NEW YORK (Aug. 28)
This was the year some of the Jewish community’s sacred cows were slaughtered.
Many of the principles and causes closest to the hearts of American Jews were attacked — and, in some cases, mortally wounded — during 5757.
Scandal and consolidation hit some of the most venerated institutions, while Jewish unity was fractured.
But even as Jewish organizations struggled to adapt to a changing constituency, the first tender shoots of new Jewish interests and groups sprang forth.
"There have been many changes, and they are not a tragedy per se, but a tremendous opportunity," said Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
"The community’s challenge is now to articulate what makes a Jewish life worth living," he said, rather than to continue focusing on issues of vulnerability and distress.
Coloring events throughout the year, however, was the shattering of the spiritual and historical sense of a single Jewish people.
This breakdown played out religiously, institutionally, philanthropically and – - perhaps most importantly — in the hearts of Jews across America.
The wake-up call came when a little-known organization of Orthodox rabbis landed on the front pages of mainstream newspapers with its declaration that liberal interpretations of Judaism were "not Judaism." It did not help that some papers initially misreported that the group had called the non-Orthodox "not Jewish."
The much-talked-about declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada emphasized the distance between liberal and Orthodox Jews.
At the same time, the long-simmering struggle over the lack of official Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism exploded into a full-fledged confrontation between Israel and American Jewry.
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel for several years have tried, through the courts, to force the government to recognize their legal authority over matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and conversion.
Since the state’s founding, the so-called "status quo" has given the Orthodox sole control in these areas.
In a key decision in late 1996, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that there were no legal barriers to the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, prompting the Knesset to take up the matter.
This year it did so, as Israel’s Orthodox coalition partners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government introduced legislation that would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions.
Netanyahu found himself caught in a difficult balancing act, trying to placate both his coalition partners and American Jewry, 85 percent of whom identify with the liberal streams.
The prime minister attempted to defuse the situation by forming a special committee, with Israeli representatives from all the major streams, to come up with a compromise that would circumvent the legislation.
While non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders were glad to be courted, after feeling ignored for so long, many predicted that negotiations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israelis on this explosive issue were bound to fail.
At the end of the day, there is a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews and between Israelis and Americans.
Against this backdrop, the debate took on ominous tones. Leaders of each of Judaism’s main movements — in the United States and in Israel — publicly expressed antipathy for one another.
Non-Orthodox Jews who have long been loyal supporters of Israel began articulating a sense of disenfranchisement from the Jewish state — and their money followed their mood.
Senior leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements angrily urged their constituents to cease funding Orthodox institutions in Israel directly or through the United Jewish Appeal. They said Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews should support religiously liberal causes.
Several later softened their rhetoric after closed-door talks with UJA leaders.
But the central fund-raising establishment was drawn reluctantly into the fray, forced to contain the ensuing damage to the campaign.
Donors began demanding control over how their donations to Jewish federations were used. Some insisted that their money be kept at home rather than go to Israel.
Meanwhile, other Jewish charities, such as the New Israel Fund, which supports liberal religious and social causes in Israel, appeared to reap the rewards. NIF alone saw a 20 percent rise in contributions.
If the religious pluralism debate fractured the community at large, different kinds of crises plagued long-revered Jewish institutions.
The Jewish National Fund, whose blue charity box served as an icon in generations of households, was badly dented in 5757.
JNF was left reeling after a Jewish journalist’s investigation found that a much smaller-than-imagined percentage of the money given to plant trees in Israel actually ends up there.
The charity’s subsequent internal investigation found no malfeasance but led to a host of fiscal management reforms and a major shift in leadership as it grappled with a drop in donations.
Another of American Jewry’s sacred causes, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, came under challenge — but this time from outside the community.
Six former U.S. government officials, all known as staunch opponents of Israel, won an important chapter in their eight-year-long battle to have the Federal Elections Commission deem AIPAC a political action committee. Such a designation would limit contributions to, and expenditures by, the pro-Israel lobby.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in the case and is expected to rule by next July.
Other major Jewish institutions underwent dramatic transformations during the past year, responding to a Jewish community that is both less affiliated and less inclined than in the past to contribute in traditional ways.
Mergers and downsizing, terms long applied to the corporate world, were much in evidence as, for example, B’nai B’rith International retrenched and two organizations promoting the Middle East peace process — the Israel Policy Forum and Project Nishma — merged.
At the same time, after protracted negotiations, the two giants of the central fundraising establishment — UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations – - agreed to become institutional partners.
Also in 5757, many of the legal and social causes long at the top of the Jewish organizational agenda — such as federal support for immigrants and the needy, and the separation of church and state — took a beating.
Soon after President Clinton was re-elected to a second term in the White House, Congress eviscerated the federal welfare safety net.
While politically conservative Jews hailed the move as a step forward, many Jewish organizations shouted foul and attempted, with some success, to restore some of the benefits.
The new law also prompted a mass push for naturalization among thousands of Jewish legal immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union.
Still, thousands of others lost, beginning in August, their access to food stamps and/or an average of about $500 a month in Supplemental Security Income.
For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court, which has become more conservative in recent years, altered the landscape on some religious freedom and church-state issues.
In June, the court ruled unconstitutional the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress had enacted in 1993 and which Jews across the religious spectrum had welcomed as a protection of minority religious practices.
In another ruling that some church-state watchdogs decried as a further setback, the high court said in Agostini vs. Felton that public school employees may teach special education classes in parochial schools.
Elsewhere, a federal appeals court ruled that Georgia is constitutionally allowed to require a moment of silence in its public schools. And in Alabama, the governor backed a judge’s decision to hang a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
Another story that captured the Jewish — and non-Jewish — world was the Swiss gold story, which shattered the long-held ideal of Switzerland as a neutral and safe place during World War II.
Probes spearheaded by the World Jewish Congress and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R- N.Y.) led to revelations about the extent to which Switzerland profited from its wartime dealings with the Nazis and failed to return assets Jews had sent to Swiss banks for safekeeping.
In February, Swiss banks and businesses agreed to establish a Holocaust Memorial Fund to benefit needy Holocaust survivors. The following month, Switzerland announced that it would create a foundation, drawing upon $5 billion in reserves, to fund victims of catastrophes, including the Holocaust. But the creation of the fund still awaits a national referendum and parliamentary approval.
And in May, the U.S. government released a report that left no Allied, Axis or neutral power unblemished when it came to their wartime role.
The seven-month project, which researched over 15 million newly declassified documents, was overseen by Stuart Eizenstat, a Jew confirmed in June as U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs. In his new post, he joined a new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, whose discovery of her Jewish roots in Czechoslovakia created an international sensation.
Through all the divisions and change reverberating through the community, small but significant sparks of action — and of hope — could be seen in many places.
New Jewish day schools — community, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative — were established and their classrooms filled even as many parents struggled to pay the tuition.
Diverse adult education programs were born in synagogues and Jewish community center classrooms, in living rooms and in cyberspace.
And in late September, tens of thousands of Jews were expected to converge on New York’s Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to mark the completion of seven and a half years of daily Talmud study.
On the grass-roots level, several new organizations sprang up.
Jewish feminism got a boost as the Orthodox Jewish Feminist Alliance was created in July to capitalize on the ferment created by an Orthodox feminist conference in Manhattan in February.
The Jewish Women’s Archives was born in Boston to preserve the evidence of contemporary Jewish women’s lives, and Hadassah established a new women’s research center at Brandeis University.
The National Center for Jewish Healing, a New York and San Francisco-based organization teaching about the spirit-body connection in the Jewish tradition, though established a few years ago, was embraced by Jews across the religious spectrum.
And in a sign that a new generation of Jews are seeking to reclaim their history, the National Yiddish Book Center moved its treasure trove of Yiddish volumes out of old warehouses and into a new, $8 million facility in the foothills of Amherst, Mass.