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Shul grants aim to boost Jewish ‘family’ ties
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Shul grants aim to boost Jewish ‘family’ ties

Education Partnership hopes to promote ‘mutual responsibility’

Robert Lichtman, executive director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, worries younger Jews are losing their connections to the wider Jewish “family.”
Robert Lichtman, executive director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, worries younger Jews are losing their connections to the wider Jewish “family.”

Worried that Jewish communal ties are fraying, the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life is investing in “peoplehood.”

The Partnership, the educational arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, is offering four $1,000 grants to area synagogues for programs that encourage mutual responsibility among Jews.

The Partnership is calling on synagogue leaders to apply for the “Areyvut” grants by Monday, May 2.

Areyvut is a Hebrew word that means interconnection,” said Partnership executive director Robert Lichtman. “There is a phrase that says, ‘Every Jew is responsible one for the other.’” The concept calls for people “to be so connected that you really can’t tell one Jew from another.”

The grants are a response in part to recent surveys suggesting younger Jews do not feel “family” ties to fellow Jews and are as likely to become involved in universal causes as they are Jewish causes.

One such survey, by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, found that even among those working for the Jewish community, some 88 percent of the older generation expressed a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” compared to 66 percent among younger Jews.

“There is a marked difference in the level of connectedness and responsibility that younger professionals feel toward the Jewish community,” said Lichtman. “I think it is because over the last 20 or 25 years the Jewish community has been so out front in a positive way about promoting tikun olam, which is the Jews’ responsibility for the whole world.

“That message has overshadowed areyvut.”

Lichtman also pointed to a trend in local bar and bat mitzva service projects that focus on universal causes. Similar trends around the country have led to a heated debate, at Jewish conventions and in media outlets like eJewishPhilanthropy.com, over Jewish communal priorities.

Balancing obligations

The family foundation of UJC MetroWest president Gary Aidekman is providing the funds for the pilot program.

“I’ve had for several years a growing concern that what was always an important Jewish value was being ignored in Hebrew schools,” Aidekman said. “The concept of Jewish mutual responsibility was not getting the kind of mention I thought it needed. The philosophy that ‘We care about everybody and there is no reason to have any special interest in taking care of our own’ is more and more gaining currency in our own community and nationally.”

Aidekman sees the Areyvut effort as righting a balance.

“I don’t want to ignore the rest of the world,” he said. “I don’t believe that we are supposed to do that or that Jewish tradition teaches us to do that. But I wanted to get the message across that we can’t ignore our own people, and taking care of them is an important thing to do.”

Lichtman said the request for program proposals “is purposely vague.

“It would be arrogant for us to say what they should do,” he said.

But he suggested that initiatives could include speakers, field trips, or early childhood program components that emphasize Jewish responsibility for other Jews. The fund will also consider direct service projects, like work with seniors at the Jewish Community Housing Corporation residences or children in JCC MetroWest programs.

The synagogues that apply must pledge to match the $1,000 grants.

“You can do a lot with $2,000,” said Lichtman. “We are going to have to discuss how to measure its success, maybe with questionnaires beforehand and afterward to see whether consciousness has been raised. We are hoping for denominational and geographic representation, but we are going to choose based on which synagogues are the most committed to this goal.

“I will know it is a success when the word ‘areyvut’ is as popular as the phrase tikun olam.”

Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown was a prime mover in the drive to have UJC and Partnership leaders begin a program to promote areyvut.

In an April 3 e-mail, Rossoff said that Jews are connected in a “meta-mishpacha,” or extended family of faith and fate.

“With relationship comes obligation,” he wrote. “We need to be there for others, both within the family and beyond it; but, as in our individual lives, family comes first. As Hillel reminds us, even as we can not be only for ourselves, we do indeed need to be ‘for ourselves,’ for if not, who will be?”

Like Aidekman, Rossoff spoke of balancing the universal and the particular.

“For me, areyvut is a subset of tikun olam, an essential part of our obligation to make the world a better place, balancing our obligations to fellow Jews with our obligation to help all of God’s children and God’s creation,” he wrote. “I am hoping that this endeavor will help restore some of that balance.”

Those seeking more information may contact Lichtman at the Partnership at rlichtman@thepartnershipnj.org.

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