Service: Redrawing the Face of American Jewry

November 1, 2005
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Koby Oppenheim

Maybe it was a slow week. Staggered blue bars stretched across the front page of the Forward, and a worried title announced growing disinterest in Israel. American Jews are turning their energies elsewhere; a gray forecast strewn with a few glimmers of hope — but is it new?

“I entered a Russian prison, I got out, I moved to Israel, I became a Cabinet minister,” Natan Sharansky remarked, “and the people I work with are mostly the same people.” When these “same people” began campaigning for Sharansky’s release, they were probably the vanguard of American Jewish activism. Merging human rights with Jewish pride, they were on the cusp of a changing world. That they are still leading this community is not the problem; it’s that they’re doing it alone. We have a dearth of young leaders as we also witness a continuing detachment from issues central to American Jewish identity.

As America prepares for a demographic reshuffling, the greatest wealth transfer in its history, and changing threats and values, the future role of our community is increasingly in question. American Jewish leaders’ ability to leverage their vast reserves of experience in guiding our shrinking ranks through these dramatic changes hinges on someone succeeding them. With so many talented young Jews publishing, deal making, and doctoring, why aren’t they plotting our future course?

Waning Jewish identity, surveys and studies tell us, results from declining exposure to Jewish education, Israel, and communal life. As the Holocaust grows distant and our relationship with the State of Israel matures, the pillars of American Jewish identity need reinforcement. Nothing will replace the pain and exhilaration of the last century, but blessed with only knowing persecution and discrimination secondhand, younger Jews need something else to attract their talents and passion. To remedy this, we’ve floated new ideas and tapped our donors. We aren’t lacking initiative or creativity, it seems; we are missing a communal vision.

Who can resist a free trip? This generation grew up on year-round markdowns and file swapping. Trying to reacquaint young American Jews with Israel and themselves, birthright israel attempts to reverse, or at least halt, the trend of disaffiliation and instill a new sense of purpose. While its long-term impact remains to be seen, the biggest, splashiest, and most ambitious initiative in recent years, birthright has reset the bar for communal programming. Birthright capitalizes on several important points: a visit to the Western Wall and Masada is worth several semesters of Jewish Studies courses; spending ten days eating, sleeping, and schmoozing with other Jews builds Jewish community faster than any JCC; and meeting Israelis face-to-face will override the lack of positive news coverage.

But birthright also has its shortcomings. It is, by definition, a birthright: all take and no give. We run the risk of repeating the original birthright story: ” vayochal vayesht vayakom vayelach. ” ( Genesis 25:34) Esau ate, drank, got up and left — just leave off the next few words. No one will accuse participants of scorning the program if they don’t return engaged American Jews. Ultimately, this incredible trip occurs abroad in another time and climate zone.

What is wholly American and Jewish? What holds potential for quality experiences that rival those of a Jewish state? Volunteering. Perhaps trite sounding, but the same surveys that paint gloomy landscapes also tell us that young students have the highest propensity to volunteer among any age group in the Jewish community. In nationwide surveys, Jewish values of community service routinely rank as high, or higher, than Israel as the most compelling aspect of   Jewish identity. *

Opportunities for volunteering are multitudinous. For example, we could focus on immigrant communities that now populate neighborhoods Jews vacated decades ago and face challenges similar to those of our grandparents: adequate housing, accessible healthcare, and quality education. They don’t, however, have a network of Jewish hospitals or the advantages of emigrating from Europe. These challenges aren’t unique to immigrant communities, either. Large swaths of American society confront them daily , and as America begins to navigate a new demographic and security reality — and the accompanying cultural and social challenges — these issues will become only more pressing. Moral leadership and a vision for a society of equal opportunity are begging for takers. Judaism and the American Jewish experience uniquely equip us both to serve our country and community.

At the crossroads of our foreign, economic, and security agendas, environmentalism has metamorphosed into the linchpin of American policy. From reams of statistics and climate maps to farming and recycling, environmentalism offers an array of issues to work on. It recognizes that political borders and linguistic differences are only barriers if we allow them to be — a principle inherent in our identity as Jews as well. “Jewish interests” are by definition as international and diverse as the Jewish community. We advocate for others because we recognize that our identity and future are bound with the identities and futures of other people. Environmentalism shares the same values and offers opportunities to employ our hands, minds, and tradition.

Our relationship with other Diaspora communities typically occurs in short spurts: in times of crisis or vacation. We come when we’re needed or need to get away. These communities, however, face similar challenges to our own; from expanding day school education to grappling with intermarriage, they offer experiences of mutual benefit. Providing a framework for American Jewish volunteers to work in fragile Diaspora communities would provide those communities with our expertise and talent while offering service opportunities for young Jews. More than merely learning about them, seeing different models and experiments in Jewish life has the potential to breathe new vitality into our own community.

Volunteering teaches by doing, helping, and changing, creating community by building on common experiences and shared achievements. The new focus on service-learning programs, both Jewish and nonsectarian, also provides an opportunity for sustained Jewish engagement and education.

Our dual challenges — attracting young leadership and redefining ourselves in light of the Holocaust’s retreating memory and a maturing Israel — may guide us to some resolution. If our current communal leadership came of age with the founding of the Peace Corp, this generation’s reference point is AmeriCorps — where a commitment to volunteer communal responsibility can be enormously powerful. Complementing the emotional charge of Israel with physical involvement of volunteering, we can redraw the face of American Jewry.

* Cohen, Steven M. and Fein, Leonard, “American Jews and their Social Justice Involvement,” AMOS, 2001, 17.

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Koby Oppenheim, a Dorot fellowship alum, is 27 years old. He worked at a Jewish Community Center in Minsk, Belarus as a Jewish Service Corps volunteer (2003-2004) with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Though he lived in New York during the immigration of the early 1990s, he had had few interactions with Soviet Jewry apart from a yearly rally. Seeing Jews from the former Soviet Union transforming communities in Europe and Israel, he realized how important they had become in a changing Jewish world and wanted to experience a part of it himself.

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