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October 08, 2004 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-10-08

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Looking Within


merican Jewry is the largest, richest and best-organ-
ized Jewish community in the world. But more than
half of all U.S. Jews are weakly affiliated with Jewish
communal life, and a decreasing number even identify as
That's alarming.
This not-so-surprising finding should fan the flames of
urgency in Jewish communities throughout America. At stake
is American Jewish life not so much as it really is, but as we
want it be. For too long, we've acknowledged the inroads of
assimilation on Jewish identity and values, but haven't shown
the collective desire to confront the forces of
the three A's: acculturation, anti-Semitism
and apathy.
Bluntly put, we've not had the will to con-
sider where we're headed and its impact on
the American Jewish experience.
That's partly because no single U.S. Jewish
agency speaks for American Jewry; our high-
est-level agencies either are casting about for
ROBERT A. the right niche or overlapping and diluting
one another.
A new study by the Jewish People Policy
Planning Institute spurred me to contempla-
tion. Even the study's name was compelling: Between Thriving

rate, migration beyond core Jewish areas, more deaths than
births, less communal participation and a long-term trend of
distancing from Israel, although this trend has been somewhat
reversed by four years of Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis.
"These trends are particularly prevalent among the young,"
the study finds.
A 2004 special report issued by the UJC and based on the
National Jewish Population Survey reinforces these trends. It
found that 70 percent of American Jews ages 25-29, a key age
range for formulating life values, "feel very positive about
being Jewish" and 59 percent say they "have a clear sense of
what being Jewish means to me." Only 45 percent "regard
being Jewish as very important in life," however. The numbers
go up only slightly for those older than 30.
Both the Detroit Jewish News and the Jewish Federation of
Metropolitan Detroit are testing new concepts to attract
younger Jews with some ties to organized Jewish life. The JN
requires new, younger readers to assure long-term stability and
growth. Federation requires new, younger givers so the Annual
Campaign can meet increasing Jewish needs locally, nationally
and around the world. New connections are bound to become
stronger over time, culturally if not spiritually.

Jumping Hurdles

The institute study also cites in America the relatively high
and Decline: The Jewish People 2004.
cost of Jewish living and a declining membership in Jewish
The study examines world Jewry, but the conclusion echoes
institutions. The National Jewish Population Survey found
as much in America as elsewhere: "The future of the Jewish
that 60 percent of U.S. Jewish families don't belong to a syna-
people is not assured, though there are great opportunities for
gogue. Expenses include synagogue dues, JCC memberships,
thriving. To succeed, large resources, judicious cop-
day or synagogue school tuition, keeping
ing with critical decisions and careful crafting of
kosher, buying ritual items and giving to
long-term, grand policies are needed."
Jewish charities and causes. Scholarships and
Sound familiar?
other financial assistance ease some of the
We've pondered exactly that here in metro
Detroit from our perspective within the national
But the cost, coupled with the pressure to
Jewish orbit.
give, means families with limited income are
The study affirms that 5.3 million Jews live in
destined to stay outside organized Jewish life
America, more than 2 percent of the total popula-
unless we somehow relieve more of the bur-
tion. It affirms that U.S. Jews have a strong infra-
den. We can start by assessing why more
structure of community outreach, political advoca-
Jewish philanthropists have increased their
cy, philanthropic giving and religious-oriented
secular giving at the expense of Jewish needs.
services — and that Jews are above the national
But the study isn't all gloom.
norm in education and income.
It senses the beginnings of "a new, more
The study then gives an intriguing description
individualized form of Jewish identity, con-
of the tension that should absorb us, but hardly
nection and expression." The upshot is poten-
causes a ripple — our "crisis of comfort."
tially deeper Jewish involvement, personally and communally.
The study highlights how we've seamlessly adapted to, and
The study calls for a cultural awakening that resonates for
been accepted by, U.S. society, and how traditional Jewish
young adults in their 20s and 30s: tailored social programs,
concerns, like Israel's security, have become incorporated into
dating services, Internet groups, subsidized dues and class fees,
national concerns. It takes pride in how many of us share in
lower expectations for giving, relevant synagogue experiences.
the American dream.
Rabbi Judah Isaacs of Federation's Alliance for Jewish
But this success comes at a high price: More Jews doubt the
Education distilled the essence of my feelings when he said:
need to be part of a distinctive ethnic community. "Changing
"The centerpiece of Jewish life is education."
demographic and social patterns both reflect and perpetuate
In a conversation on Monday, he reinforced for me the
this trend," the study finds.
notion of lifelong learning — how at each stage we have more
life experiences that shape what we know and learn, how new
Tracking Trends
insight into the same text is gleaned from continued study.
The institute that undertook the study is new It was created
Ultimately, the challenge is to make Jews of all ages and
by the Jewish Agency for Israel and is based in Jerusalem. But
backgrounds at ease enough to tap into the many broad-
its findings are in sync with the National Jewish Population
based, multi-layered opportunities to explore ancient text in
Survey 2000-2001, a report funded by the United Jewish
engaging ways that yield relevance for today.
Communities (UJC), the New York-based umbrella for the
As Rabbi Isaacs put it: "We have to be engaged in the
North American network of Jewish federations.
ancient text while involved in the modern world."
The institute study dwells on Jewish America's high rate of
Diverse and dispersed as we are, we must cling to the guid-
assimilation that is underscored by a 54-percent out-marriage
ance that binds us as a people: Torah. ❑






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