Year in Review (high Holidays Feature 8): Jews in U.S. Grapple with Shift in Israeli Politics, Domes

Several thousand women, mostly older, many wrapped in prayer shawls and some wearing tefillin, packed the Miami conference hall in four large clusters, each one surrounding an open Torah scroll.

Several dozen at each of the four bimahs chanted the appropriate blessing and read aloud from the first chapter of Deuteronomy. Many women were crying; more than 120 of them became B’not Mitzvah.

This was no marginal, radical feminist retreat, but the first annual Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the National Convention of Hadassah. Yes, Hadassah.

“The time has come to not only meet Israel’s needs, but to stand tall and meet our spiritual needs as well,” said Leah Reicin, co-chairwoman of the July conference and the initiator of the ceremony.

Not every Jewish organization was as certain about its changing mission. Indeed, this was a year that many Jewish organizations grappled with an evolving, uncertain and fluctuating agenda. Caught between the vicissitudes of Israel’s changing political landscape and the growing local needs of American Jews, the community marched uncomfortably to an uneven beat.

“It seems that we took one step forward and one step back on nearly every front,” says Charles Glick, director of government affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

“First we went out and tried to convince everyone that Shimon Peres was not crazy for wanting to return the Golan Heights, and now with Benjamin Netanyahu in power, we have to go out and tell our people that we were wrong,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement.

The Nov. 4 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin brought American Jews together in dozens of memorial services across the country, including one involving more than 20,000 people at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

They came together to show respect for the slain Israeli leader, to demonstrate solidarity as a people in support of the Jewish state and to call for an end to the hateful rhetoric that had served as the backdrop to the days leading up to the first modern assassination of a Jewish leader by a fellow Jew.

Still, the renewed calls for unity in support of the Israeli government could not diminish the divisions among American Jewry over the peace process or the pain felt as two young Jewish students — Michael Eisenfeld and Sara Duker – - were killed in one of a series of Hamas suicide bus bombings in Israel.

While most American Jews favored the path to peace pursued by Prime Minister Shimon Peres as well as Rabin, they also were quick to express confidence in Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu after he narrowly defeated Peres in the May election, according to a poll conducted by the Israel Policy Forum.

Although mainstream organizations were somewhat circumspect in public comment as they adjusted to the dramatic change in Israel’s leadership, some American Jewish spokesmen were less reserved.

“Rabin’s assassin may have succeeded in killing the peace process,” said Tom Smerling, director of Project Nishma, a left-wing group in Washington.

Longtime Likud supporters, however, were gleeful.

“With Peres, we were on the edge of the abyss,” said Herb Zweibon, director of Americans for a Safe Israel, a right-wing group. “Now with Netanyahu, we are 10 steps back from the edge but still not out of danger” of creating a Palestinian state.

While the peace process dominated the Israel-Diaspora agenda, there was also movement around the issue of religious pluralism, an issue that is much higher on the agenda of American Jews than their Israeli counterparts.

To the satisfaction of many American Jews, the Israeli Supreme Court opened the way for the Reform and Conservative movements to conduct conversions in Israel, though it left the ultimate resolution of the issue to the Knesset.

Hopes of further progress on the pluralism front were dashed in the aftermath of the Knesset elections. Three Orthodox parties gained control of more seats – - 23 out of 120 — than ever before, a stunning victory that also made them natural partners in the new coalition.

“This will put pluralism, and Israel-Diaspora relations, back 25 years,” predicted Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a Jewish thinker and writer.

One step forward, one step back.

Back on the domestic American Jewish scene, funding, or lack of it, continued to spur change in the organized community.

The merger of three major fund-raising agencies was debated and then downgraded to establishing a strategic partnership between the largest two, the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations.

Dozens of service programs at the local level were cut as federations struggled to foot ever-growing bills with flat fund-raising campaigns.

The pressure on local federations’ coffers is likely to become even more intense in the wake of welfare reform passed in July. Communities may find themselves in the position of having to assume the financial burden left by the cutting off of key social benefits provided to legal immigrants and refugees.

As Congress recessed for the August Republican and Democratic national conventions, Jewish organizations across the country were still trying to determine the full impact of the welfare reform bill.

Meanwhile, the religious freedom concerns of most Jews were constantly threatened by an emboldened right-wing Christian political movement, said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.

Although its efforts have so far failed, “it’s only a matter of time before something really threatening to separation of church and state does come through because the leadership of Congress wants it,” says Foltin.

At the same time, a constitutional amendment on religion that is opposed by most Jewish groups is on the legislative fast-track and could come to a presidential politics-influenced vote in October.

Positive legislative accomplishments included the preservation of refugee quotas for Jews from the former Soviet Union and the maintenance of the annual $3 billion in foreign aid granted to Israel.

Aid to Israel managed to escape the budget-cutting knife another year, “probably because of the presidential election,” says Glick.

Officially, anti-Semitic incidents were down 11 percent, according to the Anti- Defamation League, and two Holocaust documentaries won Oscars.

Yet 5756 was also a year when Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire Republican primary, Islamic fundamentalists threatened to kill more than 1,000 American Jewish executives, Southern Baptists vowed to try to convert Jews, a million black men marched in Washington to hear Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Michael Jackson rerecorded anti-Semitic lyrics into a music video and Marlon Brando kvetched on “Larry King Live” in his trademark raspy voice that Jews control Hollywood.

“There is a renaissance of conspiracy theories that highlight anti-Semitism,” says Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. “From Buchanan, from Farrakhan, from the militias and from the Islamic fundamentalists.”

Cyberspace also has been a mixed blessing.

“There used to be a time when you would have to go and look for anti-Semitic materials like you would look for pornography,” Foxman says. “Today, anyone can sit at home and just find it with a flick of a mouse.”

Jewish cyberspace took off this past year as increasing numbers of Jewish Web sites registered more than 3 million hits a month, with at least half coming from Orthodox-leaning Internet surfers. America Online’s Jewish site registered 300,000 hits a month, mostly in chat groups of young and unaffiliated Jews looking to connect with other generally disenfranchised Jews.

For most of the 5.8 million Jews in the United States, however, communal life was not driven by an evolving political or social agenda, but by the rhythm of life-cycle events.

Some 77,000 Jewish babies were born and Kaddish was said for the first time for about 87,000 Jews this past year. It was the year when some 34,000 mixed-faith couples and 16,000 Jewish couples said their wedding vows.

It was a year when some 43,000 B’not Mitzvah, including some prayerful Hadassah women, read from the Torah.

It was year when the American Jewish community made the necessary adjustments to the change of leadership in Israel, while waiting in anticipation as the U.S. presidential election campaign plodded along toward Election Day.

But as the Hadassah women so clearly demonstrated, it also was a year when the yearning for spirituality drove the lives of many American Jews.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is editor of Jewish Family & Life!, a national Jewish family, parenting and lifestyles webzine (www.Jfamily.com), newsletter (800- 421-8678) and forthcoming parenting guide by Western/Golden Books.

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