Busting the New Year’s Jewish Myths
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.
No longer a people that needs to band together in the face of discrimination, American Jews now can be Jewish any way they please. Or not at all, as we discovered in Pew numbers that show a growing proportion of Jews who feel a tribal connection, but don’t act on it.
This unaccustomed popularity helps explain the dramatic increase of intermarriage among the non-Orthodox; the Pew survey found that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews who married since 2000 walked down the aisle with a non-Jew. The old presumption that a Jew who married outside the faith wanted to escape it simply isn’t true anymore. That means anyone from rabbis to parents to community leaders who is seeking ways to dial back intermarriage or deal with its consequences have to take account of this new reality.
3. It’s 1939 all over again for European Jews.
Anti-Semitism is a looming threat in many European communities. Burdened still by economic recession, some Europeans are resuscitating this old canard, either fueled by a virulent nationalistic right wing as in Hungary, or by the influx of Muslim immigrants who conflate anti-Zionism with hatred of indigenous Jews.
But Americans make a big mistake if they paint the entire continent with such a broad, fearful brush. Even as French Jews face attacks and pleas to emigrate, for instance, there are some 200 kosher restaurants open in Paris alone, just as many synagogues, and a vibrant Jewish cultural life.
“You don’t need a bodyguard to go to synagogue [in Paris],” Jean-Jacques Wahl, secretary of the European Association for Jewish Culture, said at a session at Limmud UK. “It’s much better to be a Jew in Paris today than a Muslim.”
Rabbi Chaim Weiner, director of Masorti Europe, said at that same session that he wears a yarmulke everywhere he goes in Europe. “People are really shocked to see I’m still alive,” he noted dryly. He is often approached by curious non-Jews, he said, “and very rarely will it end up with someone making a comment that is less than pleasant.”
Elsewhere in Europe, young Jews are eager to reclaim their heritage and sometimes their faith, as an increasing number are seeking conversions. Yet in the grand, global discussions about Jewish peoplehood, they often feel overlooked.
Listen to European Jews and you will hear plaintive pleas for religious and cultural support for communities, especially smaller ones, which are devoid of rabbis and educators, prayer books and Hebrew lessons — a “skills deficit,” as one expert put it. Rather than rescue, they need, and deserve, rejuvenation.
As Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, said: “It’s important for us to get beyond our stereotypes to understand exactly what the map of Jewish Europe looks like.”
4. Jewish college students need grown-up help to combat creeping anti-Zionism on campus.
Not always. The decision by Swarthmore College students to become an “Open Hillel,” defying Hillel International to include non-Zionists in their programming, may well be replicated on other campuses in 2014. This is what students do: challenge rules, push boundaries, create their own acceptable realities and, hopefully, learn to live with the consequences.
Let this be a teachable moment rather than a cause for hysteria. Hillel has the right to set its own rules; students have a right to challenge them; both sides have the obligation to negotiate with civility and respect. The myriad outside groups established to protect college students from forces real and imagined ought to step back and interfere only when necessary, and then only when asked.
The Jewish community needs to have more faith in its college students to deal with controversy. The appalling decision in December by the American Studies Association to support an academic boycott of Israel will no doubt set in motion more such votes this year. But let’s remember that within a few weeks, at least 55 colleges and universities rejected the move, in a support of academic freedom and a rejection of the double standard used toward Israel.
Academia in America isn’t hostile to Jews and Israel. Some academics are, and their views are being roundly dismissed by their peers.
Let 2014 be a year when we try harder to put controversy into perspective. The Forward signs its name to that pledge, too.