By Dwight Owen Schweitzer
The economic devastation of the Jewish community in Argentina is an example of how a problem becomes a crisis and by so doing focuses the Jewish community here and abroad to help. The economic devastation of Jewish communities in Russia on the other hand hardly produces a ripple as there is little communication emanating from the former Soviet Union where Jews are only recently discovering each other, let alone their links with the larger Jewish community spread as it is throughout the world. .
Since the creation of Zionism in the late 19th century and accelerated by the rebirth of the state of Israel, Jewish life has progressed on ever more divergent paths. Jewish identity, a phrase easily defined a century ago has become increasingly hard to quantify and even the distinctions between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism are continuing to blur, overlap and sub-divide. Yet, there has rarely been a time in our long history when cohesiveness and connection have been more important. It is not simply because of the resurgence of anti Semitism, as unexpected a decade ago as the Holocaust would have seemed in the 1920s, but because our numbers are not growing significantly and the unifying factors among us are becoming less and less discernable. The ‘ties that bind’ are binding less and less. .
Going if not gone is the time when the synagogue was the center of Jewish life and the engine of Jewish identity to which all Jews looked, albeit with different levels of conviction. As a percentage of our population, now estimated to number around 14 million worldwide, fewer and fewer Jews now seek affiliation, let alone active participation in the Temple or Synagogue that in another era would have been the weekly if not daily focus of their lives. Tragically, there is little in the offing to take its place and therein lies a very real danger in the quest for maintaining and indeed increasing Jewish identity and continuity. .
The enthusiasm for the Birthright program, which offers a free10 day trip to Israel for any Jewish young adult between the ages of 18and 25, has drawn thousands of participants from all over the world despite the terrorist threat there. The success of that program and others demonstrate the viability of the state of Israel in and of itself as an engine of Jewish identity and renewal. Whether such a short stay is enough to last a lifetime however misses the point. What is needed I think are new institutions to act as gateways to the old and a refinement of existing pathways to Judaism that make them broader and more accessible to Jewish youth progressively less interested in or informed about why it is so special to be Jewish. Needless to say, the world at large suffers from the same vacuum as well.
While we live in an information age and it is through information that the true story, the contemporary story of the Jews can be told, it generally is not although it is a story full of self-sacrifice and important contributions to the betterment of the world we share. In short it is the story of how we translate our covenant into our every day lives and in the process improve the lives of people of all faiths, even those who we know are our enemies and bent on our destruction. It is the story that includes Jewish and German joint aid to Muslim refugees fleeing Kosovo, aid that is measured in hands and not simply deutschmarks and shekels. It is the ambulances, hospitals and doctors that do not distinguish between Jewish and Arab victims wounded by a suicide bomber.
It is about Jewish doctors and nurses in AIDS ravaged Africa treating the sick while our scientists seek cures for so called ‘orphan’ diseases, usually left untouched by the major pharmaceutical companies. It is about bringing thousands of Black Jews out of war ravaged Ethiopia to a new home in Israel. It is also about the thousands of unsung Jewish men and women to whom the highest calling as a Jew was to make a strangers life better, safer, healthier, longer and, like the masked heroes of my youth, to disappear, leaving as the only trace of their having been there, the good that they left behind.