Sometime after the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 a sense of dread spread over many American Jews. The survey revealed a steep increase in intermarriage, and Jewish leadership grew fearful that Jewish identity would weaken and American-Jewish continuity would be at increasing risk.
Perhaps without sufficient urgency or resources, the organized Jewish community responded. Continuity, outreach, and in-reach became buzz words across the country. Jewish day schools moved further up on the community agenda. Revitalizing Jewish camping became a greater focus. Several mega-donors joined together and created Birthright Israel.
The result? Success — of a sort. Look no further than popular culture. Comedian Adam Sandler first sang the “Chanukah Song” in 1994, celebrating all those cool celebrities with Jewish roots or spouses. Two more versions followed. On-line magazines like Jewcy and record labels like JDub aimed at the young Jewish market grew in popularity. Identifying as a Jew became hot, cool, and in.
But something odd happened on the way to this revitalization of Jewish identity. Commitment to peoplehood and the welfare of the Jewish people atrophied. No longer does responsibility for the needs of fellow Jews take precedence over or is even deemed equivalent to the needs of others. Through indifference and a misunderstanding of the American value of equality (a very Jewish value we call b’tselem Elohim) the basic tenet that a Jew should/must help a fellow Jew in need has been diminished.
How many in our community from Baby Boomers on down even know the Talmud’s instruction that “All Israel is responsible one for the other”? Worse still, giving special attention to meeting internal needs is viewed in some circles as unethical. As the young head of JDub has said, “The age of peoplehood is over. If peoplehood means that we feel a connection to all Jews, we are all stuck,” because young people “feel responsibility to all people, and some might feel that that idea of peoplehood might be racist.”
Why did this happen? We were so focused on identity for identity’s sake that we failed to teach, promote, and stress a key Jewish value: Jewish mutual responsibility, or areyvut. We failed to teach it, to model it, and to provide the experience of it. We did a great job in inculcating Judaism’s universal values and in universalizing our particular, inward-directed values. But we forgot to emphasize that being Jewish should include a deep sense of peoplehood…a sense centered in shared destiny and internal caring.
So blinded by our desire to keep Jews Jewish we forgot the reason we and the world need to have a strong Jewish people. We are a people with a purpose, not just a religion or ethnicity. We forgot to emphasize that we are to be a light unto the nations. And our role requires us not only to model how to treat those outside the group but also those within. A critical and effective tool for repairing the world is showing others how to take care of their extended family, their people.
An ethical people does not abandon its family, close or extended. Moreover, if we are to set an example of ethical behavior we need to be conscious of what other peoples think — and what will they think of us if we ignore our own needs and needy?
Fortunately, many of us have begun to wake up. The Jewish Agency for Israel, our partner in Israel, is prioritizing peoplehood as a critical part of its mission. It will still be the central address for aliya and resettlement but it will expand its peoplehood efforts to build more living bridges and cooperative efforts among world Jewry to help Jews in need worldwide.
The Joint Distribution Committee is increasing its efforts to provide volunteer opportunities to help Jews in need living in the FSU and elsewhere.
Here in MetroWest we are making a concerted effort to provide volunteer opportunities and b’nei mitzva projects that focus on helping our fellow Jews. Moreover, led by our MetroWest Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, we are beginning to explore ways to promote and inculcate the critical value of Jewish mutual responsibility in our young people and, more broadly, across the community.
But we need your help. The founders of this wonderful country declared that all men and women are created equal. And it is true. But in our homes, synagogues, and around the community we need to proudly explain to our children, our family, and friends that giving special attention to one’s own is not antithetical to that value, is not politically incorrect or worse, immoral. Rather, so long as we do not exclude helping others, the act of caring for your own is to be admired and emulated.
Building on Hillel’s wisdom we say, “If we are not for ourselves who will be? If we are only for ourselves what are we?” If “identity” comes at the expense of peoplehood, we will have failed in our mission to ourselves, and as a light for all nations. What meaningful identity will we have without internal caring? Can “we” be a model if we don’t take care of “us”? We must not let the light we provide to the world dim by failing to take care of our own.