A leading observer of the American Jewish scene says it is “madness” that Jewish communal institutions seem more focused these days on helping non-Jews than Jews.
Writing in the March issue of Commentary, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, asserts that at a time when Jewish federations and foundations “are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad, the hot trend in Jewish philanthropic and organizational circles, incredibly, is to channel ever more of their resources to nonsectarian causes.”
He writes that “preachers in every corner of the Jewish community are intent on urging the faithful to drop their parochial concerns for the welfare of fellow Jews and instead think globally. How can Jews worry about their own, they ask, when so many unfortunates in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia are suffering even worse afflictions?”
Wertheimer cites a commencement address given to newly ordained rabbis and cantors at JTS last May by Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, in which she said: “What is required first is that we embrace those with whom we do not share a faith or a neighborhood, a country, a language or a political structure.”
(The AJWS, as well as similar groups like Jewish Funds for Justice and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, recognize the trend among young people for hands-on social justice and community service programs and seek to connect that activism to Jewish life.)
To be sure, Wertheimer sees much value in nonsectarian service, and notes with pride that Jews are over-represented when it comes to helping others in need. (The Jewish response following the Haiti earthquake is testament to that.)
But he calls on Jewish groups “to harness this idealism and teach young people that their quest to aid fellow human beings is in fact congruent with the deepest teachings of Judaism.” And he worries that young Jews do not realize how much real need remains within the Jewish community, from poverty among Holocaust survivors to the new poor — former middle-class Jews who have lost their jobs in the last 18 months.
“Given the time we’re in now, when financial and volunteer needs are becoming more acute,” he says, “how do we justify investing more in programs that help everyone but the Jews?”
His lead Commentary article, “The High Cost of Jewish Living,” points out that synagogue affiliation, kashrut observance, day school and summer camp tuition can cost a family with three children more than $100,000 a year. But this fact is largely ignored by federations and other Jewish organizations, in part because such expenses are perceived as a personal rather than a communal matter. Wertheimer says this view is shortsighted, ignoring the value to American Jewish life of “Jews well-versed in their religious culture.”
That leads him to express bewilderment as to why a community strapped for funds would place increasing emphasis on nonsectarian causes, however honorable they may be.
No stranger to controversy, Wertheimer, a former provost at JTS and author of several studies of modern Jewish life in the U.S., champions traditional values of Judaic law, education and family life in his writings while puncturing open-ended pluralism and political correctness, popular trends that he says are leading to “the disintegration of secular American Jewry.”
His articles in recent years, critical of the current state of the Conservative and Reform movements and calling for in-marriage and a higher Jewish birthrate, have been hailed by traditionalists as sober assessments of Jewish life, and criticized by liberal activists as hopelessly out of touch with the times.
Some detractors wonder whether Wertheimer talks to young Jews about their views or simply observes from the ivory tower of academia.
“I meet thousands of young Jews interested in doing service for others and they tell me, ‘This is the value I was given by my parents’ and what it means to them to be Jewish,’” says Yoni Gordis, who directs the Center for Leadership Initiative (CLI), which supports current and emerging Jewish leaders.
He and others note that young Jews define themselves differently than their parents did, seeing their Jewishness as one of multiple identities, and not always the central one.
Gordis says, “We need to build on their positive Jewish identity rather than reject them by saying they have to build new coordinates to replace that identity.”
The Jewish community should be more than pleased that young people want to express their Jewish values through service to others, Gordis says. “This is an ‘on ramp’ rather than a dire warning.”
Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (which funds CLI and numerous other causes, primarily Jewish but also nonsectarian), says he sees the logic in Wertheimer’s argument.
“But Jack suggests this is a zero-sum game and it’s not. It’s great to give to nonsectarian causes; the issue is when Jewish groups or individuals are not giving to Jewish causes. They can do both.”
Wertheimer would agree, up to a point. He maintains that where once the Jewish community could afford, and had the inclination, to support both its own causes and those of other groups, that is less and less the case today. And that is what gives the issue such urgency.
He appreciates Jewish service programs but wants them to go further, insisting that our community is too timid in dealing with the young generation.
“Why are we afraid to push back?” he asks in an interview.
He wants the service programs not only to focus on the Jewish values at the core of the effort (which most groups say they are doing), but also to emphasize “the priority of working for programs that help Jews.”
Wertheimer says he is all for helping the poor in Latin America or Africa, but notes that few Jewish-funded groups help the Jewish needy as well. (The Joint Distribution Committee is one notable example, he says.)
“The challenge is not in getting Jews to engage in service,” according to him, “but in preparing them to give of themselves to their fellow Jews. The fiction is that Jews don’t have needs; the point is there are Jewish needs.”
His larger point is that this lack of support among Jews for Jewish causes is not just characteristic of young people. Fewer Jews are donating to federations each year, and the majority of charitable funds donated by American Jews goes to nonsectarian causes like symphonies, museums and secular universities.
The issue of balance in determining support for one’s own group vs. the larger society goes back to Talmudic times. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel asked, adding: “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Wertheimer and his critics agree on the broad strokes: that Jewish and nonsectarian social service projects should be supported, and that Jewish values should be stressed within the context of work done for social justice. But while Wertheimer insists on reaffirming age-old Jewish traditions and beliefs in giving priority to one’s own — “We’ll lose the next generation if they see the Jewish community as not standing for anything,” he says — his critics say the American Jewish enterprise will be lost unless the community is prepared to adapt to new cultural norms.
The markers are out there, the positions are defined, and time will tell whose position will prevail. In the meantime, one can only note how distant the core values of Judaism have become from most such discussions, with more talk about self-fulfillment and opportunity than obligation and mitzvot.
It’s worth remembering that Moses did not present us with The Ten Suggestions. But that’s not an argument that would sway many young Jews in 21st-century America.