appears that he was applying the power of pressure and intimidation used against those trying to express criticism of the actions of the government of Israel to the reporter’s “beyond reprehensible” attempt to pursue the time honored Jewish tradition of open inquiry and open discussion in order to inform and educate (and perhaps lead to a solution to a communal problem.)

Rabbi Akiva - “ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) - this is the major principle of the Torah.”

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