For 20 years as a journalist, Sue Fishkoff has often heard a litany of “oy-vavoys” — endless laments about the future of the Jewish people — but what she has seen is something very different from that doom and gloom perspective.
“The Jewish community has never been as creative, more vital, more influential, or more compelling than it is today,” she told an audience at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston on May 5. “I know this from my heart, and it is backed up by research.”
Fishkoff was the keynote speaker at the Main Event, the annual gala hosted by the Women’s Campaign of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Her optimism about the future was reflected in the comments of the organizers and honorees, who also spoke about the dedication of the younger generation of up-and-coming volunteers.
Presenting the Rhoda Rosenbach Young Leadership Award to Lisa Israel, Shari Bloomberg — who cochaired the event with Stacie Friedman and Roseann Levy — said Israel was a standout from a large group. “We had many names to choose from,” she said.
Bloomberg emphasized that the award highlights young leaders’ potential, and Israel picked up on that. She pledged “to work really hard” to fulfill that potential. “There is so much we accomplish through federation,” she said, and proceeded to list her reasons for donating to the organization. Working alone to help those in need, it would be hard to know where and how to help, but federation, Israel said, provides the vehicle for Jews most effectively to help Jews, and non-Jews. “The work of federation touches people’s lives everywhere,” she said.
Israel shared honors with Janice Weinberg, who received the Woman of Valor Award for her multi-faceted leadership with the federation over the past 20 years. Acherai Recognition honors — for those who set a “follow me” example of service — was given to Adina Ziegler and Sibley Hauser, who will receive their awards at the federation’s annual meeting on June 7.
Fishkoff’s upbeat thesis did take some aback. Speaking afterward to NJJN, she said she could feel the initial resistance to her optimism, but then a gradual shift as people began to recognize phenomena she mentioned.
“The pundits have been looking in the wrong places,” she told the federation supporters, their family members, and friends. “They are looking at the old models of Jewish involvement, but as some of the old institutions are decreasing in strength, others are rising.”
She cited rising support in many parts of the country for JCCs, Jewish day schools, and synagogues. She said young Jews are seeking classes in prayer — so that rather than reciting by rote, they actually know what they are saying. They are turning back to Judaism for “spiritual nourishment” and finding a link to their heritage through Hebrew, even if read only in transliteration.
The new modes are not a rejection of tradition, she said; in many cases they are a return to “old school” ways and away from fairly recent trends in Jewish practice. For example, she mentioned some new synagogues that are placing their bimas in the center of the sanctuary, rather than at the front — that more common arrangement, in fact, reflected an aesthetic taken from Protestantism, she said. Traditionally, Jewish worship “was messy and loud,” with “Jews surrounding the Torah,” and some are going back to that style.
Fishkoff writes for JTA, the Jewish syndicated news service, and for a number of years was a reporter for the Jerusalem Post in Israel and from New York. Her latest book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, is about the rising number of non-Orthodox people who are eating kosher food.
She said people are finding personal ways to connect with Judaism, just as they are finding a personal connection with Israel. Old-style campaigners trying to hook them with references to the Holocaust and to Israel’s beleaguered status stand no chance; young Jews — who are visiting Israel in far greater numbers than their parents — know it as a vibrant, successful place, and they take pride in its strength.
However, that personal connection can mean a “me, me, me” focus, Fishkoff said. To bring the young back to a sense of communal Jewish connection, they need to know the value of “giving back to the Jewish community at large.” She urged her audience to be open with their children about the charities they support — “Don’t make it a secret,” she said — and to start them off at a young age giving to causes of their choice.
While they might learn about tzedaka at religious school or camp, she said, “no action has as much power as what we see done from the heart by our loved ones.”