A Perspective on Continuity

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by Ronald W. Fox


At this time when the disintegration of many Jewish communities might be little more than a generation away, it might serve a useful purpose to look back at what happened here during the 20th century and consider why we now find ourselves staring at what some may consider an unfortunate prospect.

Both my parents were born and grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts. I heard so many stories about the immigration of individuals from Europe, the development of a community as family and strangers were welcomed into homes so much so that they could often not even explain how a cousin was related (if, in fact, she was even a relative). Stories about my grandmother starting the “Hebrew Ladies Helping Hand Society”. Stories about my grandfather and his brothers starting the “Achsy” - a place where money could be borrowed by those in need. Stories about my other grandfather and others starting businesses or entering professions - law, medicine, education - which served the entire community. In a place where there was less discrimination and more opportunity, they thrived and made their community a better place to live.

After World War II a number of things happened. First, as some of those who had escaped the pogroms of Europe became more affluent, they moved to the suburbs, built temples and began to feel at home. Second, the Long Road Home ended for many refugees of the horrors of the Holocaust with the formation of the state of Israel. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, there was pride in being Jewish.

But many remained wary of outsiders and began to segregate themselves within the institutions they had created. Their social lives focused on the temples and Jewish Community Centers. Their charitable giving focused on raising funds for the survival of Israel

The problems of the larger community, locally and nationally, no longer seemed relevant. During the 60’s, when we began to recognize concern about the plight of blacks in this country, the members of a temple in my area were so offended by the pleas of their rabbi that they become involved in fighting discrimination that he eventually left the community. I vividly recall a leader of one temple speaking from the pulpit on Yom Kippur in the early 70’s as he castigated Jews who were involved with civil rights because they were neglecting their obligation to work for the survival of Israel.

In the 70’s the country was nearly driven apart over the war in Vietnam. While our young people faced moral and ethical conflicts over serving in the military and while churches and other organizations fought for peace, there was little, if any, local organized Jewish institutional discussion of the issues or support for these efforts.

The lack of concern included even Jewish community problems. In a meeting of the Federation’s Young Jewish Leadership Committee in the early 70’s the heads of the local Hebrew schools described ineffective educational facilities with one of them saying that his Hebrew school was not very good but that’s all the parents wanted.

More issues arose during the last three decades - women began to question their roles in society, divorces became rampant, decent safe and sanitary housing became les available, drug and alcohol abuse increased dramatically, the high cost and unavailability of healthcare services became a scandal, divorced people and the elderly began to be isolated, the public school systems started to fail, jobs were lost as downsizing became a reality, and serious questions began to be raised about the quality of our air and water.

Those growing up Jewish looked for leadership and guidance on these issues – advice that might mean the difference between a life of dissatisfaction and one of meaning. In many communities Jewish institutions (Federations, Temples and JCC’s) represented by their Boards issued no public statement of concern or passed resolutions directed at any of these issues (although some Rabbis individually became involved).

What happened? The institutions began to reflect the image of many of their members. They became American and began to turn away from religion, not simply from the customs and rituals, but, more importantly, from the ethical and moral teachings that form the foundation of Judaism. What was left was often the accumulation of things, the acquisition of material goods, the focus on “me”, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the survival of the state of Israel.

But during the 80’s, especially during the war in Lebanon, voices began to be raised against the policies of the Israeli government. The response in many communities, rather than an open inquiry into how a peaceful solution might be achieved, was to attempt to suppress any dissent. Truth, social justice and morality took second place to the perceived need to show one face to the non-Jewish world. Charges of “anti-Semite” and “self-hating Jew” were carelessly used to support a narrow survivalist, tribal Jewish perspective.

Also as the temples failed to respond to personal issues of their members in so many of these areas, the critical decrease in membership became obvious. Income needed to thrive was not there. The temples’ perceived lack of purpose, one that seemed to be limited to the performance of customs and rituals, provided little incentive for new residents to join and merger discussions began. Fortunately for the temples, many Jewish parents still felt an obligation to have their children Bar/t Mitzvahed (and perhaps unaware of the many available alternatives) so temples were able to insure some semblance of survival by requiring membership in order to use the temple facilities.

Young (and not so young) Jews for 50 years have been asking the community “Why should I be Jewish?” The lessons that the Jewish community was being taught over the last few decades was that the purpose and highest value of Judaism was survival – survival of the temples, survival of Israel, survival of “me”.

Unfortunately, that is not a strong enough reason to stay attached to a religion and men, women and children voted with their feet. They simply began to stay away from the institutions in droves. Who has left the religion? Thousands of young people who were active in civil rights, environment, family, education and other causes who had no reason to believe that Judaism was relevant. And what has been the response of Jewish institutions. At one annual meeting a few years ago, the substance of the message was that we should forget about the many Jews who are no longer active in our institutions. They have left us. They should be considered lost and we should concentrate on those who have been loyal, those who have stood by the temples, the Federations and Israel.

The impetus to leave gained momentum as many fell in love and dreamed of years of happiness. When they asked the religious leader of their temple to bless their marriage, the response, when the rabbi found out that the intended was not Jewish, was a refusal to perform the ceremony – nothing less than a condemnation of his or her love and a rejection by the Jewish community.

And now we suddenly realize that there is a crisis – actually a wholly predictable decline in those who profess to be Jewish. For fifty years the Jewish community has promoted a Judaism based on survival and self-interest rather than focusing on the message of universality of Judaism that holds itself out as a beacon unto the nations – a religion that has survived and calls out “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue” – a religion that promise to repair the world. We have not tried to fill in the blank in the end of the question Leonard Fine demands be answered “It is important that the Jews survive – and, by extension, that I persist as a Jew – in order to _________ .”

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