Addressing local Jewish leaders June 1, Joshua Schwarcz took a page from Dickens.
“This is the best of times, and the worst of times” for Israel and for the Jewish people as a whole, said Schwarcz, the secretary-general of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Addressing the annual board meeting of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Schwarcz said Jews around the world are doing as well as they have ever done, but both the Jewish people and the Jewish state face major challenges.
He said he sees communities like Central, with a vibrant Jewish and Zionist connection, in various parts of the world. Though the Jewish Agency is watching with caution the events in countries like Tunisia, Iran, and Venezuela, where conditions could change abruptly, “very few Jews are living in danger, and there are no Jews who can’t make aliya if they want to.”
But that in itself poses a problem, he said. Immigration depends on “push and pull” factors, and without the “push” of negative ones, “Israel faces a great challenge.”
Some 20,000 made aliya this year, he said, but unless that flow is sustained and increased, Israel won’t be able to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority. The percentage regarded as a necessary minimum by its founders is 80 percent, and it stands now at 77 percent. Counting the populations of the West Bank and Gaza, that figure comes down to 50 percent.
“In the Diaspora, 500 people a day are assimilating,” Schwarcz added. While in the smaller communities with strong Zionist leanings, the rate is lower, in the large ones — like the United States and even more so in Russia — it is very high.
Also, he said, efforts to delegitimize Israel are growing and bringing on a new anti-Semitism. “It affects our young people,” he said. “It’s hard to defend what you don’t know and don’t care about.”
Schwarcz, who made aliya from Canada 21 years ago at the age of 20, said that in Israel itself there is a problem with Jewish identity. Many young Israelis lack a sense of connection to the wider Jewish community. On the other hand, there is a danger posed by the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox. It is vitally important, he said, that Israel remain “open, pluralistic, and liberal,” so that Jews in the Diaspora “are comfortable coming to Israel.”
To address those issues, JAFI has a two-pronged approach. It is involved in bringing young Jews to Israel — for Birthright, and for longer academic programs — and it is sending young Israelis to other countries, to promote a positive image of Israel in Jewish communities and on college campuses, to help Jewish students defend the country.
Through their exposure to Americans, and meeting those visiting Israel, they also develop a greater sense of connection to the global Jewish community.
He said that if Jews rise above the local level and work together “strategically and globally, on the international level, collectively we can do amazing things.”
In her state-of-the-federation address, president Julie Lipsett-Singer described how the Central community is connecting on that global level, and also strengthening its local outreach. She announced two measures of success: The annual campaign is $100,000 ahead of where it was last year, and more donors have contributed to it.
One of the most successful new initiatives, she said, was the Central Pass program launched before the High Holy Days last year. Unaffiliated families and people new to the area were invited to attend services for free at participating synagogues. “Ninety people signed up for the program,” she said, “and at least one dozen joined a congregation.” She also mentioned a “Public Sphere Judaism” undertaking, through which the federation set up information tables at public events and outside places like supermarkets. That resulted in 200 new names added to its database.
Pursuing its goal to be “a convener and a collaborator,” the federation last year specifically earmarked a portion of its grants to agencies and synagogues for programs designed to bring in new people and strengthen connections.
Lipsett-Singer touched on the subject of the proposed merger between the Central federation and its neighbor to the north, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. She said, “There is no substantial news yet,” but — under the leadership of Bob Kuchner and Don Rosenthal on the Central side, subcommittees with members from the two communities are “looking for synergies, to see if it makes sense to have a merger.” She said they are hoping to make their recommendations by the fall.