5763: Strength Amid Strife American Jews Adjust and Adapt to Unknown Fears and Challenges
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5763: Strength Amid Strife American Jews Adjust and Adapt to Unknown Fears and Challenges

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The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Palestinian intifada and a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe all have combined to show American Jews that the world may not be as safe and secure as seemed possible at the close of the last century.

Three years later, however, it seems that the shock to the Jewish system has given way to acceptance of a new reality of uncertainty and insecurity.

Israel has been battered by terrorist attacks, yet tourists began to return to the Jewish state even before Palestinian terrorist groups announced a cease-fire in early summer.

The war in Iraq came and went, but there was little public discussion in the community of the security of American Jews.

In the year 5763, it seems, Jews grew accustomed to the unforeseeable.

“It’s certainly impossible to live in a constant state of alarm, so there is a little less adrenaline in the Jewish system – – but not a lot less,” said David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “One comment by a French government official” about the Jews, he said, “and the thermostat rises again.”

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders who warned of a new and dangerous world feel vindicated, observers said. This holds particularly true for those who long had warned of Islamic fundamentalism..

“There’s growing understanding of the issues and nature of the threat among Americans, American Jews, our government and other governments that for a long time were ignored,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“The war on terrorism will define the 21st century and help determine the quality of life that we, our children and grandchildren will enjoy,” he said. “The spread of Islamic extremism is a threat to all of us.”

Jewish groups cheered as U.S. officials shut down several Islamic foundations and arrested individuals allegedly raising funds for terror groups.

But other tactics in the war on terror drew criticism.

“We still find a concern about striking the right balance between security and protecting our civil liberties,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We, as a religious minority in the United States, have felt our safety and success is due in large part because our liberties and freedoms have been protected. We don’t want to see compromised the very freedoms that our war on terrorism is fighting for.”

Given the divisions in the community, it was little surprise that the first instance of the Bush administration’s new policy of pre-emptive deterrence — the war on Iraq — would arouse fierce debate.

Most Jewish groups ultimately supported the war, yet many worried about how it would impact Israel and world Jewry.

Some expressed anxiety that Jews might be blamed if the war with Iraq ran into difficulties.

Indeed, several commentators highlighted the Jewish backgrounds of some key architects of administration policy.

There also were renewed whispers of American Jews’ supposedly divided loyalties. But that didn’t deter Jewish groups from a third year of vociferous defense of Israel.

In addition to fund-raising, Jewish organizations focused on arming grass-roots activists with information in the public relations war for Israel. They provided them with talking points and seminars to combat perceived anti-Israel bias in local communities, on college campuses and in the media.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, for example, began a series of regional “Israel Advocacy” conferences to better educate constituents.

Yet there were no massive shows of support for Israel like the April 2002 rally in Washington.

For the most part, the sense of crisis that pervaded the previous Jewish year — ushered in first by the intifada and then by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — was absent in 5763.

A year earlier, Jews said they felt besieged, sensing that everyone was ganging up on Jews and Israel. This year, several prominent voices suggested that the threat of anti-Semitism in America was overstated.

“The vast majority of North American Jews do not feel the insecurity that many of the major Jewish institutions report, because that is what these institutions are set up to do,”said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL- The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “At their core, all the major Jewish organizations are defense organizations.”

As the government’s “terror alert” oscillated between yellow and orange, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, became a clearinghouse of sorts for advice on security, UJC’s president and CEO, Stephen Hoffman, said.

Jewish institutions are presumed to have spent untold millions on enhanced security, but ultimately “the best defense against threats is to be vigilant year round, not suddenly during alerts,” Hoffman said.

Beefing up security only added to the financial strain all organizations experienced during the country’s economic downturn.

Jewish poverty in New York more than doubled, according to a demographic survey funded by the UJA-Federation of New York. Many institutions were forced to lay off employees; yeshivas struggled as families struggled to pay tuition fees.

“If one person can’t pay, that’s OK, there are scholarships,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and former president of the Orthodox Union. “But we find that more and more people can’t pay the tuition. This hurts Orthodox institutions.”

Reform institutions also are enduring cutbacks of staff, rabbis, cantors and educators, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“When times are tough, people turn to the synagogue,” Yoffie said. “But it’s obviously very distressing that we are less able to provide congregants with the fundamental religious services in the way they’re accustomed. But the spirit is good, commitment is high, and congregations have to compensate by more intensive involvement by lay leaders, and that’s what’s happening.”

One of the more startling moments came in November, when the United Jewish Communities — the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations — suddenly canceled the presentation of its long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey.

The NJPS was to have been the most extensive — and, at $6 million, the costliest — demographic study ever conducted of the American Jewish community. Lost data that forced the UJC to postpone presentation of the study also cast a cloud on the ultimate results, whose release was postponed several times throughout the year.

In September, the UJC released the population study. It showed the number of American Jews at 5.2 million, down 300,000 from a decade ago, with an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, up slightly from what was recalculated to be 43 percent one decade ago. An estimated 4.3 million Jews were said to belong to one or more Jewish groups or perform a range of Jewish rituals. Those figures were subject to a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

Meanwhile, the same issues that have dogged American Jewry for generations continue to occupy a high place on the agenda.

“Assimilation, intermarriage, Jewish knowledge, passion, commitment and their opposite — indifference, apathy and ignorance,” Wolpe said.

One new issue was the prospect of a Jewish president: Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, hoping to build on the momentum he established as Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election.

Toward the end of 5763, a glimmer of hope for American Jews appeared from the east: Violence ebbed in Israel as Palestinian terrorists temporarily suspended their murderous operations.

American Jews were divided on whether the Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, really had managed to marginalize P.A. President Yasser Arafat, whether Abbas could deliver on his promises and to what degree President Bush would remain involved in the peace process set in motion by the “road map” plan.

When it comes to Bush, observers are waiting to see if the Jews will line up behind the incumbent in 2004 or throw their weight behind the Democratic presidential candidate.

“There’s a feeling that we owe him, to repay his kindness for going out of his way in a way we didn’t expect,” Ganchrow said, referring to Bush’s unexpectedly strong support for Israel. “But there’s also an uneasiness over how much pressure he may now place” on Israel.

Yet it is the matter of Iraq — still wracked by chaos and mounting U.S. casualties — that looms as the key issue both for Israel and American Jewry, Yoffie said.

“Putting aside questions of who was for and against the war, it would be a blow to our hopes and to Israel’s security concerns if the U.S. failed to create a democratic government in a major Arab country and Iraq returned to dictatorship,” he said.

“This will determine the character of the neighborhood in which Israel will live,” Yoffie said. “Our well-being as Jews, our mental state, our sense of ourselves is directly tied to the welfare of Israel.”

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