Looking back over 2012 and ahead to 2013 — halfway through my 20th year in this post and completing my 40th in Jewish journalism — I sometimes grow weary, feeling that, to paraphrase King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “There are no new headlines under the sun.”
Major news stories about Israel and the Mideast can seem all too familiar to those of decades past as we report on a new round of fighting with the Palestinians, how isolated the Jewish state is at the United Nations, the strong criticism of Jerusalem’s policies on the settlements, Arab refusal to join peace talks, and Israeli leaders warning that Iran is on the verge of completing a nuclear bomb, etc.
Closer to home, there are the familiar headlines like:
♦ “Gap Growing Between American And Israeli Jews”
♦ “Intermarriage, Assimilation Patterns Raise Concerns About Jewish Future”
♦ “How Can We Make Hebrew School A Positive Experience?”
♦ “American Jewish Community Aging, Shrinking”
♦ “Rabbi Accused Of Sexual Abuse; Media Blamed For Lashon Hara”
Worrisome and tiresome, yes.
But much as we Jews seem to prefer our news to be bad all the time, not all of it is depressing. Far from it. The fact is that there are powerful positive trends as well, if we just look for and acknowledge them.
Case in point: For all of Israel’s diplomatic worries, it has become recognized and admired widely as the “Startup Nation,” where pluck, ingenuity and smarts have helped account for remarkable successes in the high-tech, medical and scientific fields. As much of the world has suffered through serious economic recession, Israel’s economy remains relatively unscathed. And while it continues to face serious security challenges in an increasingly chaotic Mideast, its military is strong and its society continues to show resilience and optimism in the future.
Yes, I worry that in many ways the divide between us — between American Jews and our Israeli cousins — is growing because many here feel either feel less involved with the Jewish state than their parents or grandparents did or are troubled by its current right-leaning policies that have contributed to its status as a political pariah in the international community.
But it is also true that recent programs like Birthright Israel and Masa, with their short and longer-term visits to Israel, are strengthening ties between younger American and Israeli Jews who, whatever their politics, are meeting and staying in touch through Facebook and other social media. For them, Israel is not just about policies and politics, but about relationships with real people they’ve met and liked. That marks a new and deeper level of personal connection that can last a lifetime.
While many longtime mainstream Jewish organizations are struggling not only financially but for relevancy in a new century, there is an emerging energy that is palpable in the scores of inventive programs and projects launched in the last decade, from G-dcast (sophisticated, animated Bible stories) to MyJewishLearning (an in-depth website for information) to Moishe House (dozens of partially subsidized living quarters around the world promoting Jewish social ties for young people).
Pick up or download a copy of the latest annual edition of “Slingshot: A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation,” to learn more about some of the 173 groups that have been founded, and profiled, in the last 10 years.
And think about how social media, technology and a flat world have opened the door to wider and deeper connectivity.
So here’s the headline I’d come up with on Jewish life for the new year: “Growing Signs of Assimilation — and Advancement.”
As Jews move in two opposite directions, away from and towards engagement, we are becoming an increasingly complicated and diverse people with fluid definitions, from what it means to be “pro-Israel” to “who is a Jew?”
One of the most important stories of 2012, and one to continue following, is the results of the Jewish Community Study of New York sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York. As widely reported, it found that about one-third of our community describes itself as “just Jewish,” and has little interest in organized Jewish life; more than one-third of the community is Orthodox, and the largest part of that group is haredi, seeking to separate from rather than identify with much of the Jewish community; and about one-third of the community identifies as Conservative or Reform, with their numbers going down.
Sobering news, indicating growth at the two extremes of the spectrum and a weakening in the middle — once considered the core.
But one could also conclude that these trends indicate the next steps on an ever-winding American Jewish path, requiring an acknowledgment of reality and commitment to reinvent ourselves, albeit in new, unseen ways.
We can bemoan what has been lost or focus on the future, working to create and ensure a Jewish life of mitzvot, meaning and moral values. Which is what Judaism gave to the world all those many thousands of years ago.
King Solomon was right: we’ve seen it all before, been there, done that. But if we face challenges with a fresh perspective, learning from the past, we have the potential to adjust, adapt and advance Jewish life in 2013, and well beyond.
Happy New Year.