5760: Transforming identity and institutions


HARRISBURG, Pa., Aug. 20 (JTA) — As a new century dawned, American Jewry continued to look inward toward programs and initiatives that would strengthen Jewish identity.

The efforts to bolster identity come at a time when Jews feel relatively secure in the United States, despite high rates of assimilation and intermarriage and high-profile acts of violence against Jews this year and last.

In fact, some would say that security reached new heights when Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate in August, making him the first Jew on a major party ticket.

A series of new initiatives aimed at building Jewish identity got off the ground in 5760.

Initial skepticism about the Birthright Program gave way to cautious optimism as 6,000 first-time visitors to Israel, the majority college students from North America, arrived in the Jewish state for 10-day free trips in December and January. An additional 1,500 individuals visited in the spring and summer.

Although the long-term impact has yet to be seen, most of the participants were highly enthusiastic about their experiences.

In June, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system, voted to become a full partner in Birthright, which is funded by co-founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt and an additional 12 philanthropists. A majority of the 189 federations belonging to the recently formed umbrella organization have agreed to support the international program financially, and the Israeli government pledged $70 million in April.

As the effectiveness of phase one of Birthright is evaluated by researchers at Brandeis University, and another group of young people prepares to leave for Israel in the fall, Steinhardt declares the program “extraordinarily fulfilling” but in need of widespread community support.

“It’s important to take this phenomenal start and realize the full potential that exists to include all young Jews who have not yet been to Israel — a number estimated at 300,000 — as well as to marshal its resources to follow up the program so that a true Jewish renaissance occurs,” he said. “The ball is now in the hands of the community.”

Strengthening the Jewish family through Jewish education programs and synagogues was a renewed thrust of family and children’s agencies around the country.

These programs help people “who grapple with normative life cycle issues and transitions — such as parenting, divorce, aging — by providing valuable information that combines mental health and Jewish perspectives,” and an opportunity to connect with others in the community, according to Vicki Rosenstreich, director of Jewish Family Life Education for New York’s Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services.

Such programs are often co-sponsored with Jewish community centers, which in general are looking for avenues to put the “J” back in their name through enhanced Jewish content.

The Jewish Communities Centers Association went a step further this year, emphasizing at a conference in May the need to create “Meaningful Jewish Community.”

New ways of creating Jewish identity and community are also being tried out in many congregations around the country, in a movement loosely called “synagogue transformation.”

Synagogue change was spearheaded primarily by the Reform movement, which in 1992 created the first systematic program in this direction, the Experiment in Congregational Education. Now, growing numbers of synagogues are participating in Synagogue 2000, a program that focuses on making synagogues welcoming and prayer services more meaningful.

In addition, philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Steinhardt announced a new initiative this year named STAR — Synagogue Transformation and Renewal. An organization that is nondenominational and independent of the federations offers the best hope for “systematic change” in the way synagogues work, STAR president Schusterman told JTA.

He also cited the linkage of congregational schools to synagogue transformation efforts and new curriculum initiatives to enliven part-time Jewish education.

Formal Jewish education — especially full time — has become a central component of identity for a growing number of families. According to a census conducted this year by the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, approximately 185,000 students attend Jewish day schools — 25,000 more than a decade ago.

Optimism about the state of Jewish education was expressed by Jonathan Woocher, director of the Jewish Education Service of North America and newly appointed chair of the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar Committee of UJC.

He calls the effort “catalytic and supportive” rather than programmatic.

The “incredible number of positive developments over the past few years,” he said, include the emergence of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education; the involvement of major foundations and the Jewish Funders Network in supporting Jewish education; the growth of new Jewish high schools; and the creation of programs at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary to address the shortage of principals and teachers.

As always, Jewish involvement this year translated into political involvement.

And the big story of the year was arguably the selection of Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

American Jews were inundated with weeks of banner headlines about Lieberman — “the first Jew.” Jews for the most part reacted with tremendous enthusiasm, though some expressed concern about potential anti-Semitic backlashes. Indeed, Internet chat rooms were filled with language of hate, and one caller to the Howard Stern radio show was arrested after he threatened the senator’s life.

Lieberman was the buzz among Jewish delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August. And some Jewish Republicans began to rethink their votes, though most likely will stick to their political guns come election day in November.

Elsewhere on the political scene, the Jewish community mobilized around gun control, partly because of hate crimes involving guns, including the attacks in August 1999 at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., in which Buford Furrow, Jr., a white supremacist, wounded five people, and a shooting spree in April by Pittsburgh lawyer Richard Scott Baumhammers that left five minorities, including a Jewish woman, dead.

That involvement was in evidence as Jewish mothers — and fathers — from around the country, including thousands of members of synagogues and Hadassah chapters, joined the Million Mom March for gun safety on Mother’s Day.

Jewish groups also continued to fight for hate crimes legislation, which has been promoted by the Clinton administration, but is bogged down in Congress. The legislation would allow federal investigations into bias-motivated crimes, based on gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Jews did claim a partial victory in July with the congressional passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a religious liberty law affecting zoning for religious institutions and establishing the rights of prisoners and nursing home patients to freely exercise their religion.

At the Supreme Court, several church-state rulings attracted the attention of the Jewish community.

Although most Jewish groups praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June prohibiting prayers at high school football games, the ruling left the larger issue of prayer at public school events unclear.

Some Jewish groups questioned another Supreme Court ruling that it is constitutional for religious schools to use taxpayer dollars to buy computers and other instructional materials, warning that these could be diverted for religious purposes.

Though Jews may be taking a less-absolutist position toward school vouchers and similar issues, the overall opposition to government funding for religious institutions remains strong, according to Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.

Meanwhile, the kinds of initiatives chosen to strengthen Jewish identity as well as support human services here and overseas will be determined in part by the long-awaited National Jewish Population Study 2000.

Sponsored by the UJC, the telephone survey, which got off the ground in August, is the first large-scale national study of American Jews in a decade.

The study was postponed repeatedly over the past year to allow input from the new pillar committees created by the UJC.

“The resulting survey is greatly enhanced over that of 1990,” said Lorraine Blass, UJC’s senior planner.

She said the study is more reliable because the sample size has been doubled to 5,000 households, and that it is more nuanced in terms of Jewish identity, which was once defined primarily as ritual behavior.

“Today we understand this is only one example of identity,” Blass said. “The language and thinking of Jewish organizations has changed.”

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