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Creating the renaissance Jew

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ATLANTA, Nov. 22 (JTA) — If Michelangelo’s Renaissance meant sculpting Moses from a piece of marble, just what does an American Jewish renaissance hope to create?

Like the great Italian artists who reached back to classical influences to transform art and culture, American Jewry is reaching back to Jewish sources to create a new kind of contemporary Jew — one steeped in Jewish learning and tradition, a Jew excited about being Jewish out of choice, not necessity.

It’s a tall order in these times of growing assimilation; but it is one optimists and pessimists of the American Jewish scene believe will be necessary for American Jewry not only to survive, but to thrive.

Although some have been preaching the need for a Jewishly literate American Jewry for years, the organized community, propelled by the grass roots, is now taking up the cause.

The United Jewish Communities, the new federation-driven national fund-raising and social service organization officially launched last week in Atlanta, has designated Jewish Renaissance and Renewal as one of its four main pillars, or areas of focus.

Indeed, a task force charged with recommending a course of action suggested as its guiding vision: ‘to provide a bold and vigorous leadership for building a Jewish community permeated by Torah, chesed (lovingkindness) and tzedek (justice or righteousness).

“We’ve come a long way, at least rhetorically,” Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said last week at the opening Renaissance forum at the UJC’s General Assembly.

“Whereas in the past we were worrying about Jewish continuity, now the focus is on Jewish renaissance,” he said to hundreds of G.A. delegates who were representing federations throughout North America.

The buzzword has changed, and so, it seems, has the emphasis.

The forum drew the largest attendance of any of the four focus sessions — the others being Campaign/Finance Resource Development, Human Services and Social Policy, and Israel and Overseas — confirming that finding meaningful answers to the question “Why be Jewish today?” is a top priority for those in the trenches.

No longer buoyed by the twin “safety nets” of anti-Semitism and Israel that have long kept Jews in the fold, “the challenge is to build a Judaism where people want to be Jews,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem told the G.A.’s opening session.

Most Jewish children are safe today as they sleep, Hartman said. “Our question now is what is going to be the quality of the Jewish life they are exposed to when they wake up?”

For Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, creating a quality Jewish life is not just for the kids.

“If Judaism remains a pediatric affair,” she said, the Jewish community will soon be dead.

Meyerhoff Hendler, a philanthropist who recounted her own spiritual journey in the book, “The Year Mom Got Religion,” believes the key question is not, as has often been asked when talking about the Jewish future, “Will our grandchildren be Jewish?” but rather, “Will we be Jewish?”

The Jewish renaissance already has its early artists.

Jews are flocking in unprecedented numbers to day schools, synagogue-based adult education programs, online learning sessions, Jewish camps and Hillel university programs.

“Renaissance and renewal happens on the ground, person by person, institution by institution, community by community,” said Beryl Geber of Los Angeles, who has been named to chair the UJC’s Renaissance pillar.

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and a driving force behind the national emphasis on Jewish renaissance, cited as an example a successful Boston-area adult education program that requires a two-year commitment of weekly Jewish learning costing individuals $500 a year.

He said that every synagogue, every Jewish community center, every day school, could have a similar program given the needed resources and staff.

“Most of what we have to do will not require a huge amount of additional experimentation; we already know exactly what we have to do,” Shrage said. “All we have to do is do it.”

“People are hungry” for Jewish education, he said. “This is the moment when we can transform the consciousness of the American Jewish community. This is the moment when the Zeitgeist is about to change.”

Underlying all these programs is the increasing emphasis on learning and religion among American Jews.

There appears to be a consensus, as Meyerhoff Hendler put it, that “civil Judaism” — an emphasis on fighting anti-Semitism, lobbying for Soviet Jewry and protecting Israel — “has been a failure in terms of transmitting the passion to be Jewish from one generation to the next.”

People “have to know something in order to transmit it,” Meyerhoff Hendler said, adding: “You cannot transmit feelings.”

“Torah is the epicenter of our Jewish experience,” she said. “We cannot make Jews, we cannot have a true Jewish community if we choose to ignore Torah.”

Indeed, at the same forum, Woocher wondered whether “renaissance” is a code word for Judaism, because people are afraid to call it what it is.

“Every act of Jewish commitment today is an act of faith,” Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said. The goal is to help every Jew “see himself or herself as part of the Jewish story, which is Torah in its broadest and best sense.”

“The essence must be religious,” he said, but not in a narrow way.

“With many gateways in to being Jewish,” he said, “the story is open to all of us.”

Translating the need for Jewish education — be it adult education, day schools, Jewish camps or Israel experiences — into action is part of what UJC hopes to address.

Combining the energies of the federation, the religious movements and national organizations, the Renaissance pillar wants to “provide motivation,” and enable communities “to do for themselves,” Geber said.

In addition to collaborating with the local communities, UJC wants to act as a matchmaker between those communities that are flourishing and those that need help with ideas and resources, she said.

Many of the federation representatives gathered in Atlanta agreed with the emphasis on Jewish renewal, but were uncertain how it would translate to their community.

“Renaissance is a huge issue in my community,” Michael Wise, the executive director of the Akron Jewish Community Federation, said, noting that his own community had already restructured into a single operating entity and designated Jewish education as one of four focus areas.

“We’re all just trying to figure out how what happens nationally translates into the local,” Wise said, quoting the axiom, “All politics is local; the question is, how will it affect my community?”

Paula Glazier, who serves on the Detroit area’s agency for Jewish education, also wasn’t certain how what was happening in Atlanta would affect her community.

But, she said, summing up the focus here: “I believe the way to breed more Jews is through Judaism.”

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