September 25, 2003
Turn the Tide
One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.
Looking back over the past year, I see it's a fascinating perk of the job.
Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen -- you get the idea.
Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.
Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.
Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.
There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I've told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness -- and you'd think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don't approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.
So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.
"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.
What we don't seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone's journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other's journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.
The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn't regard as treif.
Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community -- whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir -- we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we've seen enough of in 5763.
Meeting Jews is easy -- this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.
Try it once this year.