May 8, 2003
When Jewish Is Too Jewish
I was in Washington, D.C., this week and had a meeting with a senior officer of the World Bank, who is from Bombay. As we ate our dinner, the conversation turned to ethnicity.
He told me he was from the Brahman caste. I told him I was Jewish and clearly not from the Brahman caste of our people (as if no one can figure that out). He commented that his wife was Jewish, and they are raising their kids in both identities.
He then said something very upsetting but yet understandable to my ears. His oldest son, who attends an Ivy League university, is now turned off to Judaism and turned on to being a Hindu.
He began college open to his Judaism. Several times he attended meetings of Jewish organizations on campus and always walked away with the same feeling. All he heard at the meetings was about the Jewish world and Israel.
In contrast, when he attended meetings of the Hindu students, they spoke of India and Hinduism, but they also spoke about the world, American society and the issues on campus, which had nothing to do with their ethnic identity. As a result, his son now feels that to be Jewish is to live in a very closed-in world of Jewish concerns, where people relate only to the particular and not to the universal.
I know what he is saying. There are times I walk away from a Jewish event or an evening with friends who are also active, committed Jews, and I say to myself, "It's Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish."
In a recent study by the Charles and Andrea Bronfman philanthropies of the new generation of young Jews in their 20s and 30s, they have learned that many of those who are business and cultural leaders in that generation have reached the same conclusion as my friend's son. They are positive about their Jewish identities, but they don't relate to the core group of active Jews or their Jewish offerings. They feel that the Jewish world is narrow, insular and out of touch with the larger society.
The study was done through focus groups with hundreds of participants randomly chosen in major cities across America. In each group, the findings were always the same.
When the subject matter finally turned to Jewish issues, people commented on warm feelings and sense of pride toward their Jewish identity. But when asked about the organized community and its activities, they said it did not relate to their lives or interests.
They further commented that they live in a diverse world, interacting with friends and colleagues who come from many backgrounds, with whom they share many cultural experiences. They feel that the Jewish world, as it is presented to them, is narrow.
Now, key participants from these groups are meeting in three-day retreats, brainstorming ideas that they believe would attract people like themselves into a deeper Jewish life experience and strategizing how to fund these new approaches.
I believe their feelings about the organized Jewish community have validity. Many of us who are among the core of activist Jews are losing our balance. We are passionate and concerned about Judaism. We fear for the future of the Jewish world. We work in Jewish causes. But we are forgetting we are part of a broader humanity and a broader culture.
We are losing our ability to relate beyond our particular, to embrace diversity beyond our own, to experience life outside the Jewish box. We believe that our Judaism goes with us everywhere. But is our Jewish identity meant to surround us and protect us from the world or to be our foundation through which we open to the world?
There are times I find in conversations with other involved Jews that the only novels we read are about Jewish subjects. Our houses are filled with kitschy Jewish art. We don't go to concerts unless it is a performance group from Israel or some other area of the Jewish community.
Our children have gone from day school to an Israel experience to a Jewish college experience and then into Jewish professionalism without their feet ever touching soil outside the Jewish community. After Friday night Shabbat, our Saturday night experience is a Jewish event. Our conversations are only about Jewish subjects.
Does our Judaism mean we only know about the issues of Israel, anti-Semitism, how America effects Jews, Torah study and observance? Or does it mean that as Jews, with this knowledge and these concerns, we integrate with the broader society, able to be active and conversant about global issues, our cities, our society and culture?
Are our families, shuls and organizations the entire framework of our existence? When the Columbia space shuttle blew apart, did we only relate as supporters of Israel and saddened Jews and not as citizens of a world family?
At times, I feel we are moving back into the shtetl and voluntarily closing the gates at night. What I believe we are doing is not only separating ourselves from the world but separating ourselves from the 90 percent of Jews who don't relate to organized Jewry. We are open to those Jews and embrace them but only as they come inside our gates.
This is not good for the future of the Jewish world. Closing ourselves off in order to protect our identity and living only within our vibrant core will destroy us quicker than assimilation.
We will become irrelevant to the vast majority of Jews and the world. Ask the uninvolved Jews of the next generation. They are our lifeline to the future. We need to remain vibrantly universal in order to thrive in our particular.
This was driven home to me in a very serious way last month, when I attended the Aspen Institute. I was invited to participate in the Socrates program, a three-day seminar about leadership in America.
Prior to arriving, I often found myself reflecting upon my two years' participation in the Wexner Heritage Foundation, an experience that changed my life. I could not imagine that anything would possibly touch me as deeply as Wexner, as the Jewish subject matter, as the rabbis and teachers, the bonding between the participants and my ongoing Torah study.
However, in three days, Aspen did. The readings touched me. The facilitator, a non-Jewish professor from the Sloan School at MIT, moved my soul. The bonding between the diversity of participants was as deep as anything I had experienced through Wexner.
There was a moment during the seminar, that as an educated and passionate Jew I was able to cite a passage in Pirke Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers") relevant to the discussion, bringing it to another level for everyone involved. I realized in this way, I am fully participating in my Jewish identity to be part of the world.
I learned much from the Aspen experience but nothing more important than the critical nature of balance between the particular of my Judaism and the universal of our society.
Balance, I am learning for myself, must be the ongoing companion to the passion of my Jewish identity. It is for me what brings a fullness to my Jewish soul.
Today, when I walk away from an event or social evening that is just Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, I say to myself, it really wasn't very Jewish.
Gary Wexler is an advertising executive and consultant to Jewish agencies