Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Effect of Standing With Israel on the Falling of Judaism - Part 1

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.”

All Judaism is Local

Part 1 – A Brief History of a Jewish Community

Why do we always seem to confine the argument among Jewish people to who stands with Israel and who doesn’t, who loves Israel and who doesn’t, who is pro-Israel and who is anti-Israel, who is for everything that the government of Israel does and who is an anti-semite?

The fundamental issues should be whether there is a basic disagreement about the definition of Judaism, whether the actions of the government of Israel in the occupied territories are contrary to the core values of Judaism and whether there is a correlation between unquestioning support for the government of Israel and the recent recognition that fewer and fewer are professing that they are Jewish.

My concern is that the love for the government of Israel and the values it seems to symbolize has for many become the definition of Judaism. As stated by Alice Rothchild in her new book “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams”, “Have we sacrificed Jewish values in the name of Israeli nationalism and aggressive expansionism? Is Israeli nationalism our new fundamentalism?”

In my opinion:

the unquestioned support of the actions of the government of Israel over the last 60 years by Jewish institutions has been accompanied by their lack of interest in, and attention to, the personal issues that concern Jewish individuals;

the suppression of opinions and dissenting voices within the Jewish community critical of the actions of the government of Israel have given the impression that the values of Judaism are those exhibited by the government of Israel;

the values symbolized by the actions of the government of Israel in the occupied territories over the last 40 years are not consistent with the core values that Jewish individuals in this country attribute to Judaism such as social justice, compassion, human dignity and equality; and

these factors have resulted in a significant number of those born Jewish being unable to find a reason to be Jewish and their walking away from not only Jewish institutions but Judaism itself.

Since I am concerned that the disintegration of many Jewish communities, as well as Judaism, might be little more than a generation away, it might serve a useful purpose to look back at what happened here during the 20th century and consider why we now find ourselves staring at what some may consider an unfortunate prospect.

Both my parents were born and grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts. I heard so many stories about the immigration of individuals from Europe, the development of a community as family and strangers were welcomed into homes so much so that they could often not even explain how a cousin was related (if, in fact, she was even a relative). Stories about my grandmother starting the “Hebrew Ladies Helping Hand Society”. Stories about my grandfather and his brothers starting the “Achsy” - a place where money could be borrowed by those in need. Stories about my other grandfather and others starting businesses or entering professions - law, medicine, education - which served the entire community. In a place where there was less discrimination and more opportunity, they thrived and made their community a better place to live.

After World War II a number of things happened. First, as some of those who had escaped the pogroms of Europe became more affluent, they moved to the suburbs, built temples and began to feel at home. Second, the Long Road Home ended for many refugees of the horrors of the Holocaust with the formation of the state of Israel. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, there was pride in being Jewish.

But many remained wary of outsiders and began to segregate themselves within the institutions they had created. Their social lives focused on the temples and Jewish Community Centers. Their charitable giving focused on Jewish Federations and other organizations raising funds for the survival of Israel

The problems of the larger community, locally and nationally, no longer seemed relevant. During the 60’s, when we began to recognize concern about the plight of blacks in this country, the members of the temple in which I had grown up and been bar/mitzvahed reacted so negatively to our Rabbi, Stephen Schwartzchild’s constant pleas that they fight for civil rights, that he eventually resigned and left the community. I had always thought that he immediately joined the faculty at Washington University of St. Louis, vowing never again to take a pulpit assignment. I recently learned, reading p. xvii of the Introduction to Healing Israel/Palestine by Rabbi Michael Lerner, that I was wrong, “The next year (1969) the American Jewish Congress fired the editor of Judaism magazine, Stephen Schwartzchild, for the “sin” of having reprinted a section of our founding statement of the Committee for Peace in the Middle East.”

I also vividly recall a lay leader of our temple speaking from the pulpit on Yom Kippur in the early 70’s castigating Jewish people who were involved with civil rights because they were neglecting their obligation to work for the survival of Israel.

In the 70’s the country was nearly driven apart over the war in Vietnam. While our young people faced moral and ethical conflicts over serving in the military and while churches and other organizations fought for peace, in my local area, there was little, if any, local organized Jewish institutional discussion of the issues or support for these efforts.

The lack of concern included even Jewish community problems. In a meeting of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore’s Young Leadership Committee in the early 70’s, the heads of our local Hebrew schools described ineffective educational facilities with one of them saying that his Hebrew school was not very good but that’s all the parents wanted.

In fact, the lack of concern of the rabbi at our temple and the congregation in Vietnam and the quality of Jewish education were factors in our resigning from the temple and forming a Havurah in 1971 with six other families, one of the first in this country that included young children. It continued to function for 15 year as the adults met monthly to design and implement family holiday services/celebrations.

More issues arose during the next three decades - women began to question their roles in society, divorces became rampant, decent safe and sanitary housing became less available, drug and alcohol abuse increased dramatically, the high cost and unavailability of healthcare services became a scandal, divorced people and the elderly began to be isolated, the public school systems started to fail, jobs were lost as downsizing became a reality, and serious questions began to be raised about the quality of our air and water.

Those growing up Jewish looked for leadership and guidance on these issues – advice that might mean the difference between a life of dissatisfaction and one of meaning. In my local area I do not recall the board of any Jewish institution (federation, temples, JCC) issuing a public statement, passing a resolution or participating in a social action directed at any of these issues (although some rabbis, as individuals, became involved).

While many parents taught their children how to live based on Jewish teachings and ethics, the Jewish community as an entity did not take actions which clearly evinced a Judaism that guided individuals on how to live, that answered real life issues and conflicts and that gave tools to provide moral directions.

The impetus to leave the Jewish community gained momentum as many fell in love and dreamed of years of happiness. When they asked the religious leader of their temple to bless their marriage, the response, when the rabbi found out that the intended was not Jewish, was a refusal to perform the ceremony – nothing less than a condemnation of his or her love and a rejection by the Jewish community.

What happened? The institutions began to reflect the image of many of their members. They became secular American and began to turn away from religion, not simply from the customs and rituals, but, more importantly, from the ethical and moral teachings that form the foundation of Judaism. What was left was often the accumulation of things, the acquisition of material goods, the focus on “me”, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and, to a great extent, the state of Israel.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel

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