There's no point in denigrating American Jewry

The community is vibrant and in many ways Israel could learn from it.

conservative synagogue88 (photo credit: )
conservative synagogue88
(photo credit: )
The attitude expressed by an official at the Prime Minister's Office - as quoted in the February 22 Post - concerning the new task force on Israel-Diaspora relationships that, "US Jewry is in crises, and we can help" is exactly what is wrong with that relationship. As usual Israel is looking down upon US Jewry and patronizing it instead of seeking ways in which these two great communities can work together, understand each others and strengthen each other. Obviously American Jewry has much work to do to assure its future, but "crises" is much too strong a word to describe the situation. At a recent convention of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly the outstanding demographer of American Jewry, Calvin Goldsheider, presented facts and figures to indicate that the problems of assimilation and intermarriage have been greatly exaggerated and that American Jewry is a large as ever and is a strong and vibrant community. As Mark Twain said when he read his premature obituary "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." MY PERSONAL observations of American communities and synagogues and my recent participation in "Limmud New York," where over 900 Jews of all ages and religious streams participated in several days of a marathon of Jewish learning, lead me to the same conclusion. American Jewry is vibrant. In many ways Israel could learn from it. The explosion of day schools, the tremendous amount of Jewish studies on American campuses should be the envy of Israel. Whereas Israeli universities are having problems sustaining programs of Jewish studies, they are proliferating in America. There are many more professors of Judaism there than here. Indeed many of the outstanding scholars of Judaism are trained and teaching in America. Some of the best professors of Judaism in Israel are American products. The Israel Prize this year is being awarded to Prof. David Weiss HaLivni who graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and whose career in teaching Talmud was as JTS and later Columbia University. Jewish youth movements are strong; Jewish camps such as Ramah continue to produce committed Jews. Creativity in literature, music, prayer has never been stronger. Most American Jewish youngsters receive some Jewish religious training. Unfortunately many Israeli youngsters are totally ignorant of and alienated from religious Jewry. Certainly there are problems in American Jewry - not least of which is the enormous cost of Jewish education and synagogue affiliation. Whereas Israeli religious life is stifled by an archaic Chief Rabbinate (which our current government seems bent upon strengthening for reasons only politicians can fathom) American religious life is flourishing in at atmosphere of freedom. Aside from HaRav Kook it is difficult to think of an Israeli religious thinker who has contributed anything of outstanding originality to Jewish theology. Israel should be at the head of a revival of Jewish thought, but instead it is caught in a morass of superstitious thinking, spells and amulets that are hardly worthy of the name religion. The great religious revival we had hoped would come from the combination of Zionism and religion seems to have withered away in the corrosive atmosphere of politics, religion and coercive legislation. Israel has great potential, but it cannot take the attitude that at this moment it is the creative center of Judaism and America is in crises. There is much to criticize in both communities and much to praise in both. I live in Israel because I prefer living in a place where Judaism is the majority culture and where being Jewish permeates all aspects of life - or should. But preferring one should not mean denigrating the other. There is indeed a crises in the relationship between the two communities, a lack of understanding concerning the nature of Jewish life within them and a great need for mutual help and understanding. American Jewry has to become more Israel centered and understand the difference between being a minority culture and being a majority culture. Israeli Jewry has to strengthen its foundation in Judaism and its appreciation of the teachings of the Jewish religion and the concept of Jewish peoplehood. Patronizing American Judaism instead of appreciating its strengths and even learning from then is not the way. The writer, a Jerusalem author and lecturer, is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.