NEW YORK (Dec. 28)
When 3,000 Jewish communal activists gathered here recently to discuss the national Jewish agenda, they interrupted their hectic schedule of sessions and workshops one day to pull their chairs into circles, sit in groups of 10 or 15 and discuss a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy.
It was a striking recognition by the organized Jewish community that Jewish texts and tradition may provide the best weapon against assimilation and its threat to Jewish continuity.
And for the people at CLAL, the National Jewish Center of Learning and Leadership, who helped organized the session for the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, it was a vindication of their belief that the Jewish communal enterprise needs a sense of purpose and meaning that can only come from Jewish learning.
“Here we were doing all this work for the Jews, and we really were so ignorant,” recalls Peggy Tishman, a leader of New York’s UJA-Federation.
Tishman was among those who, nearly a decade ago, instigated CLAL’s first class for communal lay leadership, and has been studying with CLAL ever since.
CLAL currently runs such classes in dozens of communities; the CJF session was just a taste. In the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which sparked concern over the staggering rate of assimilation, the CLAL agenda of Jewish renewal is being increasingly accepted and embraced by the broader community.
The issue of Jewish continuity was, in fact, the theme of this year’s G.A. And Shoshana Cardin, who gave a keynote address on the subject, herself personifies the shift of communal attention and resources toward issues of identity and away from philanthropy and politics.
Cardin was recently installed as CLAL’s chairman after serving as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, where she focused on the Jewish political agenda. She is also a past president of the Council of Jewish Federations.
Cardin says she now plans to discuss the issues that cannot be addressed by a check or a letter to the White House.
“I’d like to help people get in touch with their Jewishness,” she says.
“We have to enable people to feel comfortable in expressing spirituality. I think we have minimized that level from a federation perspective. Now we must help the synagogue and religious communities join with the federation communities, and bring a spiritual component to ourselves as individuals.”
Her presence lends CLAL the same respectability long held by the Soviet Jewry movement and the pro-Israel lobby.
With its concerns pushed to the front of the Jewish agenda, the organization is being increasingly called upon by the community to provide both learning and leadership.
It is helping federations and their agencies rethink their missions.
It is venturing out to the college campus and to the synagogue.
And it has received grants to help Jewish professionals rethink their roles, and their relationships to the community.
“We are a service bureau for the rest of the Jewish community,” says Alan Bayer, CLAL’s executive vice president.
As such, it is now looking for contracts from outside federation agencies wanting their programs and for major grants to finance its budget.
“We have shifted nuance from being ideologically driven to going where the biggest hunger is,” says Bayer.
The hunger now is for answers, or at least discussion, of precisely those broad philosophic questions that have motivated CLAL’s founder, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and the CLAL faculty.
The effects that the CLAL approach can have, even on those who are committed members of the Jewish philanthropic community, can be seen in Peggy Tishman.
It took CLAL to teach her that “you didn’t have to hate Jewish learning, if it was taught the right way. It wasn’t boring at all,” she says.
Even more, “I didn’t know it would be any fun to be Jewish. No one had ever told me,” says Tishman.
David Nelson, a senior teaching fellow at CLAL, explains the phenomenon.
“There’s a transformation that takes place when people have the opportunity to personally involve themselves with an ancient text, with the ancient and contemporary ideas that are in it,” he says.
“It’s an excitement unparalleled by anything else that happens in a Jewish leader’s role.”
Besides the excitement, CLAL uses the text to drive home one of the organization’s central philosophies: that the work being done by Jews through institutions like federations, community centers and boards of family services can be as reflective of the ancient covenant between the Jewish people and God as is worship in synagogues.
“I personally believe that God is at the center of the system, at the center of life,” says Greenberg. “One of our jobs is to help people discover that, because contemporary life has secularized them so much that it’s almost like they’re tone deaf to it. It’s a talent we have to restore to the Jewish community.”
What distinguishes Greenberg, and CLAL, from the outreach efforts of other Orthodox rabbis, is “my paradoxical argument that to hear the music, we may have to play on new wavelengths. Can you hear God, or show me how to hear God, in a totally secular setting? I think we’ll have to learn all those skills before we’re done.”
These ideas were at the core of a recent retreat for federation professionals led by CLAL.
“The task now is to clearly articulate a mission for the Jewish people that Jews can share,” David Elcott, CLAL’s program director, recalls telling the retreat, noting that “most young people today don’t have a knee-jerk reflex of being Jews.
“Then we talked about the role of the Jewish professional in America, how it’s a very complex role. The first rabbi wasn’t ordained in this country until just a hundred years ago. They can’t really be authorities, they have to be facilitators. The (Jewish Community Center) won’t have a kosher kitchen just because the rabbi tells them to.”
Setting out to prove that Judaism can thrive in a democratic setting, and to bring the story of the Jewish people out of the holy books and the history books into the 20th century, Elcott reached back to Judaism’s earliest texts.
Studying from the Torah, the federation professionals saw from Genesis that human beings are partners with God; from Exodus, the Jewish people’s unique role as a nation; from Leviticus, that the strict division between secular and holy behavior — between federation and synagogue — is not true to Jewish tradition.
“What we’re talking about is more systemic change than simply a nice class of Torah that inspires people,” says Elcott.
This effort of helping Jewish institutions rethink their missions by studying both the way the community has changed in modern times and the ancient source from which it sprung, is becoming an increasingly large part of CLAL’s activity.
It is developing programs to help rabbis see how they fit into Jewish communal activity outside the synagogue.
CLAL is also running programs to help synagogues renew themselves. Young members are asked to imagine “the synagogue of their creams — as a house of study, a house of prayer and a community institution,” explains Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who has conducted the program.
“The issue isn’t outreach: It’s creating a community that people want to come to. The reason people aren’t coming to synagogues is because the emotional and intellectual ties, the relationships, the sense of purpose and large task, have been so poorly articulated and accomplished. It doesn’t feel like a real community. We’re helping people to create that place.”