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It's been nearly half-a-century since Reform Judaism's leader, Nelson Glueck, received a phone call from Senator John Sparkman, who asked the esteemed rabbi squarely: "Are you a Democrat?"
The chairman of the congressional committee that was preparing John Kennedy's inauguration explained to the world-renowned archeologist who then was president of Hebrew Union College that JFK wanted Glueck to deliver the benediction at his swearing-in ceremony. Glueck, a flamboyant scholar with an adventurer's reputation and a wanderer's humor, replied: "In that case, I am a Democrat."
That quip, and more-so Glueck's visibility at the inauguration alongside Kennedy were emblematic of a time when Reform Jewry was solid, powerful and confident - a state of mind that was also reflected in the vitality of its flagship institution, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where Glueck, like all his predecessors since its establishment in 1875, was based.
Now that American Jewish landmark faces closure. Burdened by growing deficits and declining transfers from Reform congregations, HUC's current president, Rabbi David Ellenson, said he is considering closing down at least one of the school's three US campuses. The Jerusalem campus is fortunately not threatened, to the relief of those who use its handsome and pleasant library, where a good portion of my columns, including this one, have been written.
Some will be tempted to interpret HUC's crisis as Reform Jewry's private problem; others would portray it as the poetically just aftermath of what once was a fountainhead of anti-Zionist bravado. If only life were that simple.
For one thing, Reform Jewry has been unequivocally Zionist for more than 70 years by now, and that alone makes its plight the business of all Zionists. More importantly, while the Reform movement's rabbinical college is weighing a particularly symbolic cutback measure, financial crisis is afflicting all major rabbinical seminaries. The Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary has seen its endowment shrink by nearly one-third and is now cutting its faculty by 15 percent, and Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University is cutting its budget by $30 million.
Evidently, then, the problem isn't denominational. Everyone's in it, from Hadassah to Brandeis.
Only the future will tell to what extent American Jewry's current financial woes are merely part of one very tough moment, or part of a historic decline, perhaps one that has been well under way for quite some time. Yet even the minimalists will have to concede that with all due respect to high-profile scandals like the Madoff scam, the financial blows sustained now by American Jewry are far more potent than any single individual's crime, that their origins predate the current crisis and that their effect will outlast it.
American Jewish philanthropy's major mistake in recent decades was its retreat from Jewish causes. What began with increased donations for the local museum, theater and concert hall later proceeded to assorted causes throughout the Third World, all of which are of course dear, but whose share in Jewish charity became so disproportionate that it came at the expense of American Jewry's own needs.
THERE WAS a time when American Jewish money was seen here as a strategic asset. That was back in the 1950s, when Israeli Jewry was hardly a quarter North America's, and when the Jewish state was as destitute as American Jews were back when they emerged from Ellis Island.
Now there are more Jews in Israel than in any other country, and Israel's GDP is some 98 percent locally made. American Jewish money remains welcome, needless to say, but it has long ceased to constitute an existential need for the Jewish state.
Now the existential need is in America. For with so many Jewish institutions hurting as badly as they now are, at stake is the very future of American Jewry.
Surely, many would expect Middle Israelis to gloat at American Jewry's potential decline. Maybe, they could say, the Wall Street meltdown will condemn American Jewry to decline the way the neglect of medieval Iraq's irrigation canals condemned Babylonian Jewry to its demise.
So first of all, America is, thank God, alive and well, and will emerge from its current crisis, even if Barack Obama's fiscal generosity makes this happen later rather than sooner. But beyond that, while American Jewry remains a strategic asset for Israel that asset is now demographic rather than financial.
Israel, in other words, may not be thirsting for dollars as badly as it once did, but along with the entire Jewish nation it is thirsting for more Jewish people.
Seventy years on, the Jewish people remains woefully smaller than its size on the eve of World War II. Now, with post-communist Jewry largely in Israel, North America's remains the only sizable Jewish community outside Israel. Breathing life into it is, therefore, not only an American Jewish interest, it is an Israeli strategic interest. And nowhere else is American Jewry's future cultivated more effectively than in its rabbinical colleges. It follows that they, before all other American Jewish outfits that are currently hurting, must now be helped on their feet. And this help had best be provided by the Jewish state.
Israel's help to HUC, JTS and YU might be more appropriately transmitted through the Jewish Agency, but the origin of the money can only be the government of Israel, which can earmark $100 million for this kind of purpose with relative ease.
Such a sum would not only immediately lift the three schools out of their current crises, it would serve Israel's long-term needs far better than the handful of fighter planes that $100 million can hardly buy. For the rabbis all these colleges produce later lead communities, inspire education and create more of what Israel lacks even more sorely than its hopeless lack of gold, oil, water and peace: They produce Jews."
To paraphrase Nelson Glueck, Middle Israelis digesting the gravity of American Jewry's dehydration now say: "In that case, I am an American Jew."