Year in Review Feature (2): American Jewry in 5755; a Year of Titanic Changes

Watching the congressional election returns last November, Diana Aviv remembers feeling shocked.

“I, and the Jewish community, had underestimated the amount of anger out there in the general population,” says the director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations. “We were caught off guard.”

Dramatic transformations in the political, religious and social climate during the past year affected nearly every aspect of American and Jewish life.

From the cutbacks in elderly housing subsidies to prayer in public schools, from likely reductions in the numbers of refugees permitted to enter this country to a renewed debate on affirmative action, American Jews became keenly aware that their longstanding public policy positions are vulnerable to trends and events outside their immediate control.

As nearly every domestic position that has defined the organized Jewish community for the past 50 years has come under assault in the 104th Congress, it has become clear that the center of gravity moved to the right and the language and values used in the debate on the future of America are more often those derived from the Christian Coalition than from Jewish sources.

“The best metaphor for what the Republicans have done to the broad Jewish public policy agenda is the titanic,” says Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, president of The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.

“The principles and programs that the Jewish community has selflessly supported for many decades are sinking fast.”

On Nov. 8, 1994, fully 85 percent of the Jewish electorate typically voted Democrat and against the Republican “Contract With America.” Republicans swept both houses of Congress as well as 30 governorships, radically changing the balance of power in America.

As Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) captained partisan legislation at a record pace, the federal budget became the battleground for American values to be debated and decided.

These developments came 50 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust and as Israel signed its first peace agreement with an Arab country, Jordan, in 15 years.

The change in America coincided with a time when American Jewish interests had shifted closer to home. And many, though not all, did not like what they were seeing.

“In this past year we have seen a complete sea change in attitudes about what is the proper role of the federal government,” says Aviv, referring to the Republican initiatives to shift responsibility for government programs from Washington to the 50 states.

“This is of paramount importance to the American Jewish community,” she adds.

According to CJF, $3.5 billion of public funds now flow to Jewish institutions in the 50 largest Jewish population centers for a variety of programs. It seems unlikely that Jewish fund raising – flat for a decade – would be able to compensate for anticipated substantial cuts in federal funding aimed at balancing the federal budget by either 2002, as the Republicans propose, or by 2005, President Clinton’s target date.

Although the full implications of efforts to achieve a balanced federal budget are not yet certain, the assault on another area – the Jewish community’s traditional stance on a firm wall of church-state separation – appeared much clearer.

“The new Congress is far more ideologically inclined to knock down the wall separating church and state than the country as a whole,” says Marc Stern, co- director of legal affairs at the American Jewish Congress.

A series of legislative initiatives mandating school prayer as well as proposed constitutional amendments on religion are indicative of the changed landscape this year.

In addition, the Supreme Court agreed that a religious student magazine at a public university is entitled to receive funding from the institution. The court also ruled that the Ku Klux Klan should have been allowed to erect a cross on public property, thus legalizing in a broad stroke Lubavitch Chanukah displays on public property.

Despite these developments, the Jewish community’s views on church-state issues continue to enjoy support at the highest political levels. President Bill Clinton’s address calling for greater religion in American life was largely influenced by guidelines for religion in public schools that were prepared by a broad coalition under the direction of the American Jewish Congress.

At the same time, the proposal by the U.S. Senate’s only Orthodox member, Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), for vouchers that could be used in sectarian as well as public schools, signaled a potential for erosion in much of the Jewish community’s opposition to vouchers.

Not everyone in the Jewish community was unhappy with the outcome of the court cases and the voucher issue, reflecting the division between some liberal and Orthodox movements on some of these issues.

These differences further illustrated the view that not all Jews are opposed to the shifting political landscape taking shape in Washington.

“Many of the positions of the Jewish community are traditional liberal dogma,” says Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Party-affiliated National Jewish Coalition.

Those positions “are clearly outside of the mainstream thought of the country right now on the issues,” he says.

He, like other Republican Jews buoyued by the power shift in Washington, argue that “what we are trying to do, especially for the needier, is far more compassionate and advantageous than the failed policy of the Great Society and the New Deal.”

Brooks warns that if Jewish leaders “continue to declare war on the Republican leaders of Congress and those who are running for p[resident, their ability to have a seat at the table on those issues that are critically important – like Israel, the peace process and foreign aid – it’s going to be impossible for them to be effective.”

But for the time being, support for Israel continued to be strong. Even in the new budget-cutting atmosphere, $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel made it unscathed as the overall aid package was cut. And there was overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for initiatives calling for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But aid to Jordan and the Palestinians, both new items on the pro-Israel agenda, faced a more difficult process, though both eventually passed.

Jewish groups found common cause with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in efforts to pass counterterrorism legislation, especially after the devastating bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April.

Overall, there were strong indications that Jews feel more secure than ever in this country. A Jewish senator, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), announced his candidacy for president by attacking the Christian Right. And the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, received the Congressional Gold Medal on the first anniversary of his death.

It was also a year of transformation for Jewish institutions.

The Reform movement named new leaders for its seminaries and for its congregational and rabbinic arms; the Jewish Agency for Israel, which receives United Jewish Appeal dollars, named Avraham Burg, a visionary yet untested manager, as its chairman; and more federations decided to keep a greater share of the money they raised for growing local needs. Alternative Jewish movements, like P’nai Or and the National Havurah Institute, attracted record numbers to their conferences and retreats.

The campaign for Jewish identity continued to be a hot item on the communal agenda: CJF decided that federations needed to reach out to intermarried families; UJA sponsored its first intermarried mission to Israel; Hillel launched its Jewish Student Service Corps at two dozen campuses; Hadassah rolled out its “training wheels” parenting program; the Conservative movement introduced its “Jewish Living Now” study program; and the Reform movement conducted a model seder on-line.

This year also swept in an unprecedented undercurrent of information through large segments of the Jewish world. Nearly 100 million pieces of Jewish direct mail flowed into more than 3 million homes; more than 250,000 Jews surfed in cyberspace, at least two Jewish Internet networks were formed and hundreds of Jewish home pages appeared on the World Wide Web.

This year we bade bon voyage to popular Jewish television characters Dr., Joel Fleischman of “Northern Exposure” and Jack Stein of “Love & War” and welcomed David Schwimmer from the NBC twentysomething hit “Friends” and the loony cast of characters on Comedy Central’s animated “Dr. Katz Professional Therapist.” Michael Jackson declared on national television that he grew up in a Jewish community, that some of his best friends are Jewish, and that he apologizes for any pain his anti-Semitic lyrics to a new song might have caused.

But for a majority of the 5.8 million Jews, American Jewish life was not driven by a changing political or social climate, but by the ebb and flow of everyday lives. An estimated 77,000 Jewish babies were born, and about 87,000 Jews were buried in Jewish cemeteries. It was the year when an estimated 16,000 Jewish couples and 34,000 mixed-faith couples took vows, and an estimated 10,000 converted to Judaism.

But for those concerned about Jewish values reflected in the public policy arena, it was a year in which Jews celebrated or lamented, depending upon one’s world view.

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