Three powerful, personal experiences that shaped his career in Jewish communal service.
Editor’s Note: Following is the full transcript of UJA-Federation CEO and executive vice president John Ruskay’s remarks on receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew Union College on Dec. 5. He delivered the annual Fritz Bamberger lecture.
It obviously means a great deal to me to deliver this lecture and receive an honorary degree from such a dear friend and respected colleague [Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College], particularly during these last weeks of your distinguished stewardship of Hebrew Union College.
David has provided HUC – and the entire North American Jewish community – with sage leadership during a challenging time. I know of no national Jewish leader who is as beloved as you are, David. Beloved and deeply revered for your wisdom; for your grace; and for your embrace of virtually everyone with whom you cross paths. Your imprint on this institution and our whole community will be long-standing and I am delighted that the Board of Directors of UJA-Federation had the opportunity last month to both recognize you and thank you for your exemplary leadership.
I will also be honored to receive a degree from Hebrew Union College because – a secret – I seriously considered becoming a rabbinical student at HUC. Back then, in the late l960s, you had a preliminary interview to obtain a rabbinical school application, I suppose to assess if you were fit. I met with the distinguished professor who then chaired the admissions committee and shared with him my Jewish journey. I thought I said all the right things and yet, about an hour later, he said: “John, you don’t belong here. You really should study at one of the institutions uptown.”
I have had a wonderful professional career yet I have occasionally wondered how my life might have evolved if I had entered HUC back then. Hence, you can imagine: I will be delighted to finally be an alumnus of Hebrew Union College. Thank you.
When David asked me to deliver this lecture, he said repeatedly that it ought be a “valedictory,” which I took to be a “summation” of my 23 years at UJA-Federation.
As I reflect on my tenure at UJA-Federation, I have realized that the perspectives that have framed my professional journey emerged directly from powerful personal experiences in my teens and twenties. From each, I developed strong views about what I believed was needed to strengthen the Jewish future. I have chosen to focus on those early experiences and the views I gleaned from them for they have framed my work and what I think is needed and in each of the positions I have held: as principal of the SAJ Hebrew School (which I always say was my “best job” because one can impact young and old so directly); as Education Director of the 92nd Street Y; as Vice Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; in my various positions at UJA-Federation; and as a consultant to foundations.
The lessons learned from these experiences have been deep and enduring, and with a bit of apology for sharing arguably far too much of my own journey, my purpose is to illustrate, at least in my case, how powerful personal experiences shaped my views on at least some of, yes, “What I believe Is Required” for strengthening the next chapter of the Jewish people.
To begin, my personal background. I was raised in the Five Towns on Long Island along with my quite wonderful sister Judy who is with us tonight – the children of Edith and Everett Ruskay. My parents were third generation Americans; met at Woodmere Academy; the children of upper middle class parents. My mother’s parents, loving grandparents, were highly assimilated Reform Jews; born in Hoosick Falls, NY, my maternal grandmother had a Christmas tree her entire life. We did as well until I was six.
My father’s family had far deeper Jewish roots. One of my paternal great grandmothers, Esther J. Ruskay, was a fiery orator; the first woman to preach from the pulpit at Temple Emanuel in Manhattan She was a leader of the National Council of Jewish Women and author of “Home and Hearth Essays” published by the Jewish Publication Society in l902. Two of my great aunts were national presidents of Hadassah and other great grandparents were founders with Dr. Mordecai Kaplan of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.
While my paternal grandparents, Cecil and Sophie Ruskay, were founders of a leading modern orthodox congregation in Lawrence, they exemplified Mordecai Kaplan’s “two civilization Jews.” We would have Shabbat dinner at my grandparents; and on occasion return for Sunday lunch. After lunch, we would retire to the living room. I can still recall as a seven year old sitting on velvet coaches, quite bored, listening to my grandfather, a Columbia Law School graduate, recite Shelley, Shakespeare, or Keats by heart in a room filled with family, friends, and Jewish leaders
His wife, my grandmother. Sophie Ruskay authored numerous books including a Jewish book of the month club selection. A fierce Zionist, she ran for the New York State Assembly in l948 and carried the Five Towns on the American Labor party ticket.
My quite wonderful parents, were basically three times a year Jews. Their life and ours centered around my father’s work – he owned a shirt manufacturing business –and their multiple pursuits: skiing (my parents were on National Ski Patrol); sailing (my father was commodore of the Yacht Club); opera, concerts and civic involvement. They attended political fundraisers frequently; hosted gatherings for civil rights and anti-war. If we were home on Friday night, candles were lit and Kiddush was recited but on most Friday nights, we were all out. A slice of my family.
My Bar Mitzvah was on Shemini Atzeret, October 24, 1959 at Temple Beth El of Cedarhurst. I can still clearly remember the day. As I was leaving the sanctuary, on the way to the social hall for the luncheon that was to follow, someone stopped me. I did not know him well then. Eddie said: “John, you were really terrific this morning. You should go to Camp Ramah.” “What’s that?” I asked. A Hebrew speaking camp. It’s fabulous.” In the months that followed, Eddie and I talked further and an assistant rabbi also encouraged me.
In June l961, I found myself at Camp Ramah in Nyack. It changed my life. For it was at Ramah and particularly those first summers at Ramah, that I experienced being part of a wonderful, joyful, natural Jewish community. I did ok in Hebrew School but it was basically boring: conjugating verbs; reading stories I could not grasp; learning about the patriarchs and the prophets. It all seemed so distant. But at Ramah, and particularly, those first Shabbatot, I still recall vividly preparing for Shabbat; gathering for prayers and reciting words that I could not yet understand. But the spiritual power pierced my heart and soul like a thunderbolt; this was an enhanced way to be on this planet.
Shayshet yamin tavod, va’asiyta kol malachtecha. V’bayom shvii, …Shabbat l’adonai.
Six days thou shalt work but on the seventh day, it shall be a day for the Lord.
Six days we so call worked (at least for camp) – sports, classes, drama. But on Friday afternoon, we paused, prepared, and created a quite different day, a special day. The experience of those first Shabbatot seared my soul. Looking back, I realize I was experiencing for the first time kedushah, the sacred. I had not known it existed. To sanctify life by differentiating time, space, moments, and experiences. I was to learn far later, from the works of sociologists Marcel Eliade, Thomas Luckmann and others, that differentiating sanctifies. Distinguishing the ordinary from the special, the sacred from the profane. I learned about kedushah by experiencing it directly. I repeat: I learned about it not in a classroom or from books or by being told about it. I learned about the sacred by experiencing it directly.
The picture of my Ramah bunk has been in every office where I have worked and it sits on my bookcase at UJA Federation today. For it is that experience that initiated my Jewish journey; more significantly, it initiated my Jewish educational journey, providing a reason to want to learn so I could better participate in what I was experiencing as a powerful and meaningful community.
When we would be in the dining room and others would recite prayers, I asked: what are they saying? Birkat Hamazon: the grace after meals. What is that? Ah, a way for us to pause and bless the gift of food.
It was first experiencing a powerful community and wanting to participate in it that led this young man to ask the questions of what? and why?
Eddie Schecter, who stopped me in the hallway 50 years ago and pointed me toward Camp Ramah, he is today Rabbi Edward Schecter, an HUC alum, rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson. And he is here with us this evening, for which I am very grateful because it gives me the opportunity to thank him publicly for that hallway interaction that literally changed my life. Thank you, Eddie.
Whatever my professional position, I have always considered myself a Jewish educator and I labor with others to strengthen the whole range of Jewish educational opportunities. My two children, and grandchildren, attended Jewish day school and I worked closely with my dear friend, Peter Geffen, who is also with us this evening, to create the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. Day Schools are significant for multiple reasons; and we need and are working to strengthen them. But my focus has always been, arguably, framed by my journey, on the marginally affiliated, for whom Jewish life is of little significance. Hence, from those first summers at Ramah, and subsequent involvement in youth groups and Israel trips, I concluded that if one is not raised in an involved committed family or community; if one has not experienced Jewish life as powerful and inspiring; why study any of this? Because some of us believe it is of import. There are many subjects of import.
And that is why, from my earliest first camp, youth group, and Israel experiences, a central element of my agenda has been to strengthen the Jewish future has been remarkably constant: first, to strengthen if not transform the critical gateway institutions – synagogues, Hebrew Schools, JCCs and Ys, Hillels, and camps – so they are inspired settings for Jewish learning and living. So when people cross their thresholds as modestly involved Jews do, they will be more likely to experience the exhilaration of Jewish life and be motivated to become involved and learn.
And second, to maximize the number of our young – and not so young – who experience inspired Jewish life that from everything we know, is more accessible in informal Jewish educational settings: Jewish summer camps, Israel trips, and youth groups. If the modestly involved Jew experiences powerful, engaging, compelling Jewish life in these settings, it can initiate the Jewish educational and spiritual journey. By experiencing powerful community, it certainly did for me.
While the North American Jewish community has taken important first steps to strengthen the financing, the range of offerings, and the staffing of youth groups, summer camps, and Israel trips, so much more is possible and needed. It is in our hands and we ought delay no longer.
A second chapter.
In the years that followed those first summers at Ramah, Jewish life increasingly framed my life. I withdrew from what I (no doubt alone) considered to be a promising football career at Lawrence High School and became a regional and then national officer of United Synagogue Youth – the national youth movement of the Conservative Movement. I participated in the USY Israel Pilgrimage in l963 and returned as junior staff on the USY pilgrimage in l965.
My first visits to Israel were beyond words. In the early and mid l960s, although Israel was also only an adolescent, it was awe-inspiring and reflected every positive value certainly I could ever imagine. Although attacked and outnumbered by Arab enemies from the outset, Israel was a military success story. But moments after the nightmare of the Holocaust, we had returned to our ancient homeland with the support of the world. The Hebrew language had been revived and a robust Israeli culture was emerging. Millions of immigrants were being successfully absorbed. The kibbutz actualized progressive and egalitarian values. The land was gorgeous. I can still easily access the feelings I had as we travelled up the very winding roads to enter Jerusalem. These were the most gorgeous barren hills I ever encountered. And Shabbat in Jerusalem – it was a taste of heaven! Those first trips to Israel were “over the top.” 80 trips later, they still are!
I headed off to college in 1964 and what a period it was to be in college. Campuses were engulfed in debate about the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement burst on the front pages, and in March 1965, I had the privilege of leading a student delegation to Alabama and work closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues for 10 days in Montgomery Alabama. We marched; we sat-in, we prayed, and we sang together. We were a generation, inspired by President Kennedy, who believed we could participate in shaping both our country and the world. Many of us questioned the morality of the Vietnam War and labored to end it. We viewed segregation at lunch counters or voting booths as moral blights on our country and sought to change it.
I loved my undergraduate studies and literally felt my mind being stretched daily. I was fascinated by global studies and enrolled in multiple history and political science classes on Africa, Europe, China, Russia, and Southeast Asia. Then I took a course on Middle East Politics. After surveying Arab history and contemporary Arab politics, the last four or five classes were devoted to the Arab-Israel dispute culminating with a simulation of an Arab-Israeli peace conference. I still recall those final classes, taught by a brilliant/balanced professor. It was then that I first learned that the Arab-Israel dispute was not black and white; there were grays. On my teen Israel trips, in youth groups, at summer camps, I had learned (understandably) our narrative. In those classes, I learned that there was a counter narrative that viewed the same facts quite differently. Moreover, I was pressed on complex issues for which I felt totally ill prepared.
At first I was angry. Why did the Jewish educational institutions where I had been so involved – summer camps, Israel trips, Hebrew school – only present the conflict in black and white terms? Why hadn’t they (whoever “they” were) had sufficient confidence to present the complexity of the issues?
As a Jewish educator, the lesson I drew from that challenging course – and have sought to apply in each of the positions where I have served – was and remains clear. Conflating Israel Advocacy and Israel education is leaving larger and larger sectors of our community – young and old – intellectually incapable of dealing with the complexity of the ongoing Israel-Arab-Palestinian conflict. Permit me to explain.
I define Israel advocacy as mobilizing our community to stand with the people of Israel, in my language, “as they resist violence and in the pursuit of peace.” We are called to do this – in crisis and when Israel is under severe threat. At such times, we must set aside our own views, come together and stand with the people of Israel. That’s what New York’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade is about – and numerous other activities that enable us to convey in word and deed our steadfast commitment to and abiding bonds with our brothers and sisters in Israel. The work of Israel advocacy also enables broader groups to view Israel – with all its complexity – as the economic, cultural, and political miracle it is.
On the other hand, I define Israel education as helping young and old develop their own views – sometimes conflicting positions – about what Israel can and should be. For I am convinced that enabling young and old to develop their own views on the most complex issues strengthens engagement and commitment.
An example. Most of us are liberal nationalists. We believe that everyone should be equal under the law. Period. Truth be said, the Law of Return provides rights to Jews that would not stand the test in some courts in countries like the United States. While America is a liberal nationalist state, with many imperfections as we know, the Zionism that prevailed is a conservative nationalism. It privileges Jews in the service of maintaining Israel as a Jewish State.
One can grapple with this and I believe work through the related issues. There are many democracies today that preference a range of internal and Diaspora groups. However, as a community, we have tended to avoid dealing with such issues. And so when one is challenged on a college campus or at a dinner party and one has never considered the issue or developed a thoughtful response, one often retreats. My impression is that larger sectors of our community, while proud to be Jewish and predisposed favorably to Israel, simply turn away. They do not become hostile; they become indifferent.
As a result of this and other factors, I see today in our community a stronger and stronger pro-Israel lobby from narrower segments of our community. This troubles me and should trouble communal leadership.
It can be different. I have developed and taught in multiple settings – what I am told repeatedly to be eye opening and refreshing classes. In those classes, I present a range of pre-state Zionist thinkers who held different visions of what the future Jewish State might be. As some of you may know, before 1948, there was significant debate about what the future homeland should be.
In these classes, students young and old have been thoroughly absorbed to study the writings from the leader of the Revisionists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky – who favored a Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan; David Ben-Gurion – who argued for a Jewish socialist state; and Judah Magnes who called for a bi-nationalist state. Students are enthralled by the intensity of the pre-1948 debates about what the future state could and might be. Post-l948, with Israel viciously attacked, and certainly post the l967 Six-Day War, our community rallied around Israel and affirmed the prevailing synthesis: a social democratic state in a part of Palestine. Vigorous debates subsided. Given the assault on the young state, maybe they had to. But the unintended consequence was to deny multiple generations of the opportunity or need to develop their own deeply held views about what Israel could and should be.
First efforts are underway to create a distinct field of Israel education to provide frameworks for members of our community to undertake systematic thinking about Israel – its history, to be sure; but equally important, its ideological pillars. While I know some will dismiss me as being woefully passé, and I may be, what is needed is actually the renewal of Zionism not only for the purpose of broadening the numbers who will advocate for Israel but to strengthen groups and the number of North American Jews with deeply held views, conflicting views, about what Israel can and should be.
I am delighted that UJA-Federation, working with the Jewish Agency, the Shalom Hartman Institute, HUC, and JTS, is developing the field and introducing Israel education programs for Jewish leadership in New York. But one thing is crystal clear: it is urgent that we intensify these efforts to enable young and old to legitimate and defend Israel, not by defending given lines, but rather by the strength of positions they have developed after wrestling with history; challenging current issues; and reconciling their perspectives with their deepest values.
And this is not only about the young. This is also about leadership. Despite the severe threats that Israel faces – including the threat of a Nuclear Iran which I take with utmost seriousness – we must enlarge and expand these programs throughout the community – including in rabbinical schools, programs training Jewish educators and Jewish communal professionals, and for volunteer leadership. And let us note my focus on this issue was the result of the experience of feeling intellectually naked – despite years of Jewish study; about the Israel-Arab dispute and core Zionist issues. We must and can address this.
The third experience I want to share – and I will do so more briefly – took place in l969. After graduating college, and being directed uptown, I enrolled as a rabbinical school student at JTS.
While my year studying at JTS was fascinating – I had the privilege of being assigned as an assistant to Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel. But by mid-year I realized that I had entered rabbinical school because I wanted to be a clergyman in the model of Dr. King, Professor Heschel, and Reverend William Sloane Coffin. I was still struggling with the tension of universalism and particularism or as one l9th century social philosopher wrote: “Why be a Jew when one can be a citizen of the world?”
By chance, during a trip with my parents in Europe that winter we spent a half a day at Dachau. From everything I have shared with you this evening, you might surmise that I was, at that time, essentially a synagogue-religiously based Jew. My Jewish ethnic identity was not yet developed. But I can still remember what it felt like standing before the crematoria at Dachau; with the long shovels on the right that had been used to remove human ash. I just stood there frozen, looking in, and realized – right there; whether or not I believed that at the end of day we should all be one; that religious lines should be eviscerated; I realized – standing before the ovens; transfixed; that whatever I thought, I would have been in those ovens.
I can still feel that moment. And at that moment, I concluded I am a Jew and embraced being a Jew. The question remained: what do I want to do with it? What do I want to make of it? What kind of a Jewish life do I want to create?
That was my first experience of what I will call collective Jewish identity. In the 1980s, I participated in intensive dialogues with Israelis and Europeans Jews, which deepened my sense of shared agendas and collective Jewish identity.
This was solidified by my overseas trips with UJA-Federation, when I would join the JDC staff in St Petersburg or Baku; climb the stairs; visit isolated elderly Jews; reach out and look in their eyes and instinctively feel – we are related.
In multiple classrooms, in multiple classes, I had read about diverse Jewish communities. Leaders had spoken about klal yisroel and being responsible one for the other. But I did not feel related to or responsible for klal yisroel until I experienced it directly. As I sat with seniors in Minsk who were being sustained by Jews a world away, I realized if some of my great-great grandparents had not picked up and left Belarus, I might well be right where they are.
Or when I visit a Jewish agency summer camp, as I do almost every year, and ask one of the young Russians campers: how did you get here? A grandparent said I was Jewish and I should go to this camp. What happened? And then, with their eyes wide open, they invariably say: I experienced my first Shabbat! And it changed my life. They return for a few summers as campers, then as counselors; go on birthright, and return to the former Soviet Union. The renewal of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union today is being led by these young men and women. And you can imagine, given my similar experience – someone suggesting I attend a Jewish summer camp; and then experiencing Shabbat – what a privilege I feel to be leading UJA-Federation where we have been able to help tens of thousands of Russian kids attend summer camps. And to feed hundreds of thousands of isolated elderly men and women – in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Minsk, Baku, and beyond.
From Dachau to St. Petersburg to Jewish summer camps, I have learned that cultivating and developing individual and collective Jewish identity, while linked, are also conceptually discrete. And it is my view that we need different strategies to strengthen each. (One is about individual identity as a Jew and what is meaningful. Collective Jewish identity is about being identified with and feeling responsible for Jews throughout the world.)
In l999, we reorganized UJA-Federation’s planning process and established three mission-based commissions which were each charged to forge visions and strategies to actualize their mission leg. We established a Caring Commission to work in the broad area of hesed, human services; a Commission on Jewish identity and Renewal to work in the broad area of hinuch, Jewish education; individual Jewish identity and work on collective; and a Commission on the Jewish People to actualize our commitment to klal yisroel, the Jewish people. While we do not claim to be the first to cite Peoplehood – Dr. Kaplan preceded us by more than half a century – when we established the Commission on the Jewish People, many thought we were off. Fifteen years later, peoplehood has returned to communal discourse and to the communal agenda. Numerous initiatives have been and are being launched to strengthen collective identity. But hereto, we are only at the outset. And quite remarkably, my first understandings of Jewish peoplehood, klal yisroel, began standing before those crematoria in Dachau.
I have chosen to use this opportunity to focus on three discrete areas to make a point. With an earned doctorate, I obviously value academic learning. But in each of the areas I have highlighted, it was the power of the intense personal experience that changed my life and shaped my perspectives long into the future. My first summers at Camp Ramah; standing before the ovens of Dachau, an academic class on the Middle East which challenged my views and required that I create contexts to grapple with complex issues. From each, I drew powerful lessons which have shaped my entire professional journey.
At the SAJ Hebrew School and at the 92nd Street Y, I introduced Shabbat dinners; Shabbat retreats; to provide opportunities for individuals and families to experience Shabbat. And at each, I broadened boundaries so there was more space to grapple with complex theological and policy issues. I went to JTS as Vice Chancellor for many reasons but one was to join Chancellor Gerson Cohen z’l in conceptualizing how to better prepare rabbis and Jewish educators so each could be builders of inspired community.
I came to UJA-Federation because I was convinced, and remain so, that Federations would be essential if we’re going to be able to seize the opportunity to build what I call Inspired, Caring, and Interconnected Communities that have the potential to lead Jews to self-identify not because they have to, they do not; not because of guilt, they have little; but because of the meaning and purpose they find in living communities. Living communities that enable those who cross the threshold of our institutions to powerfully experience the exhilaration of living as part of a sacred community, which affirms that everyone is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
These learnings remain powerful for me. I still believe that while we must continue to address the significant external challenges that face our people, we must now focus on what is needed to strengthen the Jewish future and seize the unique moment at hand:
We must make it possible for every one of our young to attend the powerful informal Jewish educational experiences that are available: Jewish summer camps, Israel trips, and youth groups.
We must intensify our efforts so our critical gateway institutions: synagogues, JCCs and Ys; Hillels; residential and day camps are inspired communities where inspired Jewish life can be readily experienced.
We must reframe how we prepare professional leaders – rabbis, educators, and Jewish communal professionals – so they are not only well-educated but they are better prepared to forge communities of meaning, purpose, and inspiration.
We must decouple Israel Advocacy from Israel education, so young and old can grapple with the complexity of Israel – past and present; and develop their own views about what Israel can be. We must create space in the community for such learning and debate. And have confidence that serious Israel education – with the debates that are part of it – strengthens long-term engagement and commitment to Israel.
And we must provide opportunities for Jews from throughout the world to learn about one another; to have shared experiences; to work together; argue together; volunteer together; struggle together, so larger and larger segments of our people can recognize that we share both history and destiny.
Important steps in each of these areas are underway and I take pride that UJA-Federation has been among the leaders in each of these areas. But moving forward each of these agendas requires expanded communal time, resources, and sustained leadership to mold a strong Jewish future.
I probably ought conclude, at this point say thank you, and await the actual conferring of the degree. But I feel compelled to offer a brief addendum. We meet but weeks after the publication of the Pew Report and I know that the data is challenging. For me – and I know some of the social scientists may chastise me for this – while the results are daunting, they are not surprising. In fact, I feared worse. Let me explain.
The Pew Report appears 20-plus years after the wake-up call of the l990 National Jewish Population Study that reported the meteoric rise of intermarriage. The figure 52% was the shocking headline back then. For many, the Jewish future was endangered. Good news: the Jewish people are alive and well, but by this I mean the most traditional parts of the Jewish world are thriving.
The issue is not whether there will be Jews. The issue is whether those of us who seek to live as identified Jews and live in the open society of America and the west can do so. We are in the first generation of living in an entirely new setting, the first to be living in the full openness of modern culture.
(Modern Jewish history is usually dated to the French Revolution. Napoleon swept through Europe and invited Jews to leave the ghetto and become participants in the evolving industrializing modernizing west. While we had previously lived in our own semi-autonomous communities, we had to now negotiate living in the emerging, more open, modernizing cultures of Europe. Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Zionism emerged; each developed schools of thought on what was needed to embrace modernity and sustain Jewish identity. The waves of immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century brought each of these emerging intellectual frameworks to America and each built movements which shaped 20th century American and World Jewry.)
American Jews thrived in the 20th century. While poverty persisted among Jews, American Jews experienced increasing affluence, influence and acceptance. During the 20th century, American Jews could increasingly attend the best universities and be employed in virtually every sector of the economy. However, as Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna has documented, until the l980s, American cultural norms strongly favored in-marriage – among Catholics and Protestants, among Italians, Germans, and Swedes – and this had the effect of maintaining the Jewish community as a “kept community.” The norm of in marriage in America began to weaken in the l960s and by the mid-l980s, we found ourselves in the most open accepting society where Jews have ever lived.
And let us at least acknowledge, if only in passing, that there were traditional segments of European Jewry that believed, from the outset, that modernity would erode Jewish commitment; that modern values emphasizing individualism and material acquisition were antithetical to Jewish values. The most traditional sought to maintain their insular communities; and minimize interaction with the wider culture so they could retain their communities and their lifestyles. One of the leading rabbis of his time, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1838) went so far as to write Napoleon and plead that emancipation not be brought to the Jews of Germany. Their heirs are the thriving Haredi communities today in New York, in Israel, and throughout the world. While they were often denigrated and marginalized, their strength and birth rates today seem to assure a strong Jewish future.
Hence, the question for most of us remains: how to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in face of the full embrace of modernity? And for this, we are thoroughly ill prepared. How could we be prepared? Being part of a kept community sustained by broader cultural norms, we had focused on other pressing agendas. In the first half of the 20th century, the American Jewish community had focused on responding to the urgent needs of millions of immigrants who had reached our shores; and later, while continuing this work, we mobilized to provide essential support to rescue 3 million Jews from the ashes of the Holocaust; and being an essential partner in building the Jewish State. These were the urgent issues and challenges that required our attention and our resources. And our record of accomplishment in these areas is remarkable.
We now find ourselves in an entirely new setting. The challenge that now faces us is primarily internal. As Natan Sharansky has repeatedly said, Jewish identity is now the driver of everything we care about. If one is not identified positively, why care about feeding the elderly in Brooklyn or Kiev; securing the Jewish state; or making certain that the next generation of our young can attend Jewish summer camps or birthright? Being Jewish, previously ascriptive, is now a matter of choice. An entirely new context. Challenging, to be sure, but what an opportunity!
How blessed we are as a generation to be able to focus on forging Jewish life that can attract young and old to self-identify because of the meaning and purpose they find. Rolls off the lips with ease. But we must be prepared to invest and provide huge resources and effort to create inspiring and engaging JCCs and Ys; synagogues, Hillels, and Jewish summer camps; and make certain that we make each accessible to the largest segments of our community as possible. This work will not be accomplished in a month, or in a year, or a decade. This is the agenda for the next era of Jewish history, and we will need to acknowledge our own ambivalence and then dig deep to have the confidence – even though Jewish life hasn’t quite evolved as we thought it would; that the kedushah I experienced as a young child, if accessible; that being part of a people that affirms caring for every human and that values community over the individual, will be valued in a contemporary culture obsessed with more, the self, and hyper connectivity.
There is erosion underway today, to be sure, but there is also extraordinary renewal in Jewish life. Look around. In but two decades, the North American Jewish community is increasingly focusing on the internal fabric of our community and strengthening identity. Our JCCs and Ys are seeking new ways to connect and offer content. (An interesting footnote: today, three of the five Jewish Community Centers in Manhattan are led by rabbis.) Increasingly, synagogues are working to transform themselves and offer new models of prayer, study, and engagement. 350,000 young men and women have participated in Birthright in but 10 years; Masa, the strongest Birthright follow up program to date, which provides 3 to 6 months for study, internships or volunteerism in Israel has tripled in but 7 years. Hillels, Chabad, and Jewish study programs are reaching far more college students than when I was on campus. Start-ups – from Kivunim to the Shefa School – reflecting visions of what is needed and the readiness to actualize those visions, and new technology based start-ups – from My Jewish learning to J Cast network – are emerging and Jewish social justice groups are proliferating.
I do not minimize the recent data but we are in the first chapters of an entirely new era of Jewish history: living in the most open, accepting society where Jews have ever lived.
A challenge, to be sure, but a thrilling opportunity that few who preceded us could have imagined.
Let each of us discern the lessons from own Jewish journeys and the policy implications that follow. If we do this, as I have tried to do this evening, I remain confident that we can forge a Jewish future of meaning and purpose that will strengthen our people long into the future, and provide a model for contemporary culture of balancing the blessings of modernity – and they are multiple – with the wisdom of our people to infuse life with meaning and purpose. This is the historic opportunity at hand. Let us embrace it.
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