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Leader Charges Jewish Community Moving Too Slowly on Continuity

One of the most prominent leaders of the organized American Jewish community has charged that community with failing to move fast enough, and seriously enough, in the effort to halt assimilation and intermarriage.

“In November, at the General Assembly (of the Council of Jewish Federations), people said it was the No. 1 issue,” said Shoshana Cardin, a former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“But now that I’ve begun to travel around the country, I’ve found it’s business as usual,” she told a symposium sponsored by the Wilstein Institute earlier this month.

Cardin is now serving as chairman of CLAL — National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an organization heavily involved in Jewish continuity issues.

The symposium, devoted to the topic of “Revitalizing Jewish Peoplehood in America,” was held at the Boston Hebrew College.

In the foreground of the discussions was the state of the “continuity agenda,” as the effort against assimilation is being called within federation circles.

The problem of assimilation is not new. But the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed a 52 percent intermarriage rate, brought the issue to the top of the communal agenda.

The responses to the problem given by the symposium speakers — who included academics, rabbis and federation officials — fell into two broad categories.

The more optimistic response focused on the fact that the population survey also identified solutions to the problem of Jewish continuity.

John Ruskay, executive director for Jewish continuity and community service at the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, said the survey provided evidence that Jewish identity could be anchored through programs such as intensive Jewish education, day schools, family education programs, youth groups and summer camps.

Along that line, Ruskay and Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, described federation-sponsored programs at various stages of development that are designed to address the issue.

NO LONGER AN ‘ETHNIC CATEGORY’

Cardin, though, said that such efforts are too few, too slow and too meager. “The monies being shifted are small,” she lamented.

The conference also addressed a second, perhaps revolutionary response to the continuity crisis: an effort to imagine, and perhaps create, a radically different Jewish community.

It is an effort based on the premise that the Jewish community has been mistaken in its belief that its ethnic identity is “innate and immutable, passed on from one generation to the next,” as Jonathan Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University, told the symposium.

For one thing, “the larger society no longer recognizes Jewishness as an ethnic category at all,” said Sarna.

And beyond the question of recognition, ethnicity is increasingly ignored. It is not only Jews who are intermarrying, but all ethnic groups.

Instead, said Sarna, in a view widely echoed by others at the symposium, the reality that needs to be recognized is that people are Jewish because they choose to be Jewish.

And if people are not choosing to marry Jews, to affiliate with Jewish institutions and to be Jewish, then the blame lies not with those making the choice, but with the institutions–including both synagogues and federations — that are failing to attract them.

Why, asked Cardin, is there no toll-free phone number offering Jewish spiritual assistance for those in pain, such as the one run by Christian evangelist Billy Graham?

She repeated the call she made back in November for a Jewish community ready to offer a “personal touch” in a dehumanized world.

In a subsequent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, she said that the political work undertaken by local community relations councils should have a Jewish identity component, and at the same time that “synagogues should go back to social action programs.

“There is a spiritual, religious component to social justice,” she said, that can attract young people.

“There are many ways in which one can identify Jewishly,” she said, “whether through art, literature, formal or informal education, a visit to the Holocaust museum.”

CJF COMMISSION BEGINNING TO MOVE

Such a rethinking of Jewish identity “requires the leadership of the community engaging others who have not been traditionally leaders, or involved in the community and sitting down together,” she said.

One communal response to the continuity crisis, which was announced last October and is only slowly beginning to move, is the Commission on Jewish Identity established by the Council of Jewish Federations.

Cardin is one of the half-dozen or so people in the informal “kitchen Cabinet” set up by the commission’s chair, Marvin Lender.

She said she is “frustrated that they have not moved as quickly as I had hoped they could move. For us to have sounded the alarm, and have asked the federations to begin working–and many have begun — we need to move a little more quickly, a little more effectively.”

Currently, after months of discussions, a steering committee is in the process of being named and is expected to be announced in early August, according to CJF officials.

It will have roughly 30 members, including not only representatives of the federations and national agencies, but leaders of the synagogue movements and academics too.

“The CJF will be a member of the commission, not the owner of it,” said a CJF official, noting that despite being staffed by the CJF, the commission is not part of its governing structure.

Another person, not affiliated with CJF, confirmed that CJF has “bought the idea” that it doesn’t control the commission, and is “very committed to getting congregations in on the process.”

When the steering committee meets for the first time, it will face the critical questions of what will be the scope and makeup of the larger commission, which will number about 100.

The commission’s slowness in establishing itself is being explained by CJF officials, in part, as due to the critical and sensitive nature of it mission.

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