A call for U.S. Jewry to return to its roots

September 21, 1998|By Ephraim Buchwald

FROM virtually all vantage points, the Jews of America are experiencing a golden age unparalleled in all Jewish history. Not since the 12th and 13th centuries in Spain have Jewish people anywhere excelled and flourished as have the Jews of contemporary America.

Although the golden age of Spain is considered the pinnacle of Jewish acceptance and communal success, the medieval Jews of the Iberian Peninsula never experienced the level of religious freedom and secular success enjoyed by the Jews living in America today.

In virtually every field of endeavor -- economic, academic, entertainment, civic and social -- the achievements of American Jewry are unprecedented.

Jewish baby boomers who grew up in awe and reverence of the accomplishments of Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Louis B. Meyer and David Sarnoff could hardly have imagined these achievements would be matched, let alone eclipsed, by a future generation of American Jews.

Yet sadly, to paraphrase a recent address by Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, ours is a generation that is uniquely ignorant without precedent in Jewish history; America's Jews are wonderfully educated in the ways of the world, but abysmally ignorant in the ways of our people.

Significant achievement

There are Jews who are thoroughly erudite in the most intricate aspects of astrophysics, Swahili poetry, law and business. Four of the eight presidents of Ivy League colleges today are Jewish and 22 percent of Nobel Prize science winners have been won by Jews -- a people who comprise about two-tenths of 1 percent of the world's population and 2 percent of America's population.

Yet from a Jewish point of view, for all practical purposes, America's Jews are in severe distress and peril. While our parents prayed for a melting pot, Jewish life in America has become a meltdown. How sad this is because with the loss of Jewish values and traditional Jewish training, America's Jews tTC are losing the magic that in so many ways propelled the exceptional achievements of its people.

We're surrendering the qualities that once were inextricably bound to our Jewish identities. As a result, the values for which America's Jews have been renowned for the past 200 years -- exemplary morality and kindness, stable marital and family lives and abhorrence of violence -- are dissolving.

The Jewish High Holy Days call for introspection and evaluation. These "days of awe" are propitious times for U.S. Jews to respond to this daunting challenge. American Jewry, which has rallied for every important ethical and moral cause, should rally for itself. Jews should rally for their Jewish identities and their own survival. And since Jewish learning is a prerequisite for Jewish living, the proper response is a call for Jewish literacy.

Within the past year, Jewish leaders throughout the world, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Congregations and most of the synagogue and Rabbinic bodies of U.S. Jewry are calling for the promotion of Jewish literacy as an indispensable means of strengthening Jewish identity.

Cultural heritage

While there are many valid avenues of Jewish learning, the Hebrew language has always been the primary portal to traditional Jewish training and communal involvement.

Sadly, ours is one of the few Jewish communities in our history to be fundamentally ignorant of Hebrew. All such Jewish communities in history disappeared.

Hebrew should not be a foreign tongue. It is the language of our Torah and our prayer and of Israel. The rebirth of modern spoken Hebrew is surely among the great miracles in the history of languages.

In November, U.S. Jews will have a chance to address this problem through Read Hebrew America/Read Hebrew Canada, a new program designed to teach Jews to read Hebrew. Hundreds of synagogues and groups will offer free crash courses to Jews in five easy to follow lessons.

If we wish to shine in the future as we have in the past, it's such programs as this that all Jews must embrace and support.

A fresh start

Let us pray not only for a happy, healthy new year, but also a year filled with joyous learning of Hebrew as a start for more intensive Jewish learning so future generations may look back on this era and say that it truly was the golden age of Judaism.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald is founder and director of the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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