Forging a Golden Age

When the board of the Boston Jewish Federation approved a three-month mini-sabbatical in Jerusalem for its president, Barry Shrage, it wanted to give him a rest after serving for 20 years. Instead, Shrage returned this week to Boston carrying the chapter outlines for a new book - essentially a program for the future of American Jewry, and not just them.

The book has no name yet, Shrage, 60, told Haaretz, "but its subject is creating a golden age for the Jewish people." The title sounds optimistic, especially amid the reports on the situation of American Jews: intermarriage, assimilation and the young generation being disconnected from their Jewish identity.

But Shrage, who has almost four decades of experience managing Jewish communities, is not scared. "To quote Churchill, this isn't the end, not even the beginning of the end, but I think it's the end of the beginning. As far as numbers go, such as synagogue affiliation, we're on the rise, but in indexes relating to connection to the people, we're still on the low end."

Shrage says Jews should liberate themselves from the usual phobias; "the obsession that we'll be destroyed by anti-Semites. And we have to get out of this and gain a broader perspective, not that anti-Semitism isn't a problem," he says. "But we tend to focus too much on the numbers instead of the spirit. Our obsession with numbers is simply not a good thing. The sense is that you have to be a Jew so that there'll be a lot of Jews, but if we just focus on building a vibrant community, the numbers will come by themselves."

Shrage goes even further and questions the threat of intermarriage. "Within 10 to 15 years, most Jews will live in religiously intermarried families, and in such a situation, it is no longer possible to rely solely on ethnicity and continue to be relevant to all these Jews," he says.

"Of course, there is the ultra-Orthodox answer, whereby the basis should be only on Jews who are Jewish according to halakhah, but that's not a practical answer for the Jewish community in America."

Such remarks perhaps would be surprising from a leader of the Reform movement or even the Conservative movement, but Shrage is an observant Jew who belongs to an Orthodox congregation in an upscale Boston suburb, Newton. Contrary to other Orthodox leaders, he has no difficulty integrating his religious beliefs into a community approach.

Shrage analyses the past 100 years of Jewish history in the U.S. "From the start of the 20th century, there was an attempt to be accepted and fit in, and even assimilate, but then it wasn't a negative thing, because in an inherent way we remained Jews, ethnically speaking."

At mid-century, Jews were on the Supreme Court and the high echelons of government and business, and even Harvard had lifted its quota policy. Then Israel entered the picture.

"The miracle of Israel entered our lives, especially in the wake of the Six-Day War, and Jewish strength was restored to us," he says.

"The basis was still ethnic and not cultural, of identifying with Israel and its struggle. So being a good Jew meant donating $1 million to Israel, and we had an obsession with the danger that Israel, and we by association, faced." But then the survey by the General Assembly of Jewish Federations found statistics regarding the next generation's weakening Jewish identity, with over 50 percent intermarrying.

"Only then did we begin a serious dialogue among ourselves over what Jewish life is, how it is possible to be a serious Jew and also be involved in the outside world.

Shrage has focused on this for 20 years. In building what he calls "serious communities" he needed a common denominator to draw people and be broad enough to include all of American Judiasm's religious streams.

The Boston Jewish community presented a special challenge, with 90 percent of the adults there having an academic degree and about half holding advanced degrees. So he strived to promote "Jewish learning," he says. "I wanted to create a situation where these intelligent people would know that Jewish learning is also serious, not just something that they heard from their teacher in third grade."

He developed adult learning programs for people from all streams of Judaism that required a weekly commitment from participants for two years. He says that over 3,000 federation members have already participated. He cites the success of the Taglit-birthright program, which lets every Jew 18 to 26 visit Israel for 10 days.

"The fact that today 30 percent of the young generation visits Israel, specifically the non-religious youth ... is the greatest opportunity American Jewry ever had." Three weeks ago, billionaire Sheldon Adelson announced a donation of $60 million to Taglit to eliminate the program's waiting lists and let every applicant visit Israel within the coming year.

But Shrage recognizes that American Jewry is still at the beginning of the road to a "Jewish renaissance that will include a Golden Age of Jewish learning." He includes Israel as part of this. "For us, Israel no longer has to justify its existence, but it must progress to the next stage, of the joint creation of a perfect Jewish society .... We cannot exist if we will not be a perfect society. That is the ethical argument we owe ourselves; without it the next generation will not want to be affiliated."

Shrage says this is an internal Jewish matter. He says the notion that if Jews do great things the world will love them has been proven wrong. "But we must create a more serious and deeper meaning for ourselves, then American Jews and the Israelis will be interested in being affiliated to it."

For those who think Israelis are more connected to national identity than American Jews, Shrage has a surprising figure. He says the intermarriage rate among Israelis who moved to the U.S. is higher than among Jews born in the U.S.