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Op-Ed: Jewish community stresses feelings at its peril

OMAHA, Neb. (JTA) — We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that American Jewry is in trouble. We have been overemphasizing what feels good at the expense of what does good for the Jewish people for quite some time.

Allow me to explain.

Many Jewish organizations have taken to pursuing political agendas that at best are distantly, and usually not at all, connected to Jewish concerns. For example, B’nai B’rith International has taken positions on immigration reform and Latin American free trade. The National Council of Jewish Women has spoken out on the earned income tax credit and the line item veto. The ADL has taken stances on same-sex marriage, immigration and reproductive rights. And the Reform movement’s URJ biennial advocated for “righteous, healthy eating,” health care reform and statehood for Washington, D.C.

While I certainly understand the desire to repair the world, spending time and energy on these issues doesn’t help us to create more committed Jews. If a group of law school students devoted years to charitable endeavors, their efforts, while highly laudable, would in no way advance their study of jurisprudence. To be effective attorneys, they must still concentrate on law. To be effective Jews and effective Jewish organizations, we have to concentrate on specifically Jewish matters.

Some might argue that we can both advocate for political positions and inspire Jews to be more committed. That’s just not happening. A multitude of studies demonstrates how non-Orthodox Jews are becoming less and less involved in Jewish life. Very simply, too many Jews are becoming citizens of the world at the expense of being committed citizens of their Jewish community.

We also hurt ourselves in the pursuit of equality in the Jewish community. How could equality be a bad thing? When it gets in the way of placing the brightest, most talented individuals on our boards and in our organizations. It should not matter whether an organization or a board is populated by a majority of female, male, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, gay or straight Jews. Our organizations deserve to be filled with the very best individuals we can find. The Jewish world shorts itself every time it places equality ahead of quality.

Most of us don’t make business decisions in this way, so why do we think such an approach makes sense in our Jewish work? It might feel good to seek balance, but the greater Jewish good suffers as a result.

It is painful to note that an increasing number of American Jews favor Palestinian causes over support of the Jewish state. Here is yet another example of feelings winning out over common sense. Many of us understandably but sometimes wrongly tend to sympathize with the weaker of two opposing parties. After all, why would the stronger group appear to need our support? Presumably it is able to easily protect itself.

Yet strength and weakness have no relationship to right and wrong. How we instinctively feel about two parties tells us nothing about their moral quality. A weaker group that intentionally targets civilians is morally inferior to a far more powerful nation that institutionally attempts to target terrorists.

Of course there are faults to be found with Israel’s conduct. But Israel’s enemies are nowhere near Israel morally with regard to freedom of speech and religious practice, treatment of women and of gays, or waging war with moral constraints.

As it relates to the programs we create, our support for the State of Israel, those we choose to guide our organizations and myriad other matters, our Jewish communities must start acting more on the basis of what does good rather than what feels good. We must get more into the Jew-building business and not spend as much time in the feel-good business.

The irony is that as we do, at least as it relates to the vitality of our Jewish communities, we ultimately will have more to feel good about.

(Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities — now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He lives in Omaha, Neb. His views do not necessarily represent those of the organization.) 

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