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The American Jewish Experience: An Experiment In Freedom

The American Jewish Experience: An Experiment In Freedom

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of the talk delivered Dec. 1 at the Touro Synagogue in Providence, R.I., marking the 250th year of its founding.

I am honored to be here to offer words on the 250th anniversary of the Touro Synagogue. As we celebrate this historic occasion, I want to take a moment to imagine what those first 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families who came to Newport in 1658 would think if they could see us here today. For more than a century a small community of Newport Jews worshipped in rooms, in private homes before they could even afford to build a synagogue – this synagogue – which they dedicated on Dec. 2, 1763. The promise of that moment has been realized beyond anything those people standing right here 250 years ago could have possibly imagined. How blessed we are to be living in this moment.

For the next few minutes I would like to reflect upon this promise. The promise of liberty and freedom that has made this country a unique experiment in human history and the setting in which the most creative and successful Jewish community in history has emerged…the American Jewish community.

As I thought about why I should offer these words today it struck me that in a serious way my story embodies the promise of this country for Jews.

So let me share a bit of my story. I was born in Baltimore – forbears immigrated here in the 1860s and 1880s – raised in a traditional Jewish family – parents and uncles were active in the

Jewish community – father and uncles founded what is today one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country – Beth El Congregation.

Educated at Johns Hopkins University and Wharton graduate school – returned to Baltimore to be the first Jew hired by the leading trust bank. Active in local Federation as chairman of the Young Leadership Council – recruited by Salomon Brothers in New York to start a stock research department and the rest is history – obviously a fortunate young man who had unlimited opportunities in this great country.

Most significantly I had the privilege to chair three great institutions…. Johns Hopkins University, The Jewish Museum and UJA-Federation of New York.

Only in America could we have these sorts of institutions and only in America could someone like me have the honor of leading each of them. The promise of liberty and freedom that Jews first experienced here in this synagogue has been realized in our complete integration into the culture, politics, and texture of America. For the first time in Jewish history, we do not have to

live a split consciousness. We are Americans and we are Jews.

Let me explore for a few minutes, in honor of those Jews of the Touro synagogue who first felt this promise of liberty and freedom, why the American Jewish experience is different from all other experiences and why the American Jewish community is perhaps the most important Jewish community in Jewish history.

America Is Not Exile

I want to suggest three qualities that are a consequence of the unprecedented freedom we enjoy that have literally altered Jewish history.

First, America is the only place Jews have ever lived where the traditional categories of Judaism do not fit. For more than 2,000 years Jews made sense of the world through the categories of

Exile from the Promised Land and our Return Home. Wherever we lived we were “Other” — either wanderers, strangers, or tolerated guests at best.

The American experience is a complete reversal of this paradigm.

America is not exile. In every other place Jews have lived the dominant conditions were – persecution, poverty, and

Powerlessness. Here in America we enjoy unprecedented freedom, affluence, and power.

According to all studies, including the most recent much discussed Pew study, we are the most educated, wealthiest, and powerful Jewish community in history – and the most successful

minority in America.

America simply fits no categories in our tradition. It is neither The Messianic Promised Land we prayed for nor in any way the Exile every Diaspora has been. America is home and so here we are inventing, we are creating new categories in Jewish history and thought…a new adventure in our covenantal adventure.

To put this in the most direct terms: According to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in his extensive study of American religion, “American Grace,” Jews are the most respected religious group in America.

Not Led By Rabbis

The second distinguishing quality of the Jewish American experience is that in every other place we lived in the past 2,000 years rabbis were the authorities in Jewish life. There wasn’t even a rabbi in America until 1840 when Rabbi Abraham Rice came to my hometown (Baltimore). Not until almost 200 years after the first Jews arrived here did the first rabbi arrive. Because Jews were free from religious authority, Jewish life, practice, and community has been defined and determined by the people and for the people.

This freedom has inspired and spurred innovation, invention, and improvisation of personal and communal expressions of Jewishness. Only in America do we have a myriad of forms of Judaism.

Along with all these inventions there has been an explosion in Jewish rituals, Jewish practice, prayer, music, art, theology, literature, books and scholarship than any time in Jewish history.

The liberty and freedom of America, externally because of freedom of church and state and internally because rabbis never had authority in the community, has created a pluralist, unprecedented flowering of Jewish expression. And in the spirit of America’s entrepreneurial ethos and belief there are always new vistas to explore – a constant churning of institutional and

organizational change. Federations, Day Schools, Summer Camps, JCC’s, Museums, Jewish Studies Departments, Hillels, and Jewish advocacy and affinity groups and clubs in every field and domain from medicine to law to politics to art to music to sports.

The range of ways to be Jewish – religiously, spiritually, politically, philanthropically, socially and culturally, is astounding. And no matter what kind of Jew one is or how one organizes there is a place in the tent of American Jewry for everyone for no one has the power to exclude Jews from the body politic.

In America, creativity and innovation are the modes of preserving and continuing a 3000-year-old tradition.

Jews At The Center

Finally, in every other place we have lived – even in good times – we have essentially been a people dwelling alone. Uniquely, as much as we have been shaped by America, America is a place we have shaped with our values and sensibility. America is as much our creation as anyone else’s. We are not guests here.

Jews have been at the center of every political movement in this country — liberalism, capitalism,

neo- conservatism, feminism, socialism, labor unions, civil rights, anti-war, environmentalism.

We have shaped finance in Wall Street as well as founded the modern department store and contemporary mall on Main Street.

Some 15 percent of all the faculty of our major universities as well as a large minority of the presidents of our finest universities are Jewish.

In the arts, sciences and medicine, we helped create the central American narratives. The freedom and liberty of America has unleashed Jewish creativity and spirit. And the relationship between Judaism, Jewish values, Jewish commitments, and the Jewish sensibility with respect to our success, prosperity, and contribution has yet to be explored.

Contrary to the hysteria and dire warnings about Jewish life surrounding the recent much written about Pew report, Jewish life has never been more creative and Jews never more prosperous than in this country in our time.

Pew may have measured whether Jews intermarry or affiliate or not with particular institutions but given the fluidity of identity and the ever-changing nature of institutions and business models in America this tells us very little about how Jews actually experience and express their Jewishness.

Two hundred and fifty years after the founding of Touro synagogue, when less than 10,000 Jews lived in all of

America, the most important Pew statistic of all is that 94 percent of some 6.8 million Jews are proud to be Jewish.

As befitting the first place we have ever lived where Jewish is a choice, connection voluntary, and open boundaries and pluralism the rule we ought not be surprised that Jews are mixing and blending, bending and switching and creating new ways of being Jewish that can’t yet be measured.

The history of American Jews invites us to ask: What new forms and expressions will emerge from this new mix of pride, prosperity and freedom?

What is the Torah of the American experience?

Realizing The Promise

One thing is clear and how remarkable it is: What it means to be Jewish in America cannot be separated from the influence, contribution, and creativity of Jews to America. And what it means to be Jewish in the world today cannot be separated from the American experience.

This is the realization of the promise of the founding of the Touro Synagogue 250 years ago.

This is the fulfillment of George Washington’s blessing in what may be the most famous letter ever written in history by a head of state to Jews…a letter he wrote to the Jews of Touro synagogue:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. “

Tonight we light the fifth candle of Chanukah, which is the most celebrated holiday in the calendar. We celebrate a choice – the choice Judah Maccabee made to light a small cruse of oil despite knowing only a miracle would make it last. In that choice the future of the Jewish people was insured.

Two hundred and fifty years ago a small community of Jews of Newport founded the first synagogue in America…they too lit one cruse of oil. And how that choice has led to a light filled menorah

of Jewish life. We come here as their inheritors to celebrate their faith in what turned out to be our future—- and by gathering here today we, like every generation of this ever-living people, choose to continue to be the carriers of a 3,000 year- old dream of light overcoming darkness.

Morris W. Offit, a leader in the Jewish community, is chairman of Offit Capital Advisors in New York.

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