Oh, the things I have seen ...
My assignment keeps me in more modest precincts. How has the American Jewish community changed in the past 35 years, I've been asked. Two major developments--one institutional, the other cultural/ideological--are worth noting.
Without a master plan, the American Jewish community has been radically decentralized. Thirty-five years ago, local federations owned the organized Jewish community They were, as they loudly claimed to be, "the central address of the Jewish community." The three-and-a-half denominations (sorry, Reconstructionist friends) were in rather placid waters, with the Reform movement growing, the Conservative just beginning its protracted journey into the wilderness and the Orthodox, many of us mistakenly believed, half asleep. To the extent that younger Jews wanted "in," they wanted into the existing structures, which now and then grudgingly made room for them. Here and there, there were local innovations and initiatives but, by and large, Jews were not into new and self-organized modalities.
Today, the action has shifted quite dramatically. Everywhere one turns, there are bands and choirs, newspapers and magazines (in particular, the electronic kind), worship and study minyanim, Moishe Houses, Chabad Houses, new day schools, new vehicles for adult Jewish education and film festivals. There are more groupings of Jews who may not receive funding from their local federations but instead rely on either individual philanthropists, including young ones, or one of the growing number of consortia of such philanthropists in search of compelling innovations in Jewish life.
There are big and small examples of this all around us. That there are klezmer bands in New York, Los Angeles and Boston is hardly a surprise. But Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Louisville, Milwaukee and Greensboro? hi 1975, American Jewish World Service, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Jewish Funds for Justice did not exist. Almost all the private foundations that now together likely provide more funding for Jewish endeavors than federations do were at most in the planning stage.
What does all the new stuff add up to? I don't have a clue, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to. It may all turn out to have been no more than a fad; it may, on the other hand, presage a Jewish community of a staggering number of options, based on theological predilection, personal taste, cultural proclivity, ideological orientation--something for everyone.
Can what is essentially an aggregate of myriad groups that have little interaction with each other lay legitimate claim to the word "community?" Yes, there is something fetching about the autonomous Jew enabled to make Shabbos for himself or herself, joined to a minyan of like-minded others. There is no need to inquire as to which is the "real" Shabbos; there is none. There are simply different ways that Jews mark the day.
No boundaries at all? That cannot be. So where shall we look for convergence, coherence, a single and singular voice?
Before 1982 and Israel's war in Lebanon--that's really when Israel's standing in the world began to deteriorate--the answer would have been immediately at hand. We all came together around Israel, around its hopes and its travails. The hopes were soon to be rewarded in an astonishing way: peace between Israel and Egypt, soon thereafter between Israel and Jordan, too. And there is still a widespread disposition to rise to Israel's defense when, as happens so often, it is unreasonably scorned.
But that disposition is shared by an ever-declining number of younger Jews. Birthright notwithstanding, the connection of younger Jews to the Jewish state has been radically attenuated. In many of the newish endeavors, one notes a determined omission of a relationship with Israel. We have learned that love of Zion is not part of the Jewish DNA, is not genetically encoded and transmitted.
To the degree that people remain engaged--and many do--their views on Israel's conflict with its neighbors are not as consensual as once they were. In 1975, Menachem Begin had yet to be elected; Israel was still very much in the hands of the familiar veterans of its rebirth. The people entering college this coming fall were born in 1992 into a very different world.
Some of the attitudinal shift was predictable. For many of us, Israel's existence was and remains a miracle, however complicated the struggle remains. For those born into a world in which Israel is a fact, not a miracle, and an often disquieting fact at that, the relationship cannot be the same.
Which leaves us, at least for the time being, dependent on our own wisdom and energy to assert and develop authentic connections of our own. By four score and seven--that's 2062--the verdict should be in.
Leonard Fein was Moments founding editor from 1975 to 1987.