Western Communities Battle Isolation

By Steven I. Weiss

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. — A conference this month aimed at reviving Jewish life among communities in the American West turned into a debate between communal and religious leaders over the character of Jewish identity.

The conference, Hadesh West, was organized by United Jewish Communities’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar and brought together more than 70 leaders from dozens of cities in the American West.

A number of major Jewish communal organizations are based on the East Coast, and some speakers at the conference suggested that communities in the West — defined by the UJC as the 11 contiguous states west of Colorado — often are overlooked. Moreover, according to a presentation at the conference by the National Jewish Population Survey, the region has the highest levels of unaffiliated Jews and interfaith marriages, as well as the lowest levels of community participation in Jewish ritual.

“It was important to overcome the separateness and isolation felt by West Coast communities from the Northeast and those national institutions far removed from the realities of life on the West Coast,” wrote Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the vice president of UJC for Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, in an e-mail to the Forward. “I was surprised by the lack of cohesion and connection between the West Coast communities.”

In trying to address some of the problems of Jewish identity, communal and religious leaders expressed quite different views in panels on subjects such as whether Jewish communal organizations should be more welcoming of intermarried couples.

“The issue that affects interfaith families is that we know that there is proven effective programming, yet there is very, very little of it going on,” said Ed Case, president and publisher of InterFaithFamily.com and a moderator of the session, in an interview with the Forward. Case said that he had done a thorough survey of UJC programming and found that of the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by UJC annually, only $500,000 had been spent on programming targeted at interfaith families.

“It’s when we say that you have to do this in order to be Jewish that we lose,” said Beth Cousens, a Ph.D. candidate and Wexner Graduate Fellow at Brandeis University studying the sociology of Jewish Education. Cousens argued that however the younger generation chooses to affiliate with the Jewish community, they should be supported by communal agencies, even if those activities are different or even contradictory to communal leaders’ sense of tradition.

But throughout the conference, many leaders — generally those employed by synagogues — asked if programming that aims simply to get young Jews to acknowledge their Jewishness would be sufficient. At Cousens’s session, Rabbi Mark Diamond of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis expressed concern that if no limits were set for the exploration of Jewish identity, traditional Judaism could be left behind. “Are there any boundaries to this?” he asked.

“There are two sides of me that react,” responded Cousens. “The emotional side of me says, ‘Of course there are boundaries.’ The intellectual side of me says, ‘Let’s wait a second, Judaism has evolved for thousands of years [and will continue to].’”

But Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the University of Judaism emphasized at a lunchtime lecture the need for a “purpose of Jewish identity.”

“It is about something invasive and intrusive and if it’s not, go home,” he said. Conversing with a fellow rabbi later, Artson said of the communal leaders attending: “If they walk out of here already saying Jewish life has to have a purpose, then we’ve done something.”

Interestingly, at a conference devoted to renaissance and revival, some noted that not all Jewish communities were represented.

“I think L.A. is much more Jewishly multicultural than other cities — yet there wasn’t a single Persian in the room,” noted Shawn Landres, a sociologist of religion at the University of Judaism, referring to Los Angeles’s prominent Iranian Jewish population. “Not Good.”

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