The Great Unraveling and a Defense of the American Jewish Way

PogoAll of us must nurture and protect a public Jewish space where the support systems of community, collaboration and innovation are neither overwhelmed nor held hostage by ideological and partisan driven politics.

By Robert Hyfler

On boards of communal agencies and within their professional ranks a crisis of confidence exists, not in themselves, but in those they seek as clients and supporters.

They are awash with questions as to our collective viability as a community, our demographic future and the set of historic values, both Jewish and American, that define us.

Ironically, this great  unraveling of the elite psyche comes about at a time when vast numbers of 21st century American Jews have never been more comfortable in their lives and more open in how and to what degree they meld being Jews into their lives. The range of religious choices and quality community options for exploring American Jewishness – educational, cultural and experiential- has never been greater in both quality and quantity. What stands before us are post Shoah, post birth of Israel generations built on choices, pride and optimism, not fears and fatalism.

Yet too many at the top miss the boat on where the majority of Jews are coming from. They forget that in the year prior to the publication of the 1990 Jewish population study the theme of the Council of Jewish Federation’s General Assembly was “The Coming of Age of American Jewry.” Notwithstanding an intermarriage statistic, and its progeny the “continuity industry,” that tag line assertion has truth in it.

All of us have complex identities, as world citizens, as Americans, as Jews. We sadly compartmentalize those identities in our discussions and our communal behaviors. We talk about enhancing the specifically Jewish component of individual and community identity rather than how we can approach this most existential question in an integrating American idiom. Truth is we are, and will continue to be, very American in our Jewishness and very Jewish in our Americanism.

And yet so many of us continue to despair; despair at the normalcy in people’s lives, despair at the impact of many of their own successes and the future of the vital and still efficacious network of voluntary structures that in times of both crisis and quiet undergird day to day Jewish life. They despair at the naturally evolving nature of our relationship with Israel.

We should be concerned about this unraveling and consciously change the narrative to align our institutional thinking with how large numbers of American Jews live their lives and view their Jewishness within those lives. There is a need for a clear affirmation of an American Jewishness which celebrates our universalism, our Americanism along with our bedrock Jewish rootedness.

After 350 years in America it is time to unpack our bags. Doing so would proclaim that Jewish life in America is, and will continue to be, healthy, dynamic, autonomous, robust and evolving. We must rediscover and reinterpret the humanism that is the legacy of both the New World and important themes in classical Jewish religious practices and thought recurrent in the diversity of communities from whence we came.

In a similar misdirected fashion we are perplexed by our relationship to Israel and Israeli Jews. Many of us, both right and left, expect Israeli Jews to be Jews who think like us and others expect us to conform to a particular Israeli understandings of how a Jew should think and behave. We overlook the fact that we in America are a minority working within an array of voluntary structures, speaking and thinking in English, and they are a Hebrew speaking majority, with a complicated civic culture and even more complicating neighbors, yet responsible for running a state. If we have the humility to accept our national and situational differences and acknowledge that our futures will be intertwined but not identical then we can talk with each other rather than lecture at each other.

Can we therefore embrace the 21st century dynamics of American Jewishness as a parallel image of an evolving and positive Israeliness? We are two strong and beautiful Jewish civilizations, equal in size and talents, inextricably tied to each other yet each finding their own way and voice in the 21st century. Like grown mature siblings we are, out of necessity, combining individuality, authenticity and autonomy with mutual responsibility and connectedness. Our conversation and our philanthropic and political ties, broadened to include many more voices on both sides of the ocean, should reflect that.

Leaders and organizations must actively facilitate and nurture a broadened conversation of what it means to be a Jew in 21st Century America. The conversation, an adult conversation, values based at its core, should meld what is best of American pragmatism and the democratic ethos with all that is most enduring in our text and community based traditions. This robust conversation must be ongoing and engagement should not be limited to times of conflict and crisis.

Last but not least, all of us must nurture and protect a public Jewish space where the support systems of community, collaboration and innovation are neither overwhelmed nor held hostage by ideological and partisan driven politics.

Such is the American Jewish way.

Bob Hyfler is a thirty year veteran of communal life and can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net He thanks all those who gave early thoughtful feedback (not always entirely positive) on ideas found in this article. The point of this article was to open a broad based conversation. Readers, of all generations and all perspectives, are strongly encouraged to participate.