Breach in the dam

Why the universalistic 'New Jews' will neither help their people, nor fix the world

tunnel 298 88  (photo credit: AP)
tunnel 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
As Israeli soldiers remain in Lebanon in the uncertain aftermath of a difficult war, members of the "New Jewish" generation are responding through the prism of their quest to fix the world. These Jewishly-educated and religiously-minded youth have decided to raise money for both Lebanese and Israeli war victims. The pairing of the victims, for these Jewish leaders, is crucial. As Daniel Sieradski, the New Jersey-raised editor of and an organizer of the most well-publicized of these affairs - a concert in Jerusalem - notes, the initial idea for a fundraiser for residents of Israel's north was not sufficient. "Though [benefit co-organizer Amy Fay Kaplan] and I both were supportive of [initiator Shimshon Stuart Siegel's] idea," he writes in an e-mail, "we felt that in order to really get excited about it, it would need to focus on having compassion for all war victims." Anything less, Sieradski explains, would show that Israel is inhumane in the face of others' suffering, validating "many of the negative critiques laid at our feet by both the Muslim world and the international community." Supporting residents of the North alone, he explains, is unnecessary because, "there are more than enough Jewish organizations focusing specifically on helping the communities in the North." THIS ATTITUDE, mixing an overriding concern for the opinion of the international community with an overemphasis of the power of the Jewish community, has become the norm among a large portion of the young Jewish community, and is especially prevalent among the leadership of what many call the New Jews. As the sociologist Steven M. Cohen has observed, there has been a marked drop in the obligation young Jews feel to put their fellow Jews first: Only one-quarter of Jews aged 35 to 44 strongly believe they "have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world." This trend was taken to an extreme at the recent Wexner Foundation seminar for its graduate student cohort, a group hand-picked by the established Jewish community to cultivate its future leaders. The Wexner fellows ranked causes related to the Jewish community or Israel significantly lower than more general causes such as the American Jewish World Service's efforts in Africa. The good news is, then, that Jewish education works. A generation of young Jews around the world have internalized the message that "being Jewish" means fixing the world in its totality, without regard to race, religion or nationality. The bad news for the Jewish state and people is that this generation of American Jews have taken from their education that acting Jewish means doing justice without regard to nationality or peoplehood. While it feels good to support all peoples and all victims, the nature of the world in which we live in - where Hizbullah amassed thousands of rockets and attacked Israel; where Iran edges towards nuclear weapons; and where over a third of Israel's Jews, and, surprisingly, 20 percent of New York Jews live under or close to the poverty line - makes an ethics of universalism simply irresponsible at the moment. It is at times like these that we who care about our families need remember the inherent obligation of peoplehood: Justice means providing full support to those whom you live with, those who would die for you, and the people whom you came from, no matter what the world thinks. THE NEW JEWS seem to have forgotten this obligation. Shaped by the Diaspora, educated into multiculturalism and a universalistic morality, these young Jews equate their Jewish identity with global social justice. Even at a time of war they organize a benefit concert for all the war's victims, even if it means necessarily reducing the amount of aid provided to those who sacrificed for our welfare. Sure, the benefit concert won't make much of a difference. As Shimshon Seigel, the conference initiator who is studying for rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Bat Ayin notes, his money "ain't gonna save the world single-handedly." With millions being donated by Jewish organizations and Hizbullah paying out $12,000 in hard cash to families hurt by the war, the funds these young leaders will raise for Lebanon will probably do little more than help fix the wall of a Lebanese home, perhaps enabling the return of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's portrait to its former place. But what looks like a trickle today is really a breach in the dam of peoplehood - which will do no good for the Jews, or the cause of fixing of the entire world, when these Jews become the leaders and donors of the Jewish community as a whole. It is time for the Jewish community to realize that the next generation will be what we teach it, and that the emphasis on universalistic social justice, while appealing, is no more than junk-food Jewish education: It feels good, the kids love it, and it won't hurt on occasion - but without the particularism of peoplehood the Jewish community will soon find itself undernourished and unable to survive. The writer is editor and publisher of PresenTense Magazine ( and co-editor of