Jewish choices beyond the synagogue

Jewish choices beyond the synagogue

Sue Fishkoff explores the emerging ways young people engage

Journalist and author Sue Fishkoff will speak about modern Jewish identity at the Main Event on May 5.
Journalist and author Sue Fishkoff will speak about modern Jewish identity at the Main Event on May 5.

Young American Jews are choosing their own ways to identify with the Jewish community outside of the synagogue, says journalist Sue Fishkoff. That might be through a small, independent minyan, a JCC, or a Jewish school or it could be through an organization involved in righting social wrongs.

“The different ways in which Jewish identity is expressed” will be the subject of Fishkoff’s talk at the Main Event, a fund-raiser for the Women’s Campaign of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

The May 5 event, chaired this year by Shari Bloomberg and Stacie Friedman, is a gala for all women pledging at least $272 to the 2010 Annual Campaign.

As a special correspondent for the JTA based in California, Fishkoff has chronicled the new and surprising Jewish choices being made by young Jews, from the organic farmers and chefs in the “new Jewish food movement,” to the revival of Jewish burial societies, to new activism by Jewish children of mixed-race marriages.

Though Fishkoff grew up in Metuchen and lives now in California, she has been visiting Israel since she was teenager in the 1970s and has lived there for chunks of time. “I still try to go back every year for two or three weeks,” she said.

One of the biggest changes she has witnessed in Israel came not from politics or war but from the introduction of cable TV in the mid-1990s. “It destroyed cafe culture and the face-to-face, small-town community feeling of the country,” she said. “People wanted to stay home and watch the programs on TV.”

Much as she lamented that loss of sociability, it helped open the country up to the outside world. “It isn’t as insular as it used to be,” she said. “It’s become much more a part of the world.”

That combination of insider concern and objective analysis is typical of Fishkoff’s work, which includes The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, about the astounding growth of the hasidic movement and its outreach efforts. Her new book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, examines the booming kosher industry and the inroads it has made beyond the observant Jewish community.

In her early 20s, returning from two years of kibbutz and ulpan life in Israel, she undertook Russian studies in graduate school, and then spent six months in Leningrad. But as fascinated as she was by Russian culture, there were so many other issues that concerned her. She went into journalism, she said, because it offered a way to make a living while investigating them all.

In 1991, she went back to Israel and began writing for the Jerusalem Post. “I wrote stories about its diverse population and the particular needs and challenges that faced recent immigrants,” she said. That was when her Russian came in handy.

She returned to the United States a few years later, she said, because “I was 40 and single, and my mother and sister were living in California.” She worked in New York as a foreign correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and then for JTA.

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