Principle and Meaning

By Rebecca Neuwirth

I was asked to write a piece reflecting on five years since the Pew study of Jewish Americans. I did that last week, trying to make the point that wisdom rather than tactics for continuity has shown itself to be enduring, and is called for today.

And then this tragic and horrible weekend happened, and I feel even more strongly that our community is looking for leaders who can and will take on the truly big issues of our time with courage….. Here are my thoughts.

Much in the community and even more without, has changed over the last five years, and indeed is changing even right now, and it makes sense to take stock. Today, for Jewish survival and even more importantly, for our well-being, I believe we need to focus less on engineering an elusive social formula for continuity, and more on accessing and articulating Jewish wisdom on issues we face as individuals and a community in a complicated world.

I appreciate this chance to revisit two ideas on how to engage Jews on the margins, and equally importantly, to encourage a Jewish role in principled conversations and work of our time. Indeed, perhaps these are one and the same.

And a personal note – I myself am an example of someone who comes from the margins but who was brought into this incredible world of Jewish involvement and activism by the inspiring, warm, and wise leadership that I was so fortunate to encounter in the community.

In 2013, I wrote an article noting the significant percentage of Jews involved in giving, which I felt had been underappreciated in the extensive commentaries that followed the Pew study. Perhaps those statistics weren’t a surprise to anyone. Tremendous communal resources have encouraged American Jewish philanthropy, and of course have benefited from it. We have a highly developed culture, almost a science, of how to fund-raise, and we have invented many of the tools of the trade.

Given all of this, though, it is surprising that few in the community have viewed philanthropy as more than a utilitarian opportunity. There is a real call in our world to think differently about giving. It is an idea that gained traction with an article by Peter Buffett in the same year that the Pew report emerged and with a chorus of voices, of both donors and recipients, joining since then.

What is the connection between givers and receivers, and how can we rethink it at a time when many are questioning power dynamics in society generally? What is the link between philanthropy and gratitude, a personal value that has gained stock in an age of mindfulness and reflection? And how do measurement, data, and quantifiable results dovetail with quality, complexity and aspirations that ultimately may be more transformational than technical?

Might Jewish voices help lead an effort with others in our country to reimagine philanthropy in the community and without?

I would love to see that taking place. Surely, Jewish tradition and the Jewish experience in America has something meaningful to say.

And there are some positive signs. Drawing on a more holistic understanding of the urge to “give back” and an interest in engaging younger Jews, we have seen new opportunities for volunteerism, family philanthropy, and educational giving circles. They have made concerted efforts to add Jewish and philosophical content, creating a new vocabulary of “service” and “experiential learning.” This has dovetailed with accessible approaches to Jewish learning and tradition, from serious Torah study to a revived interest in the mikvah and women’s experiences, illustrating the depth of interest in Jewish answers to the personal search for meaning that people face in their daily lives. The institutions that have taken these up, have grown significantly.

These efforts might be expanded and deepened to help us rethink what giving back in different iterations could mean today, and how it might be practiced.

Around the time of the Pew study, positions on Israel were threatening to divide the community. I thought the Jewish community should open up the debate, including for young people, who needed to hear the contours of the positions in order to define their own. To paraphrase a young woman I knew – college students like her had been taught to think critically, and many wanted the chance to do so on this issue as well.

The forums for genuine communal discussion on Israel seem instead to have diminished. And the urge to stay away from polarizing debates has spread.

There is a need for leadership around issues that are tearing at our country and world today. On education, immigration, poverty and environment – surely Jewish history and thought can help us gain perspective. How about security, family separation, or racism – we have something to say about these matters as Jews.

I’m not suggesting partisan positions, but principled engagement. Instead, the silence by too many is feeding an anti-political, anti-intellectual and ultimately anti-democratic trend that is growing when we need to be doing just the opposite- leaning in, showing what we stand for.

The effort to be kosher for all has also had political costs, with Jewish voices playing a diminished role in culture-defining debates on college campuses and beyond. Perhaps, ironically, that self-silencing itself may have expedited the process of disengagement by many.

Some of our organizations – political and social service, synagogues and community-based – are indeed engaging and educating and even activating their communities in exemplary ways, leaning into this moment that calls for democratic participation. But not enough.

In 2013, the community discussion was largely about intermarriage. Studies had shown that children of intermarried parents were less likely to identify Jewishly in an abiding way, and demographic concerns abounded.

But is a truth established in one time period predictive for others? The people I admired in Jewish service had an entirely different message– an aspirational promise of Judaism: the idea that our future is not predetermined but that we each play a hand in shaping it.

Or, quoting an elderly Romanian Jewish man whom I will never forget: the Jewish community should not be standing against love. And, honestly, it cannot.

I really think it’s that simple. Principle and meaning; engagement will follow. And we will all be better for it.

Rebecca Neuwirth spent almost 20 wonderful years working in and being inspired by the Jewish community. Today, she works at the Center for Popular Democracy.