Jews who refuse to walk away

Michael Lerner

October 07, 1992|By Michael Lerner

BECAUSE American Jews, once the quintessential oppressed refugee group, worked hard to gain an important role in influencing American political and cultural life, changes in the political and cultural climate of the Jewish world have often harbingered similar changes in the larger society. Thus the triumph of neo-conservatism in the organized Jewish community the 1970s played a part in legitimizing the retreat from communal hopefulness to a self-interest politics that found its widest expression in the Reagan-Bush years.

Similarly the emergence of a renewed liberalism and a revitalized sense of hope in the Jewish world may play an important role in shaping American possibilities if a new generation comes to power through a Clinton administration.

The recent victory of the Labor Party in Israel has opened new doors in American Jewish life. It's not only that there is hope that the old and wealthy men who run American Jewish institutions might finally step down now that the hard-line Israeli policies that they so enthusiastically championed have been discarded by the Israelis themselves.

It's also that the collective emotional depression of the Reagan-Bush years may soon be lifting. Those who for decades have been silenced into compliant obedience to the mind- and spirit-deadening practices of the Jewish establishment may now empowered.

For several decades, Jews have been fleeing the American Jewish community by the hundreds of thousands. Similar numbers remain affiliated with a synagogue or a community center not because they feel emotional or intellectual identification with the values of the Jewish community but because they live in suburban areas where these institutions provide a way to escape the loneliness and alienation of American society.

What those who have fled share with many who remain loosely affiliated is this: a rejection of the values they've experienced in the Jewish world and hence an inability to pass on to the next generation of Jews a sufficient sense of excitement about Judaism for them to remain Jewish.

The official line of the organized Jewish community is that people drop away because they have been seduced by the assimilated life.

But when you ask the supposed assimilators you quickly discover that for many it was being told that they were "self-hating" Jews if they dared to question the wisdom of the now-discredited occupation policy of the Likud government. For others it was discovering that synagogues and Jewish communal organizations were often run by those with the most money or those who knew how to persuade the wealthy to donate.

For still others, it was the discovery of sexism, homophobia or racism that seemed to unconsciously permeate the structures of Jewish life.

Many felt repelled by the "goyim bashing" that often is the only thread uniting "ethnic Jews" who no longer practice Judaism but are woven together by bagels, lox and fear that the Holocaust or other forms of oppression might again be our collective fate unless we stick together.

All too often, then, it has been the most spiritually, intellectually and ethically sensitive Jews who couldn't find a place in the organized Jewish community.

The good news is this: Growing numbers of liberal and progressive Jews refuse to walk away.

In a variety of ways, from Jewish camps to orthodox yeshivot in Israel to Jewish studies programs on campus, these Jews have stumbled upon the secret that kept Judaism alive for thousands of years -- its revolutionary message of healing and transformation.

Rather than abandoning the Jewish world or ceding its rich intellectual, spiritual and cultural heritage to the conformists and materialists who now run things, these Jews are building new institutions and new forms of Jewish life.

Here is a partial list of what is happening:

* Jews seeking to break down the hierarchy and power of money in the overbearing synagogues of America's suburbia have formed small havurot, groups that meet on Friday night or Saturday morning to pray, discuss Jewish texts and plan social-action activities. Hundreds of these havurot provide a way for Jews to use their spiritual creativity free of the pomposity and fund-raising ethos of so many synagogues.

* Jewish feminists have formed study groups and alternative prayer groups and have developed feminist rituals that have slowly thawed the way that official Jewry understands the Jewish tradition.

* American Friends of Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, the Jewish Peace Lobby and the New Jewish Agenda have all worked to whittle away the notion that the only way to be a loyal supporter of Israel is to support Israel's right wing.

* Mazon, a group dedicated to collecting Jewish money to feed the hungry, has shown that Jewish fund-raising can break out of the narrow "Jewish-interests-only" framework that has straitjacketed Jewish giving in the past few decades.

* A string of gay and lesbian synagogues and prayer groups has begun to challenge the homophobia that was reflected once again in the recent decision of the Conservative movement to bar "commitment ceremonies" for homosexuals.

* Women who are learned in Talmud and other Jewish texts are besieging Orthodox Judaism, committed to taking back their rightful power in the Jewish world without undermining traditional Jewish legal processes. And the creation of an Orthodox Jewish peace movement in Israel, Netivot Shalom, has undermined the simple equation of "observant" with "politically right-wing."

Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society. He is also author of "The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left."

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