Slawson Outlines Community Program for Stronger Jewish Identity

Citing a need for “strengthening Jewish self understanding, ” Dr. John Slawson, social scientist and executive vice-president of the American Jewish Committee, today called for fresh thinking and bold action to make Judaism as “intellectually attractive, emotionally satisfying and esthetically enjoyable” as it has been in the past.

In expressing his views in a paper entitled “Toward A Community Program for Jewish Identity, ” Dr. Slawson says: “We must discover ways of transmitting to American Jewry the deep, enriching quality of Judaism: its universal value, its role as a moral and ethical force, its commitment to human compassion and social justice, its spiritual meaning and its overriding concern with bettering the human condition in the here and now.”

Pointing out that among American Jews, “the ethical and especially the cultural aspects of religion play a much larger role than traditional observance, ” Dr. Slawson expresses the belief that “far more than among other faiths, religious commitment tends to stress ethnic and cultural associations; religious affiliation is often more an expression of group belongingness and communalism than of piety. The concept of peoplehood in a religious and cultural sense is felt to be central.”

In order to deepen understanding of Jewish tradition, Dr. Slawson continues, “we must somehow exorcise the painful memories of outdated educational procedures which overshadow the lives of too many American Jews, We must continue Jewish education beyond the ages of 13 or 14. We must look carefully into the methods now being used in Jewish education for children and adults, and also into the performance of the synagogue. We must discover ways of demonstrating, especially to our youth, that our tradition is relevant to the major ethical and moral issues of the day — that the past can be used productively for the future.”

FORESEES GREAT VALUE IN CAMP INSTITUTES INSPIRING JEWISH STUDENTS

Whatever is done, Dr. Slawson states, “will have to be done through emotional and esthetic channels as well as the cognitive one. It will have to be visceral as well as intellectual — not just verbal learning but a living experience.” As a concrete illustration of what he has in mind, Dr. Slawson’s describes the Brandeis Camp Institute, founded by Shlomo Bardin, near Los Angeles. After a weekend there, he reports, he and many others “left the camp spiritually enriched, with a feeling of pride and joy in our Jewish identity. Each of us knew that the experience had reached the whole man — the intellectual, emotional and esthetic self.”

Dr. Slawson attributes this reaction in part to the manner in which Dr. Bardin interpreted the Sabbath and its central importance in Judaism: “He completely demolished the notion that the Sabbath is a day of restriction and denial, and brought out its traditional role as a day of joy, study and contemplation, with no limitation except the ban on work –as the day when one ‘switches off’ the concerns of the everyday world. This ever-inspiring conception, together with the time-hallowed Sabbath ritual, seemed to give many of the participants their first true realization of the meaning of prayer, of personal communion with one’s God.”

Foreseeing great value in such camps for college students and children, Dr. Slawson says he would urge that they be duplicated elsewhere. He also calls for the involvement of specialists in medicine, law, education, the arts, social issues, and government by relating these special interests to Jewish traditions.

Dr. Slawson refers to various programs the American Jewish Committee had undertaken in various parts of the country with respect to Jewish identity. “We have managed,” he says, “to awaken our own constituency and many other groups to the problem of how to ensure “Jewish continuity in the face of American society’s increasing openness and its growing freedom from anti-Jewish hostility.”

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