Our Task: To Reinvigorate the National Jewish Spirit

March 1, 2000
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David Altshuler

Carl Sheingold’s essay on the UJC merger asks several critical questions about the direction of this evolving entity. At this important juncture of American Jewish communal experience, what new institutional connections and framework are necessary to address the profound changes taking place in the philanthropic environment? What will be the relationship between individual donors and the public interests and institutions of the Jewish community as they both seek to respond to profound changes in Jewish life? How will the UJC resolve the complex political challenge of “collective responsibility” in order to address communal needs that transcend local realities?

As I write, I have been at the day-to-day job for only eleven business days, so I am hardly qualified to opine on the business/management and political/governance challenges that face UJC as it undertakes to (trans)form itself. The question of UJC’s “historic role,” on the other hand, is what prompted me to become President of its yet-to-be-created Foundation. Trying to imagine what UJC can and should mean in the context of Jewish history came naturally to me, since my first career was as a professor of Judaic (principally classical) studies, and my second was to build a museum about the 20th-century Jewish experience.

Here is how I would construct the “story line” of UJC:

Two thousand years ago, as the Jewish State was being destroyed, Yohanan ben Zakkai eschewed the millennialism of some Jews and despair of others. Instead, he invested in the school of Yavneh and the synagogue. For this reason, Judaism and the Jewish nation survived until our day.

One hundred years ago, as rabble in the streets of Paris shouted “death to the Jew” during the Dreyfus trial, Theodor Herzl gave up the liberalism of his upbringing and became the founder of the modern Zionist movement. For this reason–despite the Shoah–the State of Israel was reborn.

Today, we find ourselves in extremis, though neither because the State of Israel is in danger (it is a superpower by any reasonable measure) nor because Jews are threatened by anti-Semitism in the Diaspora (where we enjoy unprecedented prosperity and power). Rather, our challenges today come principally from within: from indulgence rather than indigence, and from opportunities rather than obstacles. We suffer from internal sectarianism, weakness of will, and disaffection.

The purpose of UJC, I believe, is to address these concerns and build a future for Jewish civilization much the way Yohanan ben Zakkai and Theodor Herzl did in their days. To that end, our most important task is to reinvigorate the national spirit of the Jewish people. While we continue to draw on the venerable strengths of the school, synagogue, and state as vital resources, world Jewry needs as well to nurture other vehicles of collective expression and action.

UJC has extraordinary potential to be such a vehicle, as a secular, voluntary association rooted in local communities throughout North America and linked closely with Jewish life in Israel and throughout the rest of the world. I remain optimistic for several reasons:

  1. The current economic situation has blessed world Jewry with virtually limitless resources.
  2. Modern communications and travel technologies give us unprecedented access to one another regardless of where we live.
  3. As material barriers diminish, the human search for meaning in life appears to persist and even grow.
  4. In the aftermath of the most traumatic and triumphant century of Jewish history, no reasonable person can doubt the significance of our collective responsibility to one another.
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David Altshuler is President of The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, (the working title of UJC's new Foundation.) He held the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at George Washington University until 1986, and he was the Founding Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City until the end of 1999.

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