Communal life after the recession

We need new ideas — and ideals — to meet radical change in the Jewish world

By Jonathan Sarna, July 23, 2009

In today’s Jewish communal life, as individual needs rise and communal means fall, different sectors of the Jewish community are busy lobbying for their particular areas: human services; education; youth tours etc.
As the recession takes hold and large, wealthy donors, who have historically dominated Jewish philanthropy, are cutting back, new technologies are being utilised to re-engage small donors. And in the United States at least, Jewish organisations are merging with non-Jewish organisations. Today, it seems, Jews are becoming confident that deals can be made with secular non-Jewish or even avowedly Christian bodies, without Jewish identity being lost.

In the wake of Madoff and dissatisfaction with vast executive salaries and expenses, higher ethical standards and greater transparency are being demanded in Jewish philanthropy, too, with less reliance on the wisdom of small, wealthy cliques.

As jobs disappear in the diaspora, we can expect to see both demographic decline and greater aliyah. Demographic decline frequently accompanies prolonged downturns: people simply do not feel secure enough to have children. And, with unemployment for young people at the highest levels in decades, no wonder that, as the JC recently reported, the recession has seen British aliyah at its highest for a quarter of a century.

Israel is now overtaking the US as the largest Jewish community in the world. Already there are more Jews in Greater Tel Aviv than in Greater New York. Population shifts of this sort occur rarely in Jewish history: Israel to Babylon, Babylon to Spain, Spain to the German lands, the German lands to Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe to the United States, and now back to Israel. We are moving towards a two-centred model of Jewish life — akin to Babylon and Jerusalem in rabbinic times.

The vast majority of the world’s Jews have been affected by the downturn because they live in a very small number of countries. The Jewish demographer Sergio Della Pergola reports that 81.3 per cent of world Jewry lives in just two countries: the United States and Israel. Most of the 200 or so countries of the world, including several where Jews had lived for millennia (Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia) are now completely barren of Jews, or have tiny, unsustainable communities.

The bulk of diaspora Jews have abandoned underdeveloped countries (like Yemen), and unstable, dangerous countries (like Afghanistan) and now live in the world’s most economically advanced countries. Yet this comes at a price: while most of the world’s great religions are expanding, Judaism is contracting. We Jews, who invented the very concept of a diaspora, are reducing our exposure to the larger world and practising consolidation.

So, what does the future hold? One week, we hear that intermarriage is going through the roof, and the next that new Jewish day schools are bursting at the seams.

Will the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about? Certainly, one emergent trend is that of “sweat equity” — young, creative, technologically savvy Jews giving time to causes that inspire them. Expect to see more of this in the months ahead.

But the great causes that once energised contemporary Jewry — immigrant absorption; saving European, Soviet, Arab and Ethiopian Jewry; creating and sustaining a Jewish state — have now been successfully completed. For the first time in living memory, no large community of persecuted Jews exists anywhere in the diaspora. Twenty-first-century, young western Jews are unlikely to gain the kind of meaning from helping Israel, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism as their parents did.

There is no shortage of secular and universal causes that young Jews can embrace — conservation, environmentalism, ethical treatment of animals, and the like. These are significant causes, with a sound basis in our tradition, but they are not, ultimately, Jewish causes.

Diaspora Jews are the poorer for not having a well-defined, elevating mission to inspire us. Once the economic downturn is behind us, the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community needs to be high on our collective agenda.

Jonathan D Sarna is professor of American Jewish history and director of the Hornstein Jewish professional leadership programme at Brandeis University, USA. This article is an edited extract of the 2009 William Frankel Memorial Lecture delivered at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Last updated: 11:02am, July 24 2009