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America’s "New Jews" Are Non-Ethnic, Diverse and Seeking Spirituality, Says College Chaplain

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 1997

Judaism and Jewish life in America are "no longer based on ethnic attachments or on exoticism," writes Rabbi Edward Feld, Jewish Chaplain at Smith College and the Jewish Religious Adviser at Amherst College, in Sh’ma (May 2, 1997). Yet, Jewish life on campus "shows remarkable signs of vibrancy . . . Friday night dinner is such a significant event that a sizable contingent of non-Jews jam the room."  

The elements of a revived Judaism, according to Feld, involve Judaism as a moral center: "At a time when intellectual life has relativized ethics and when corruption and venality are rampant, Judaism remains a sacred center that students want to be in touch with to ground their own moral impulse . . . Judaism is understood as a support for voluntarism, concern with others, an honest existence."  

Judaism also "offers a certain life wisdom for an age which is disconnected from any other sources of wisdom," he declares. It also "fulfills a need we all have for a spiritual life. The imperialist moment of Western Enlightenment is over. No longer does its culture dispense total redemption. Indeed all twentieth century secular redemptionist faiths have proved to be limited if not false. Not only has the Marxist utopian god fallen but the Western psychotherapeutic one as well. People are aware of a spiritual need which can touch their inner being and provide surcease from constant struggle."  

There is, Feld writes, a new face to American Judaism: ". . . not only have Jews entered the upper middle class of America with a vengeance, adopting and even shaping the values of that community, but hardly distinguishing themselves. Jews also physically look more and more like the spectrum of Americans. My guess is that 20% of my students are the product of intermarriage. Some have nothing to do with Hillel, some sit on our boards. Looking around the room at a Hillel student meeting, I see black faces, Latin-American faces, and Irish faces alongside typical Eastern European faces. The former are children of intermarriage, adopted kids, or just Americans seeking a compatible community . . . In other words you can no longer pick out a Jewish face . . ."  

Rabbi Feld concludes: "So Judaism lives. Having contributed bagels and yiddishisms to the larger culture, Jews have lost the ethnic trappings which once defined their common community. Instead they are embarked on a new creation, one that is frequently difficult to recognize, but which is quite real. The threads are traditional but the weave is new, and the pattern being fashioned is fascinating enough to attract many beholders if not buyers."  

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