My Word: Family ties and binds

My Word Family ties and

November 7, 2009 21:51

There are many ways to describe the Jewish people in Hebrew, among them: Am Yisrael, Beit Yisrael, Klal Yisrael or simply Yehudim. No matter what you call it, the Jewish people is basically one extended family: not as huge as we could have been had Hitler not done his best to exterminate us; not as powerful as our enemies (and even some of our best friends) believe; not as happy as we should be, nor as dysfunctional as we sometimes ourselves fear. It is a family of roughly 13 million, about half of them living in Israel and the rest spread around the world. As with all families, there are success stories and black sheep (sometimes combined in the same figure). There are the wealthy, the poor, the outstanding and the ordinary. We have the generous and the stingy; the fun and the infuriating. As one of my own relatives likes to point out, you don't always have to like family members, but you have to love them. Some 3,000 leading members of that family are expected to get together on November 8 in Washington DC for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America - until recently known as the United Jewish Communities (UJC). Key speakers include US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - ours is a family that likes to dream of peace but argues about politics. It is also a giving family: Every year the UJC/JFNA raises millions of dollars for charity. So there is a reason a whole program is dedicated to "Succeeding in Economic Uncertainty" with panels on topics like calculated risks and fund-raising in hard times. The fund-raising - and where to distribute the funds - is a core issue but not by far the only one. Among the topics being discussed this year (and, it should be noted, some of them also yesteryear) are Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity and global Jewish responsibility; pluralism; community service; aliya in the 21st century and the place of Russian-speaking Jews in communities all over the world; Jewish education; life milestones; community needs and - aimed perhaps at proving that this is not a gathering of "old relatives" - the implications of the communications revolution. Advocacy and action in adversity are also on the agenda. The family, it seems, is still not popular. The spirit among attendees is, as always, if not high then at least highly motivated. Despite the fact that the family reunion is not what it once was, it still provides an occasion to get together, which in itself provides strength and comfort. It no longer sets the agenda for North American Jewry but it helps combat the agenda being determined elsewhere. The name change also demonstrates the desire for a new image. It's not as hip as J Street but at least it's not scared to spell out the word Jewish in its title. ONE OF the obvious challenges - brave talk of the iPod generation notwithstanding - is connecting to the next generation. Talk of Jewish continuity is hard to whittle down to a tweet. At least the older generation recognizes the challenge, which is the first step, and is doing its best to create young leadership programs and attractions. Affordable Jewish education would help. Unfortunately, a major gap is not the generation gap but the most uncomfortable gulf of all: the huge differences in perceptions and priorities between Israel and the Diaspora. Not a family feud, but a link that is stretching and weakening. We literally speak different languages. Our mind-sets are not the same. (Is there even a Hebrew word for mind-set?) Birthright-Israel, Masa and other programs address some of these problems. A first-time trip to Israel is mind-opening for the average American college student - a gift for life in every sense of the word - in the same way that a post-army trek lets so many Israelis see a different world. Nonetheless, the Americans see things differently. For too long, the average Israeli has taken the support of North American Jewry for granted as Uncle Sam, hadod Sem, who sent care packages and support and strenuously defended our good name when those outside the family dared besmirch it. Similarly, American Jews in the past seemed to abide by what has been called the golden rule: they had the gold and they determined the rules. These concepts have both taken a particularly bad beating in the last year when Israel, on the whole, weathered the economic crisis better than the country that was the epicenter of the Wall Street crash followed by Bernard Madoff's earth-shattering scam (talk family scoundrels). It was also a year when a Kassam-battered country was not willing to be judged on its human rights record by a Diaspora Jew when finally, after 80 rockets a day, the leadership decided to fight back. Very much on the Jewish agenda is how to counter the increased anti-Semitism (for that is what Israel-bashing is, just as surely as a Kassam missile is not a peaceoffering). The best idea I've heard, incidentally, came from journalist Yair Lapid, who suggested in his weekly column in < i>Yediot Aharonot that Jewish communities take it upon themselves to sue every newspaper that libels Israel, using those top-notch lawyers who make their Jewish mothers proud. While American Jews use the word "survival" as a synonym for "Jewish continuity," they are under threat of assimilation, in effect, victims of the American dream of true Obama-style equality. Israelis, on the other hand, discuss "survival" in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat and with a history of wars and terror. Soberingly, only Israeli babies born less than a year ago and new immigrants (bless them all) who have arrived in the past year have not been through at least one war. The middle-aged, those whose children are now army age or over, have almost stopped counting. As for terror, we have learned to live with it to the extent that on a trip to Canada this summer it took me a minute to understand why the guard to the Royal Ontario Museum, exhibiting the Dead Sea Scrolls, apologized for asking people to open their bags. No, it wasn't the concept of apologizing that was foreign to this Israeli. It's just so routine to have a bag search that it made me feel right at home. YOUNG DIASPORA Jews can't always understand how Israelis live - and live very nicely - with the stress of terror. Israeli Jews can't fathom how students abroad have to deal with anti-Semitism on campus. I have met students who deliberate over whether to wear a Star of David or, in the UK, the advisability of including voluntary service in a Jewish organization on a CV. Jewish pride meets pragmatism. Sadly, instead of Israel being a uniting topic it has become one that splits the family abroad. In a strange way, I miss those days in my youth when we were united around the campaign to free Soviet Jews and took pride in the Entebbe rescue. Nowadays, I fear, such an operation would spark a debate on the possible infringement of air space and sovereignty. Today's world is clearly a less innocent one. While travel and communication have never been quicker, the distance between Israel and the Diaspora has tragically grown. We have to find a way of addressing that, learning from each other's experience. Tikkun olam is a fine concept. But let us not forget that domestic peace is no less important: The two halves of the Jewish people can live together and enrich each other if only we recognize that each has much to offer. It's a matter of family pride.

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