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Despite New Needs, Jewish Identity Programs Remain Atop the Priority List

The past decade has witnessed the rise of “Jewish renaissance” — efforts to strengthen Jewish identity in North America.

A response to findings of high intermarriage and assimilation rates, such programs have proliferated. They include a boom in Jewish day schools and summer camps, attempts to make synagogues more inviting, accessible and spiritually meaningful to a wider range of people, and a revitalized campus Hillel movement.

But amid a climate of uncertainty, increased needs in Israel and fears that the recession may weaken fund- raising campaigns, it is not clear how, if at all, Jewish renaissance efforts will be affected.

If what transpired at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities here this week is any indication, the push for renaissance continues.

Sessions on Jewish identity, intermarriage, education and the crisis in finding personnel to teach the children attracted standing-room-only crowds.

A new coalition to promote Jewish volunteerism was announced. Birthright Israel, which sends young Jews on free trips to Israel, held several sessions and was a frequent topic of discussion.

And at a plenary on Jewish community in the aftermath of Sept. 11, both speakers — John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement s Union of American Hebrew Congregations — emphasized the importance of local Jewish institutions in strengthening people’s feelings of connection to the larger Jewish community.

“While global and national community is essential for our global mission, the sources of ongoing commitment to which people turn in times of joy and crisis alike are decidedly local,” Ruskay said.

“For those not raised in committed families and communities, synagogues, JCCs and Ys, Hillels and schools are the critical contexts for fostering identity and commitment,” he added.

Yoffie urged American Jews to step up advocacy for and engagement with Israel, but also called for federations to take a more active role in helping to strengthen synagogues.

“We were reminded again on Sept. 11 that the synagogue is the primary address for those who seek help and support in the face of death, fear and the collapse of hope,” Yoffie said. “But the professional resources to provide this support remain in large measure, in the federation agencies. Obviously the time has come to connect the two.”

Few are talking — at least publicly — about scaling back support for Jewish renaissance. But a professional with the federation in Tidewater, Va., said the federation had warned local agencies that they may have their allocations reduced this year due to uncertainty about Israel s needs.

Michael Hirsh, director of planning, budgeting and administration for the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, said the jury is out about funding priorities.

“We would like to think there will be enough money and awareness of the importance of” renaissance to keep up support for it, “but frankly, if the campaign is stagnant and there are all these other needs, it may be affected,” he said.

While his federation has been particularly supportive of Jewish summer camps and is enthusiastic about Jewish education, Hirsh said, “a lot of other things are on the radar screen right now. It’s not easy to juggle all these balls right now.”

Beryl Geber, chair of the UJC s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar, said she is not hearing any calls to cut renaissance-related activities.

“What’s clear is we can’t respond to one thing without the other,” Geber said.

“If people don’t feel any value in being Jewish,” why would they “care about the community?” she asked.

“If you don’t feel a connection with it, why would you care about Israel? We need to keep building on the connections.”

Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, echoed Geber.

“You lose the momentum on renaissance and you lose everything,” Shrage said.

“This is a delicate moment because on the one hand, part of the Jewish community could say the world is full of anti-Semitism so forget about social justice,” he said. “That would be a catastrophe. Or you could say there are too many problems and we have to cut renaissance. That would be a betrayal of all our dreams and hopes.”

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