Reporters on the Job: My first face-to-face with organized American Jewry

While Saudi donors establish chairs of Middle Eastern Studies at major US universities, Jewish donors buy campus buildings, and leave it at that.

reporters on the job (photo credit: )
reporters on the job
(photo credit: )
The Jerusalem Post news editor is on a trip to the United States to cover the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles. My first face-to-face with organized American Jewry Most American Jews are not Orthodox, in the Israeli Jewish sense of the word. Many of them are Reform Jews. United Jewish Communities officials say they find it hard to raise funds from the Reform communities because official Israeli policy negates their existence as Jews. In Israel, you are only a 'real' Jew if you are Orthodox; for example, only Orthodox weddings are recognized by the state. Last week, just before I left for my trip to the US, I heard about a young Israeli couple that got married in a Reform ceremony, with a Reform rabbi, and they both stomped on the glass at the end of saying their vows. They opted not to get married in Cyprus, like many secular Israelis, and instead got married in Israel. It didn't bother them that their marriage is not considered legal or recognized by the state. I wonder what they're going to do when they have children… In Chicago, a female Orthodox rabbi told me about what she teaches her congregation about the meaning of Israel and the Jewish people. On some basic level, she said, Israelis and American Jews [here I think she meant all Jews worldwide] are all part of the same family; and Israel is the homeland of that family. She also said, with a touch of bitterness, that US Jews think and talk about Israelis much, much more than Israelis think and talk about American Jews. Which leads me to another observation: Organized American Jewry - well, the UJC anyway - does not expect anything in return for the money that they send to help Israelis. Last night, at a dinner hosted by the leaders of the Chicago Jewish Federation, I asked what US Jews want in return for their $800 million a year that goes to Israel by posing a hypothetical scenario: Not too far in the future, perhaps two years from now, and after consistent, bloody conflict with the Palestinians, the elected Israeli government decides to unilaterally transfer the vast majority of its Arab citizens living in the Galilee to Palestinian Authority sovereignty, which is not accepted by the PA but done nevertheless, and is not accepted by the Israeli Arabs but done nonetheless with dozens killed in rioting and clashes. At the same time the government annexes large swathes of the West Bank for the settlers and dumps several thousand Palestinians living close to these settlements in Jordan, saying that Jordan really is Palestine. The Jordanians are not happy and threaten to revoke their peace treaty with Israel, who says fine, go ahead. To save itself from losing power as a result of the centrist and leftist parties bolting the coalition over the moves described above, the government brings the religious parties into the coalition, who demand that from now on, Reform and Conservative rabbis visiting from the States not be allowed into the country, and that all non-Orthodox institutions be closed down and banned immediately. The ruling party accedes to the conditions and the ultra-Orthodox, whose numbers have swelled drastically in the past few years due to a very high birthrate, and whose political clout has doubled due to electoral reform machinations, enter the coalition and the government survives all no-confidence motions. At which point along that highly hypothetical scenario do American Jews say, "Hold on, this is crazy"? I wanted to know what their red lines were; at what point do UJC and Federation officials call up their donors and say: "Look, what the Israeli government is doing is just not acceptable to us, and so we don't think we can take your money this year and spend it on projects in Israel." Or, will it come from the other direction? At which point do donors call up their federation chiefs and say: "Listen, we don't support what the Israeli government is doing, it is way beyond what we think is acceptable, and so we're not donating this year"? None of the Chicago or DC Federation people would give me an unequivocal answer, because the question was too hypothetical. However, one of them told me that when the government of Israel "starts doing things that are not Jewish", then the Federations would draw that line. Some UJC and Federation officials admitted to me that during the latest Lebanon war, some donors got upset that a percentage of their donations [initially it was thought that some 30 percent, although later clarified to 3 percent of the Israel Emergency Campaign] were going to Israeli Arabs and Druse victims of Hizbullah rocket attacks. Some even withdrew their donations. I remember talking about this story at a heated editorial meeting we had at the Jerusalem Post when the story surfaced. Some people at the meeting thought the position taken by the donors who complained, and especially those that withdrew their donations, was racist. Others at the editorial meeting felt there was nothing wrong with people deciding that their hard-earned money should only go to Jews. * * * * * Observations from a meeting at Northwestern University: The head of the Hillel Jewish association at NU has never been to Israel. His parents won't allow him to travel there because they say it's too dangerous. It's a good thing there isn't much anti-Israel activity on this campus for this kid to deal with - because he really has no clue. He's sweet and really eager, and he's holding down the fort, but he has no idea what's going on here at all. While Saudi donors establish chairs of Middle Eastern Studies at major universities in America, Jewish donors buy campus buildings, put their names on it, and leave it at that. Chicago Federation people say there has been some movement recently to open up more Israel studies departments on campuses, but that it is hard to find the faculty members to chair these positions. The money is there, but the qualified people are not. The new guy the Chicago Federation has installed as the professor of Israel studies at NU seems to me unimpressive and not too charismatic. He is teaching two courses: Politics and Society in Israel, and the portrayal of Israel in the foreign media. From my discussions with him, he seems more interested in being an Israeli spokesperson and propagandist than with actually planting in the minds of his students the real depth and variety of modern Israel. I fear this may backfire and he will actually make things worse, but this campus seems quiet anyway, for now. * * * * * Why is there no 'birthright'-type program to bring non-Jewish students to Israel for a few weeks to see the country? I know the Jewish birthright program is much more important to connect young Jews to their homeland and to their religion, and I agree with it wholeheartedly, but almost every non-Jew I have ever met in my life who has visited Israel loves Israel, and loves the Jews. The upcoming General Assembly in Los Angeles is going to be almost entirely Israel-focused this year because of the war. I think American Jews have bigger problems and challenges on their hands right now than helping the Israeli government do its job by helping the residents of the North: Assimilation is frightening. The numbers are astounding. The Jewish population is getting smaller and older. The latest statistics show that the Jewish median age is 42 - five years older than what it was in 1990, and 7 years older than the US general population median age. * * * * * Last observation of today: Israelis who immigrate [legally and illegally] to American cities by and large do not mix with the local Jewish population. Some of the reasons: American Jews are more 'observant' than Yordim. Israelis who leave Israel, some of them have told me, want nothing more to do with Judaism either. They're not interested in going to synagogue, and they're not interested in hooking up with Jewish boys and girls; they want to get to know the 'real' locals. Israelis typically seek out other Israelis, not Jews, to help them settle in a new city. It's a pity if you think about it: US Jewish numbers are falling to assimilation, i.e. not enough Jewish men and women are mating and having babies. The number of Yordim is rising, but they are keeping to themselves or assimilating too. Like two submarines in the deep, these two groups of Jews are sailing right past each other. These are, of course, all gross generalizations and observations, but this is what I'm hearing from people on the ground. * * * Previous entries: Sunday evening in Chicago