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Jewish Journal

Always, The Next Generation

June 3, 1999 | 8:00 pm

I suppose it comes under the heading of accident and happenstance, but the response last week of The Jewish Federation to the plight of the Kosovar refugees seems to me very much on target. The Federation's staff and leaders acted quickly and effectively. There was relatively little bureaucracy to be seen, though considerable work and planning was conducted behind the scenes by a hard-pressed staff. To their credit, they found ways for volunteers to reach out a helping hand. The whole, improvised effort offers a useful window from which to view the future.

That future, it should be emphasized, is in need of change. It seems clear, for example, that The Federation will have to market itself to many small and diverse groups. At the moment one idea calls for local Federations to align themselves with a growing number of synagogues, many of whose new members are searching for ways to renew a Jewish identity in America.

Presumably the different community Federations will have to expand some of their current mechanisms -- e.g. the women's and men's divisions focused on fundraising -- and introduce additional programs that involve families working together. A Federation initiative in Los Angeles aimed at helping schoolchildren learn to read might be ideal here. It is currently in the planning stage and will require volunteers -- maybe (a suggestion here) husbands and wives and teen age offspring could all participate, though not necessarily together. There are also other possibilities: Study groups, forums, challenges to the ways in which we relate to one another, as well as to the wider roles we might play in a non-ethnic America; these are all ideas "out there" for The Jewish Federation to test and sample.

This of course barely scratches the surface. The hopeful side in all of this is that national leaders within The Jewish Federation movement recognize the organization must change if it is to survive into the next century. A structural reorganization on the national level has already taken place, with empowerment now delegated to the local communities, whereas in the past it resided with the UJA, the UIA and the national Council of Jewish Federations.

The problem here is that organizational readjustments touch only those who are already committed; that is, members of the Federation bureaucracy and lay leaders, rather than the large majority who still are seen as indifferent. It is in fact a realignment primarily for the current players, without reaching many of those who continue to remain outside The Federation world.

The Federation is still burdened then with a narrowing base of constituent-contributors; still confronted with an older generation of leaders who are beginning to retire, with fewer successors at hand; still competing for who often turn looking to all sorts of American organizations -- Ivy League universities, museums and hospitals, libraries and education programs. Nor are they interested in merely donating money. Many wish to participate; others want to connect with their Jewish roots, hidden from view until recently.

What united Jews in the past generation was a set of commonly shared experiences and perceptions: Of struggling in an America that was anti-Semitic; of remembering images of a Europe callously indifferent to their fate; of recognizing that many who died in the Holocaust were relatives, often unknown but talked about by parents who had been bold and fortunate enough to have fled Europe in an earlier day. Their outlook stemmed from the world they knew in the 30's, 40's and 50's; even in some cases, on into the 1960's.

Their success today looks like the American dream come true. And their contributions, their shaping of The Jewish Federation these past decades as a way to help large numbers of other Jews should not go unremarked: They were instrumental in assisting those in need here; in Israel; and in other parts of the world (e.g. Russia, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, the Balkans) who were oppressed and/or discriminated against.

But I believe The Federation served another purpose as well. It became a way for many of these benefactors to reify their identity as Jews. In some cases they had discarded the more traditional forms of observance in their daily lives, had moved away from the rituals of Judaism. That had been their ticket of admission to America. In The Jewish Federation movement they discovered a way to knit past and present together.

Ironically, one result of the philo-Semitic America that has emerged these last two decades has been that many younger Jews do not feel the need to become active within Jewish organizations. The rallying cry of anti-Semitism, the images of the Holocaust are less effective today, even as knowledge of survivors and victims who perished becomes more familiar and widespread. These after all are young men and women unfamiliar with the Second World War, and with no recollection of a time when Israel did not exist.

I realize as I write these words that there is a personal subtext present for me. I remember, as though it were yesterday, meeting my father years ago for lunch in New York. It was, as they say, another time and another place. And a different America. We talked about friends and relatives; about his and my summer plans; about my recent honeymoon; things like that. Then in a shift that caught me unaware, he invited me to join his men's club.

It actually was part of a large national fraternal order, with a philanthropic core at its center. But in reality it served as a social club for him and his friends, all of whom had been president at one time or another, and who acted as the organization's power brokers. Now that you're a married man and so an adult, he began, warming to his favorite theme, well, maybe almost an adult, perhaps I should put you up for membership. It was said casually, almost as a throwaway line. Who knew, he joked, ten or fifteen years down the road I too might become the presiding officer.

There was one problem: I did not want to belong. It was his world... and it reflected attitudes and a style that I associated with his America, not mine. And I would always be viewed as his son there. I tried to decline gracefully, murmuring regrets and seeking to buy time: I was newly married; there was the press of work and career; not possible at the present moment. We both put a good face on it. Two years later my father was dead.

I wish I had been able to see more clearly those many decades ago when I turned down my father. I am not sure I would have behaved differently. But I would have liked to have shared some of these thoughts with him. I suspect he would have found a way to bring us together. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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