In his recent piece in Commentary magazine, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tackled a very worthy and critical topic: the disturbingly high cost of Jewish life in America. Unfortunately, he also introduced a puzzling straw argument that the Jewish community’s embrace of service and service-learning programs has undermined its ability to make day school education, Jewish camping, synagogue dues and JCC membership more affordable.
In making his case, Wertheimer reserved particular contempt for a commencement speech I gave last May at JTS. He wrote, “And just at a time when Jewish communal institutions 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. … Last May… at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the commencement speaker exhorted newly ordained rabbis and cantors, along with graduating educators and communal workers, to do nothing less than focus their energies on eliminating poverty and injustice from the world, even as she gave short-shrift to the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish needs…”
But that is not what I did. Instead, I challenged the graduates to go beyond the critically important concerns they already had as rabbis charged with leading our Jewish communities. I encouraged them also to promote global awareness, global responsibility and global citizenship. I made it clear that this is work to be done in addition to all that is already on their plates.
I told them that the world could not afford to have a community as prosperous as ours turn its back on those most in need. I argued that today’s answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” must be far reaching and take into account the notion that we have a special obligation to serve the world’s most vulnerable, regardless of who they are or how they worship.
Wertheimer’s criticism of my remarks is perplexing on many levels, and it is the kind of thinking that will impede the organized Jewish community’s access to large numbers of Jews who cannot and will not be engaged in traditional ways without first encountering, on their own terms, the joys and beauty of Judaism.
Several wonderful programs, such as Project Otzma and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps, enable young people to serve vulnerable Jews in Israel and the diaspora. And other organizations, such as American Jewish World Service, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, and Jewish Funds for Justice, offer opportunities for young Jews to encounter their faith through serving “the other.” While volunteers are on their assignments, they are also encouraged through first-rate curricular material and expertly guided discussions to understand their experience against a backdrop of Jewish text and values.
As somebody who cares as deeply as he says he does about Jewish continuity, Wertheimer should be thrilled that such programs exist to engage young Jews with programming that connects their desire to serve the broader world and, at the same time, strengthens their ties to Judaism.
Whether Wertheimer would like to admit it or not, the American Jewish community enjoys a level of prosperity unrivaled at any point in Jewish history — even during these uncertain times. To argue that our community lacks the resources to increase institutional membership and also support opportunities for Jews of all ages to participate in service of the world’s poor, hungry and sick is to concede that we cannot strive to reach all Jews, wherever they are in their own spiritual journeys.
It is also an admission that we cannot afford to fulfill our moral imperative as a privileged community bound by an obligation to pursue justice for all. This would be a betrayal of our values. And I would also argue that without an array of rich and varied Jewish programming, “Why be Jewish?” is a question that far fewer people would even bother to ask.
Ruth W. Messinger is president of the American Jewish World Service.
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