It takes no special insight to predict some of the topics for conversation among Jews in this new year. The Mideast peace process, such as it is. Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The endless need to engage young people in meaningful Jewish life. The prohibitive cost of day school and summer camp. The unlikelihood of any Jew starring in the Winter Olympics.
But we would rather focus on the less predictable issues that face us as 2014 dawns, and suggest that we first discard our old assumptions and myths before beginning a real conversation on what to do. Here, then, are a few of the Forward’s challenges to conventional thinking.
1. The inclusion of the Haredim into mainstream Jewish life is Israel’s problem alone.
How to bring the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli economic, military and social sectors is indeed a huge task for the Jewish state right now. The issue propelled a brand-new political party, Yesh Atid, into power and remains — beyond the imperative to solve the conflict with the Palestinians — the top conundrum of the Netanyahu government.
But while America doesn’t have to worry about a Haredi military draft, our community does need to confront the growing issue of Haredi poverty. The ultra-Orthodox population is young, fertile and except for notable pockets of wealth, increasingly poor. The New York federation’s population survey, published in 2012, found that more than two out of every five Hasidic households — a full 43% — are poor. And these households have five, seven, 10 children.
Haredi insularity, resistance to secular education and adherence to traditional gender roles make entry into the economy extremely difficult. Responding to this will challenge the teaching that all Jews are responsible for one another.
How will non-Orthodox donors feel offering financial help to a community that views them with suspicion or, sometimes, derision? Will the Haredi rabbis who set the boundaries for behavior be willing to modernize their outlook? How will mainstream Jewish organizations build trust? And what can those organizations learn from Haredi devotion to a countercultural lifestyle that privileges family and Jewish values above the acquisition of material goods?
2. Jewish pride is the key to Jewish continuity.
One of the startling findings of the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” is that 94% of the respondents said that they were proud of being Jewish. Startling, that is, to those few people left who don’t realize how cool it is right now to be Jewish in America. Jon Stewart! Natalie Portman! Adam Levine! Even the ADL acknowledges a decline in anti-Semitism in the United States.