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Leading American Jewish Figure Urges Jews to Focus on Continuity

One of the most prominent leaders of the organized American Jewish community has called on that community to treat Jewish renewal and continuity with the same seriousness that it devotes to its fund-raising campaigns.

Shoshana Cardin, outgoing chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, made that plea in a groundbreaking speech to the 61st General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Her remarks Thursday contained more than a hint of criticism of the organized Jewish community, which, she said, must tear down the barriers that have kept Jews away.

She urged as well that Jewish knowledge and spirituality take its place with political action on the Jewish agenda, and that federations must recognize synagogues as partners.

Her address came as the G.A. began a day devoted to the issues of Jewish identity and continuity, and the role the federation movement can play in the process.

And it came as Cardin herself is moving from the world of Jewish statecraft, exemplified by the Conference of Presidents, to the world of Jewish soulcraft preached by CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Cardin, who just ended her chairmanship of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, will now assume the CLAL presidency.

Cardin began by reciting the federation movement’s long history of promising to battle assimilation and its short record of following through on those pledges.

“What is different now,” she told several thousand delegates to the organized Jewish community’s national convention, “is that you in this room, your leaders, your peers, your co-workers, your colleagues, have agreed that this is in fact the priority.

“We have said yes, and are willing to make it our priority, to inject the funds necessary, and to reach out to those who are willing to help.”

What has also changed, said Cardin, herself a former president of the CJF, is that the federation movement has begun to act as a whole.

“We did it when it came to issues of our brethren outside the U.S.,” said Cardin, referring to the arrangements by which a national system was established to pay for the resettling of Soviet immigrants in the United States, and by which $900 million in loans to Soviet immigrants in Israel were backed by federation assets.

“Now we must address, with the same commitment and focus, the issue of Jewish identity,” she said.

The trend toward “collective and continental responsibility” by the federations is at the heart of the new bylaws of the CJF that were scheduled for a vote on Friday.

Cardin also addressed herself implicitly to the fears that the federation movement in general, and the CJF in particular, is seeking to take control of American Jewish life.

“The process this time must be different,” she said. “Federations cannot control the process (of renewing Jewish identity). The CJF cannot own the process.

“It belongs to all of us. To those of us who are spiritual by nature, and believe the synagogue is the one and only place for a spiritual revival.

“And it belongs to those of us who are far, far afield, whose voice is dissonant, and wants to join the community.

“We must learn to accept everyone who defines himself, or herself, as a Jew,” she said.

“It may not be comfortable, it may not be easy. But every Jew has a right to belong, every Jew has a right of entry, and must not have any barriers — and we do. We need not follow their dictates, but we must let them belong.”

Cardin, consciously echoing the student protesters who more than 20 years ago disrupted the G.A. with their demands that attention be paid to Jewish education, warned that remembering the Holocaust cannot move the Jewish people into the 21st century.

“That will not motivate the next generation to be Jewish. What will motivate them is pleasure, joy and pride,” she said.

To transmit that joy, she said, it is necessary to “understand what it is to be Jewish.”

And she suggested that Jewish knowledge be considered among the criteria for selecting Jewish leadership, in addition to organizational and financial skills.

“We must recognize that where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. We are not looking for buildings, but for personal soul building. A return to that which makes us human, a return to what makes us different as Jews, a return to the spirituality we see in others and cannot define,” she said.

Focusing on Jewish knowledge and identity does not, she said, imply the abandonment of the Jewish concern for social actions.

Instead, it means “to recognize that we are the people who made human rights the premiere issue in the world. I had to hear it from (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher, that it was the Jewish people who started human rights.

“I hear from young people who say, it doesn’t matter that I’m Jewish, as long as I care about human rights. But the question we have to say back is, do you understand who started human rights?”

Cardin said that the problem of continuity cannot be solved just by a national commission or the plan of a national organization.

“In this age of high tech, we have to start with low touch. We must do it one to one.

“You and I can make a difference, from sharing what we believe.”

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