Brothers in exile
Apparently, over the last century American Jews have managed to create an important historic enterprise: They managed to create the perfect exile.
In the American south, the communities are flourishing. In Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada; in Austin, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. The movement of Jews to the desert, the sun and regions of economic growth is doubling and tripling the Jewish population in these areas. Cities without a Jewish past are now building an active contemporary Jewish presence, with great expectations for the future.
At the same time, Jewish schools throughout North America are going through a kind of renaissance. Nowadays some 200,000 pupils in grades 1-12 attend Jewish day schools. The summer camps are also full of life. Some 66,000 boys and girls will spend much of the summer vacation in the hills of Georgia and at the lakes of Wisconsin singing Hebrew songs and dancing forgotten Israeli dances. Some 20,000 will be sent to Israel on Taglit-birthright israel. This amazing rescue operation, initiated by Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman and Yossi Beilin, shakes up many of the participants, getting them excited as they renew their Jewish identity.
Three or four leading groups are doing best. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC may be under attack, but it has many supporters, and a lot of money and vitality. The American Jewish Committee just celebrated its centenary with much festivity and glory. The Anti-Defamation League is maintaining its position and strength. Even the Hadassah women continue to do wonders in their field. Thus it is surprising to find out that while the old establishment - based on United Israel Appeal and the Jewish Agency - is showing signs of sclerosis, the American Jewish community is so vital and active. Despite all the eulogies, 5.5 million American Jews are graced with organizational abilities and enviable civic spirit. They are the most energetic, influential and best organized minority in the world.
Apparently, over the last century American Jews have managed to create an important historic enterprise: They managed to create the perfect exile. The American Golden Age gave the Jews what no golden age in the past gave them: absolute equality, unlimited freedom, legendary fortunes, unprecedented political power, the freedom to create art and intellectual prosperity. The ability of the Jews to self-actualize themselves as individuals in America and to preserve themselves as a community has turned the story of American Jewry into a historic success. The story does not overshadow the Jewish success in Israel, nor does it compete with it. On the contrary, it nurtures and fertilizes it. The fact that in the second half of the 20th century the Jewish nation managed to renew Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and also establish the perfect exile in the U.S. is what made the last 60 years into one of the most impressive eras in Jewish history.
However, that era is apparently ending. The activism and vitality of organized American Jewry cannot defeat the basic data. The rate of intermarriage is more than 50 percent. The percent of Jews in the overall population has declined to 7.1 percent. Despite the educational renaissance, 80 percent of non-Orthodox youth are not getting any systematic Jewish education. Less than half the Jews are connected to any Jewish community. Only a tenth of the Jews pay regular visits to Israel. Many communities are aging, and traditional organizations are fading. In the absence of a significant and relevant secular-Jewish story, it will be difficult to swim against the current and maintain American Jewish civilization as it has been until now.
The Israeli response to this reality need not be schadenfreude. American Jews are allies without whom it would be difficult for Israel to survive. Without them, contemporary Jewish existence would be poor and lacking. Therefore Israeli Jews should reach out a cooperative hand to American Jews, and make the American Jewish challenge a top priority.
The goal is not aliyah, but rather the existence and flourishing of Jewish communities. The goal is expanding and deepening Jewish education, creating a significant, modern narrative and creating a new global Jewish organization that can deal with the Jewish challenge of the 21st century.
Israel must play a central role in this mission. It must make its contribution to Jewish schools and summer camps, and make sure that every Jewish youth can visit. Above all, Israel must do its part to change its basic approach to American Jewry. The time has come to once again relate to our American relatives as if they were allies, cousins, maybe even brothers.
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