Hope Over the Long Haul

June 4, 2004
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by Jeremy Burton and John Ruskay

Sh’ma recently convened a conversation between John Ruskay, Executive Vice President and CEO of the UJA-Federation in New York, and Jeremy Burton, a Sh’ma Advisory Board Member and Vice President of Programs for the Jewish Funders Network. Susan Berrin is Editor of Sh’ma.

JEREMY BURTON: As someone who has worked in the Jewish communal field for three decades, where do you think we are as a community?

JOHN RUSKAY: When I assumed my present position in 1999, I described our situation as being “post Israel-at-risk.” Like others, I was optimistic that we would emerge from the Oslo process with a successful Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In the context of global economic health, that optimism led to deepening confidence that the entire Jewish community — finding itself in a place of security — could invest in its next challenge: the renewal of Jewish life in North America, the former Soviet Union, and Israel; and the strengthening of bonds and ties among and between our people.

Quite obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way. Not yet. Unrelenting terror has returned Israel to a period of danger and uncertainty. Antisemitism is visible and evident and, quite remarkably, the number of Jewish poor in New York has risen dramatically between 1990 and 2002. And we are responding to increased Jewish hunger in Argentina and elsewhere. In sum, the clouds are far darker than we imagined some years ago. And yet, there are incredible indicators of faith in our future in the form of renewed efforts to strengthen Jewish life worldwide.

JEREMY BURTON: In some ways, aren’t we still struggling with the same issues of renewal and how to create a vibrant Jewish life? How do you stay motivated?

JOHN RUSKAY: Thirty years in Jewish history is a fleeting moment. Thirty years ago represented an important transition — a time when we began to find ourselves living fully in the most open, accepting, and generous society ever. We have arrived at what I believe is the true test of modernity. Until the mid-l960s and early l970s, while we could increasingly attend the best universities and secure jobs in the largest American corporations, there was still an invisible border at the marital canopy that divided the Jewish community and the rest of America. We remained, to some extent, a kept community. Now, this is essentially gone; we live in the most accepting society that we have ever known and virtually all the borders and boundaries have been removed. We have arrived at a moment that our great-grand parents could barely have imagined. The question now before us: Can we live as identified Jews while embracing modernity?

JEREMY BURTON: There are deep parallels between what happens internally in our community and what’s going on externally. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s groups like the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry were driven by the same social and political analyses that influenced the larger cultural and political movements of that time. Today, while Robert Putnam is talking about the lack of connectedness, on the Internet — the Deaniacs, meetup.com, and friendster.com — people are reaching out and creating community. How does this optimism translate into a Jewish context?

JOHN RUSKAY: I’m optimistic about Jewish life because the message of Judaism is powerful and extraordinary. I think often of our tradition to sanctify life, l’kadish oto. This is a message desperately needed by Western culture. We live in a culture where individualism and materialism are running amok. Judaism represents the notion of collective and community — our sense of collective Jewish responsibility for people in need runs counter to the larger society’s unbridled individualism. We are seeking to create what I refer to as inspired and caring communities that provide meaning and purpose for people at all stages of life in unique ways. If we are successful, we will make an abiding contribution both to the Jewish future and to America.

Yet, we are also facing the most profound darkness vis-à-vis America, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel. For people my age, there is an increased recognition that it is possible that peace may not be achieved during our lifetime. This is a sobering possibility.

SUSAN BERRIN: I see fewer people involved in political, Israel-oriented programs, projects, and peace efforts. I know we need a partner for peace-making, but I’m wondering whether any peace initiative feels so formidable and challenging that our creative energies are going elsewhere — like synagogue renewal and education, American-based programs — because we simply feel hopeless focusing on Israel.

JEREMY BURTON: For a sizeable number of younger Jews in the United States, the challenge of resolving Israel’s relationship with her neighbors is just not front-and-center in our minds. It isn’t a negative force in our day-to-day thinking about being Jewish because Israel is not, for many young people, the central factor in how we define our daily lives as Jews.

JOHN RUSKAY: I think people are more engaged and focused on Israel than your statement indicates. In both the most recent National Jewish Population Study and the 2002 New York Community Study, far higher percentages of Jews of all ages reflected their commitment and attachment to the people and State of Israel than most predicted. In 1998 or 1999 — when we thought peace was in sight — there were discussions about mounting a fund-raising effort to focus energies and resources toward longstanding issues in Israel that had been sidelined because of the conflict. And these are the kinds of efforts that will in time renew vision and passion.

JEREMY BURTON: My point is not that young people don’t feel connected to or care about Israel but rather that, while I feel dispirited about Israel, we have other things to be optimistic about at the moment. I’m conscious of not working in an Israel context full-time professionally. Part of that is a deep lack of empowerment — a lack of ability to affect the conversation in Israel. I can be pessimistic about Israel and yet not have it overtake me, in terms of my day-to-day life. Personally, I continue to wonder about how Israel might someday exist as an Israeli state as opposed to a Jewish state. What would be the ramifications for me as a Jew in America? This has to do with my sense of integration, my sense of being an American. And it has to do with my question about how essential a Jewish state is to Jewish identity. And I’m not alone — certainly among my friends in my generation — feeling that Israel is just not the most pressing thing on our minds, and that’s a very troubling statement.

JOHN RUSKAY: The implications of the most negative scenarios are avoided individually and communally because they are destabilizing. Israel is still a source of great inspiration for many. And recent years have shown that Israel needs us — not only as a strategic asset but also psychologically, emotionally, and financially. And we need Israel. Some of our North American Jewish communal self-confidence is based on the assumption of a secure Israel.

It is this assumption that has been challenged in the past three and a half years. Today, we are a more frightened community, a bit less self-confident, much more attuned to every slight — large and small. And this may lead to a reinvestment in those areas where one feels one can have direct impact, which is often closer to home. So the combination of the renewed focus on continuity and identity, along with developments in Israel, may have led to a deepening investment in the local community — energetically if not financially. SUSAN BERRIN: What motivates the next generation of Jewish communal leaders?

JOHN RUSKAY: To be involved as a Jewish professional at the moment is an extraordinary privilege, and I think that’s being reflected by the number of young people, especially in New York, seeking work in our vineyards.

JEREMY BURTON: This may be so for communal leaders who are professionals, but when I think about Jewish communal leadership, I don’t think only of professionals. What is leadership, who are our leaders? Leadership does not need to be driven by professionals. There are incredibly passionate Jews who are bringing passion to their lives outside of Jewish professional ranks. They’re giving their time, money, and energy. They are asking: What can we create that’s missing in Jewish life? They are starting new projects — not just looking for jobs that aren’t available. And they don’t necessarily see themselves as professionals, or communal servants, but rather as Jewish social change activists.

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