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A NEW YEAR DAWNS U.S Jewry reinvents itself amid changes in community, philanthropy

HARRISBURG, Pa., Aug 17 (JTA) — The times they are a-changin”. 5758 was a year of dramatic change — in the patterns of religious involvement and philanthropy in the American Jewish community and in the ways that community relates to the aftermath of the Holocaust and to the State of Israel. Israel continues to weaken as a source of American Jewish identity. Large festivities to celebrate the Jewish state”s jubilee anniversary, such as the “Hear, O Israel” concert in Philadelphia, did take place before a sellout crowd of 15,000. But as in Israel itself, the 50th anniversary seemed to arouse more ambivalence and indifference among American Jews than enthusiasm. American Jewry”s changed attitude toward Israel reflects frustration over the ongoing battle for religious pluralism in Israel and the lack of progress in the peace talks. Also at work is the continuing inward look of American Jewry, focusing on youth and education as the likeliest means of ensuring its own survival. Another factor is the lessening of Israel”s reliance on American Jews, or at least a shifting of dependence from the financial arena to political lobbying. In contrast, echoes of the Holocaust reverberated loudly. This was the year in which material restitution for the material losses suffered by the Jewish people began to be seriously addressed by countries other than Germany — which itself extended its reparations program to individuals previously ineligible. Most high profile were the negotiations between Jewish leaders and Swiss banks to retrieve Nazi gold, dormant bank accounts and unclaimed hidden assets. After months of negotiations and threats by U.S. states and cities to take punitive steps against Swiss banks, Switzerland”s two largest banks agreed to settle a class action lawsuit for $1.25 billion in August. “This was not about the loss of life, although the Swiss did help prolong the Nazi war effort,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. “We wanted people to know the Holocaust was not only the greatest mass murder in history, but also the greatest mass robbery. Our objective was moral and material restitution.” Less widely publicized was the fact that European and other countries instituted national commissions to examine their role during World War II. “The larger question of the Holocaust has received renewed attention, focus and intensity as a result of the negotiations with the Swiss banks,” Steinberg said. Part of that renewed attention centered on people, groups and countries, such as Switzerland, that were once thought of as neutral or bystanders. “We”re all convinced we could never be perpetrators, that we”re too smart to allow ourselves to be victims,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “But we know we all could be and have been bystanders. That grabs us right in the gut.” Amid all the focus on Holocaust-era restitution, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was targeted for controversy. A much-criticized invitation for Yasser Arafat to visit the museum — without the honors normally accorded a head of state — was first accepted, then declined at the last minute, by the Palestinian leader. Months later, after weeks of objections by some Jewish activists over writings in which John Roth was believed to be comparing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians to the Nazis treatment of the Jews, the renowned scholar resigned from the post he was to occupy in August as director of the museum”s Center for Advanced Holocaust Study. But as in recent years, global issues did not engage many Jews in the past 12 months. With the breakdown of traditional social structures and advances in knowledge and technology that nevertheless fail to bring a sense of security or belonging, many Jews were seeking new ways to find meaning and community. The number of retreats, havurot, classes, Internet sites and books relating to Jewish spirituality continued to grow. “Many Jews are not coming into Jewish institutions, so we need to go to them,” said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, an editor and educator. “Contemporary Judaism is now finding the best ways to reach out, attract and welcome Jews who are seeking. We can”t make Judaism into something it isn”t to attract Jews, but there are ways we can open up and recapture the personal aspects of Judaism we have lost, such as reaching out to Jews who are ill and needy.” Indeed, the community that would reach out to Jews is an ever-changing one. This year witnessed the final steps toward the long-discussed merger of the three mega-national Jewish fund-raising organizations — the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. The new creation will “operate with greater efficiency and offer dollar savings, increased fund-raising ability and far-better ability to build communities,” predicted Dr. Conrad Giles, CJF president and now co- president of the partnership. For some local federation leaders, the merger in and of itself is less critical than the articulation of the changing role of Jewish philanthropic agencies to Jews across America. “If the merger represents only a rearrangement of organizational structures, it will be of limited importance,” said John Ruskay, chief operating officer of the UJA-Federation of New York. “But if it is a new vehicle to meet our challenges, it will be of historic significance. These are to reassert our mission, to communicate it to Jews far more effectively and to serve as a significant resource, through strengthening synagogues, JCCs and Hillels, for marginal Jews. The federation is a manifestation of Jewish peoplehood, whether the individuals we help are in Ashdod, Kiev or Brooklyn.” Indeed, local federations breathed a sigh of relief in July when President Clinton signed a bill restoring food stamps to thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union and some other legal immigrants who had lost the benefits under welfare reform legislation. As federations undergo an evolution, Jewish family foundations are growing in numbers and significance in the Jewish philanthropic world. One area of intense involvement for some foundations and, increasingly for federations, is Jewish education. A dozen high-powered Jewish philanthropists gathered together last October to create an $18 million fund to help start about 25 new Jewish day schools during the next five years. At least three schools expanding into upper grades have already been recipients of funding from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, as the fund is called. As many Jews remain frightened by the possible encroachment of religion into public schools and divided over vouchers for private schools, a number of family foundations are providing scholarships for parents seeking a day school education for their children. Jewish day schools are enjoying their greatest revival since the 1970s. New schools were created in the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements this year — and enrollment was up around the country. “What has blossomed this year was the legitimization of day school education,” said Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. “The headline of the year was the emergence of new community-based day high schools in cities such as Atlanta and Boston.” Informal Jewish education has also been placed on a higher rung of the Jewish communal agenda, with an increasing emphasis on camps, youth groups and early-childhood centers. In the religious sphere, what some call “the move to the right” in Orthodoxy has been countered by the advances of Orthodox feminists. A second international conference in New York far exceeded attendance expectations during a year when female rabbinic interns were hired by two New York Orthodox synagogues and adult Jewish education programs for women continued to flourish. Jewish feminists also marked a historic event as a few dozen women met to commemorate the first national Jewish women”s conference, which attracted 500 women to a New York hotel 25 years ago. Meanwhile, as CJF gears up for the population study of 2000, the state of American Jewry remains ambiguous: high rates of intermarriage on the one hand, and a growth in synagogue membership and expressions of Jewish spirituality on the other. The dichotomy does not surprise sociologist Samuel Heilman, who believes the American Jewish community is being divided into two camps — “heritage Jews” and “active Jews” of all religious denominations who live their Judaism seriously. “The paradox and irony,” said Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Queens College, “is that those who are doing more and more about being Jewish are more and more worried about the future. The others are feeling just fine. They are accepted as Jews in America, and that”s what they wanted.””