Year-in-review Analysis: American Jewish Life Undergoes Some Seismic Shifts and Some Drift

Ask a New York Jew to name the major domestic story that affected the Jewish community this past year, and he or she might say the conviction of the World Trade Center terrorists, the gunning down of Lubavitch students on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s Jewish support or the death of the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Pose the same question to a Jewish Los Angelino, and the answer would be unequivocal: the earthquake.

On January 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m., a massive earthquake, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, ripped through the largely Jewish area of North-ridge, killing a dozen Jews, displacing 5,000 others and causing $30 million in damages to communal property. The community of half-a-million Jews is still reeling from the emotional and financial aftershocks.

FAULT LINES IN AMERICAN JEWRY

While Los Angeles literally sits atop a quake zone, American Jewry saddles some serious fault lines of its own. Much like any earthquake zone, this year was marked by sudden and unpredictable shake-ups, aftershocks and slow continental drift.

"It was a very tough year," says Glenn Richter, a long-time activist and observer of American Jewry. "Fundamental assumptions were challenged on every front; lines were crossed for the first time. And we have witnessed (Israeli Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin undermine Israel’s security."

"It was a revolutionary year, a challenging year," agrees Rabbi Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah in Needham, Mass. "Think how much of a challenge it is to make peace with Arafat, for Palestinian and Israeli soldiers to patrol side by side. But this is the kind of challenge we have been looking forward to for 40 years."

The divergent views of Richter and Perkins about the peace process represent more than simply the difference between a Kiddish cup that might be half full or half empty. It is reflective of the reality that 5754 was mixed and that it marked a time of transition and redefinition.

"It used to be clear who our friends and enemies were, both domestically and internationally," said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations Washington Action Office. "But now these relationships are in flux.

"And, at the same time, we are in the process of redefining our relationship to a strong and economically viable Israel increasingly at peace with her neighbors," she said.

The road to Middle East peace continued to wind through Washington, but many mainstream American Jewish groups sat on the sidelines as Israel negotiated agreements first with the Palestinians and then with King Hussein of Jordan.

Closer to home, American Jewry was joited by some of its traditional domestic coalition partners. The establishment black leadership reached out to militant Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

First, the Black Congressional Caucus entered into a "covenant" with the Nation of Islam, only to renounce it after the Anti-Defamation League publicized the anti-Semitic remarks of Khalid Abdul Mohammed, Farrakhan’s deputy.

Farrakhan dismissed Mohammed, but still endorsed some of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Next, Benjamin Chavis, recently ousted head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, invited Farrakhan to an African American leadership summit.

Jews, long been supportive of the civil rights organization, cried foul. Chavis shot back: "Never again will we allow an external force to attempt to dictate who we can meet with."

Throughout the country Jews shared a widely felt apprehension about the future of black-Jewish relations as long as Farrakhan was welcomed into the black leadership mainstream.

But the news was not all bad. Indeed, away from the glare of the media, the reality of black-Jewish relations on the municipal and congressional levels continued to be encouraging.

"Many whites of good will have joined us in our protracted quest for racial, social and economic justice," said Hugh Price, newly installed has matched the civil rights movement."

There was considerable turnover in Jewish leadership circles as well this year, ushering in a generation that was born after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Neal Sher, 46, took the helm at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Diana Aviv, 42, at the CJF Washington Action Office; Richard Pearstone, 46, as national chair of the United Jewish Appeal; Rabbi Alan Silverstein, 45, as president of the Rabbinical Assembly; and Morton Klein, 46, at the Zionist Organization of America.

Young Turks also rose in Israel, but one in particular irked American Jewry. Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told American Jews that Israel no longer needed their charity or paternalism. He proposed to set up a counterorganization to the UJA and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

And while Beilin’s remarks were widely condemned as irresponsible, he struck a cord of truth when he suggested that Israel did not need American Jewish money as much as local communities do to combat assimilation.

At the same time, UJA phased out its Operaion Exodus aimed at resettling Soviet Jews, and launched Partnership 2000, linking Diaspora and Israeli communities.

CRUSADE FOR JEWISH CONTINUITY

This year was filled with a mild crusade for Jewish continuity. Hillels, received new and more money this year. A record 7,500 youths went to Israel on various programs.

More schools and Jewish community centers began family education programs and a "Jewish Civics" curriculum for teen-agers was launched in five model communities.

Even outside the world of Jewish organizational life, Jews figured prominently in the public consciousness. A fifth of the planet wathched as Steven Spielberg and "Schindler’s List" swept audiences’ hearts and the Oscars.

Millions of fans "kvelled" over Barbra Streisand’s return to the stage. Jerry Seinfeld took Shoshana Lowentstein home to meet his "mishpachah" and Mayim Bialik ("Blossom") hosted a video calling on Jewish teen-agers to become more politically active.

The religious movements faced their own challenges. The Conservative movement issued a paper on sexuality, suggesting the possibility of a degree of holiness in non-marital sex.

The Reconstructionists issued a new prayer-book, once again revamping God language to be more inclusive.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, leader of the Reform movement, broke with tradition and called on Jews to seek converts actively.

Haviva Krasner-Davidson received much publicity but no response when she became the first woman to apply to the rabbinic program at the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

Other events that triggered the communal seismograph included:

* Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe who was hailed by many of his followers as the Messiah, died, leaving behind an international movement with no apparent heir but an unshakable faith.

* President Clinton turned down a request for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, despite a massive grass-roots campaign to have his life sentence commuted.

* Terrorist bombs killed 120 in attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina, Panama and Britain, forcing 11 Israeli consulates and nearly every Jewish organization in the United States to take on additional security precautions.

AMERICAN JEWS FEELING MORE AT HOME THAN EVER

Despite a recent rise in public insecurity, however, American Jews, more than ever, felt at home. Indeed, 5754 was the year when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg donned her black robe and Judge Stephen Breyer was confirmed to become the second Jew on the current Supreme Court.

Beneath the politics and issues, American Jews did what people in earthquake zones do: marry, give birth, live and die. This year Eliana Glanzberg-Krainin of Philadephia and another estimated 77,000 Jewish babies brought unimaginable joy and fatigue to their parents; it was also a year when Kaddish was said for the first time for Phyllis Bernstein of Maryland and the other 87,000 Jews who were buried in Jewish cemeteries.

It was the year Lauren Strauss and Jonathan Meyer (finally!) stood under the chupah, as did 16,000 other Jewish couples; it was the year 33,000 mixed-faith couples took vows.

It was a year when Michelle Bonder of Boca Raton, Fla., ascended the bimah at Temple Beth El, and, along with 43,000 other Jewish b’nai mitzvah this year, read from the Torah.

It was, like the other 339 years that Jews have celebrated, commemorated and lived in America, so different and yet so much like the year before it.

But for those who monitor each minor tremor amid the ebb and flow of 5.8 million individual American Jewish lives, while evaluating the fragile relationship between Israel and American Jewry, between blacks and Jews, and between the unaffiliated and affiliated, it was clear that the ground began to shift.

Yosef I. Abramowitz, a journalist, lecturer and consultant, is assistant director of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.

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