Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Freedom Means A Renaissance For Judaism, Says Jewish Life Network Leader

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2001

The same freedom that has led to an increase in assimilation of the American Jewish community also has the potential to create a Jewish renaissance, says Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network and chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.  

Speaking at the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington's annual meeting, he addressed the subject, "Will There be One Jewish People in the Year 2100?"  

The last 40 years of the 20th century, he noted, brought "one of the great transformations of history. That change was the tremendous and `unprecedented' personal, economic and cultural freedom that is now available.  

"It used to be that every community had a certain environment where its ideas were favored," Greenberg said. "Suddenly, no religion, no culture has this monopoly, but everyone has the chance to present their own viewpoints."  

While freedom is "enormously unsettling for identity and values," he said, it is "enormously exhilarating for possibilities" And that freedom, he hoped, would "bring out the resources and will to invest and create Jewish literacy" so that "50 years from now the average Reform Jewish layman will be as learned and practiced in Judaism as the highest level of Orthodox rabbi."  

Greenberg cautioned that the divisions between Orthodox Jewry and the rest of the Jewish community are an area of concern: "We have not handled freedom well in this area. Some Orthodox Jews have been aggressive in their denial of the legitimacy of others." On the other hand, he cites Reform Jews' acceptance of patrilineal descent," in which they opted to `respect the needs of their community' while not seeming to care that such a decision created a large split from the rest of the Jewish community."  

But, describing himself as an "optimist," Greenberg believes that "freedom brings out the best of people" and the "forces gathering now can lead us to a great renaissance. If we can rise to that occasion, this will prove to be one of the great moments in Jewish history. I believe...that it is our destiny to show the whole world how you turn freedom and affluence and power into a blessing — that would be our teaching and make us a light unto the nations."  

Writing in Contact (Winter 2001), the publication of the Jewish Life Network, Michael Steinhardt, the group's chairman, points out that, "Over the course of generations...Jewish identity was informed by persecution. Lacking exposure to the open society, Jews found strength in a life of oppression. In a socio-religious sense, the persecution `proved' that Jews were morally and culturally superior to their persecutors. The self-perception of martyrdom left an imprint on Jewish consciousness that is difficult to remove."  

Now, Steinhardt declares, the Jewish community must confront the new challenges of a free and democratic society: The climate of persecution did little to prepare Jews for life in contemporary America. When confronted, on the one hand, with a history bound up in remembered tragedies, and on the other with a present rich in freedoms, it is clear that people will choose the latter. If synagogues and Hebrew schools focus on catastrophe rather than celebration, there should be no surprise that so few American Jews, particularly young Jews, are drawn to Jewish religious life."  

There is a contradiction between what Jewish groups say and the life lived by American Jews at the present time, states Steinhardt: "The fungus of remembered oppression has infested our communal bodies...The infrastructure of the American Jewish community was built with an eye towards relief efforts, defense against anti-Semitism, and protection against Israel's destruction. Decades after such concerns have receded into the background of American Jewry, the community is still fueled by pogrom-riddled perceptions of human destiny. Fear continues to sustain some of the most prestigious Jewish American philanthropies today. Meanwhile, the American experience is characterized by prosperity, integration and joy. On many levels, there is dissonance between Jewish community life and one's own personal experience. It is no wonder, then, that a relatively small percentage of Jews are actively engaged in their communities....It is time to show that we are no longer defined by catastrophe, that we will rise above trauma. The potential fruits of this endeavor — Jewish vitality, relevance, and unity — are too great to ignore."

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.