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Bridging Divide Between Universal and Parochial Jews

I’ve been thinking about two larger stories that inform Jewish life; about the extent to which those two stories seem to overlap less and less — and whether there is anything we can or should do about this. The key challenge for the American Jewish community in 2015 is this gap that has opened up between the particular and the universal.

For particularistic Jews, the focus of emails and of conversation is another attack in Israel. Another assault in Paris. Someone was stabbed. A hundred children murdered by the Taliban in Pakistan. Two people dead in Australia. Murder in Har Nof. BDS on campus. Thus not much time or mental energy for — for instance — Ferguson or Eric Garner or the problems of white racism.

For universalistic Jews it is, of course, the mirror image. Garner, Ferguson, Ebola, marriage equality. But hardly anyone talks about anti-Semitism; it is somehow slightly distasteful to do so. It might imply that one cared only about Jews.

It might mean that one was paranoid, obsessed with the past, unaware that we are living not only in freedom but also in relative privilege: What about those who have less than us? What about those who cannot pass for white, whose parents did not give them a good start in life?

The chasm on Israel is partly a cause of all this but partly a symptom also. And as an organized community we talk about this rift — between the particular and the universal —in relation to Israel, but less frequently in wider terms.

This rift will not suddenly go away, and it will not accidentally go away. I am immensely sad about that. I claim both the particular and the universal in Jewish life, as I know many Forward readers do. We are the people of Einstein and Freud; Dr. Ruth and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Jonathan Sacks and Angela Buchdahl. To respond to this fragmentation we have to be determined and thoughtful.

We have to build centripetal programs in a centrifugal world. We need to try to stress the universal in particularistic contexts, and the particular in universalistic ones. And, perhaps most of all, we simply need to note our own biases — each one of us — and strive, as hard as we can in the new year, to counterbalance them.

Nigel Savage is the president of Hazon.

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