My doctoral dissertation was on Jewish Identity. Betty and I just returned from Israel and are struck with the danger to the future of Judaism in the coming years at Beth Ami, in Sonoma County, and most of the US.
The Danger. If we do not change course, our congregation will soon end. Some writers warn that in a generation or two, we will not have a Jewish community in any recognizable form anywhere in America. Rabbis Slater and Schlesinger attempted to make the necessary changes, but our congregations gave away our leadership position as the center for Jewish life in Sonoma County.
Once Beth Ami led the way by providing a home for learning, worship, inculcating Jewish values to children, and providing social activities that enhance the spirit of being a Jew.
Our congregation has lost its way, becoming primarily a social club for Jews that also offers religious services, often attended for the free lunch and chatting with friends. Congregation Shomrei Torah already occupied this space with an active bagel club that brings in speakers on topics unrelated to Judaism, has clubs like “kikes on bikes” and “kikes taking hikes,” and supporting churches in their social gospel activities (in the past without identifying themselves as Jews).
Do we want our congregation to be just a social club for Jews, competing with the many, many other social clubs and activities in Sonoma County, or do we want to survive and grow as the Jewish institution in Sonoma County that promotes Jewish identity for all Jews?
Recent history (and current statistics) tells us being a social club for Jews is not going to help Judaism survive, and without Judaism, there will be no Beth Ami. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Catskills provided social club for Jews when antisemitism prevented from joining other social clubs. The Catskill Jewish resorts are now history because social clubs began accepting Jews.
The antisemitism of the 1950s left briefly, replaced now with an even more virulent kind perpetrated by both the far right and the far left. Congressmen freely tweet abhorrent Nazi and KGB antisemitic slanders; on the far left by Representative Ilhan Omar (Shaw, 2019) and on the right by Kevin McCarthy (Hansler, 2019). European legislators spout the same antisemitic themes. Even the wording of the neo-Nazi Institute for Historical Review and the far-left Dissident Review use virtually identical antisemitic wording, referring to “Jewish Power” (Stand With Us, 2019, p.7).
With antisemitism rising all around us and on our campuses, we in Sonoma County are failing to react, and that is dangerous.
One danger is that we as Jews and our Jewish institutions will be physically attacked. We are adding physical security, but the far greater danger to the Jewish people in America now is that the road for assimilation is wide. The marginally identifying Jews of Sonoma County who find little reason to affiliate already are assimilating. Their children and the children of intermarriage in America are even more free to become non-Jews. Tal Keinman in “God is in the Crowd” notes that if we do nothing, Judaism as we know it will end in America in a generation or two. The growth of antisemitism throughout the world makes it easier for those without a strong identity as a Jew to simply drop out.
As our congregation lost its way and moved farther away from supporting Jewish identity, our congregation continues to lose its most important members for whom Judaism is important. Some move to other cities with more active Jewish communities; others just attend services at Chabad.
We have forgotten to check our compass.
Lashuv: Returning to advancing Judaism by building Jewish identity.
We are moving in two unhelpful directions, both of which are common to the Christian churches:
- Exploring Judaism beyond Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinically, we have lost the vital mission of exploring Judaism via chevruta, and challenge and dissent, exploring and rediscovering the depth and richness of Jewish wisdom. Instead, we hear (too often) a single vision of G-D, as a loving father who seeks our love and obedience. That view of the divine is the one adopted by followers of Jesus and does not resonate with many Jews, including me. There are perhaps fifteen authentically Jewish views of the divine, taught by our sages. Let us explore those.
- Restoring the Balance of Particularism versus universalism. Often misunderstood, Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1: 14. The meaning if I am only for myself, he was referring to is separating himself from Klal Israel, the Jewish people. It and other Jewish guides were misappropriated to make Judaism more acceptable to Christians. In the 1800s, Jews in Germany wanted a way to adapt Judaism to make it tolerable to the Germans. Part of that change was by adopting the Christian Social Gospel to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice. In the book, “To Heal the World,” Jonathan Neumann points out the dangers to Judaism when our texts are misquoted.
What might be the way for our congregation to survive, not just financially, but spiritually?
We need a return to our mission to keep Judaism alive in Sonoma County with a new and great emphasis on building Jewish identity:
Our focus should be on strengthening the Jewish identity in our community, continuing to support our tradition, but adding “challenge and dissent” on Jewish matters, Jewish education (the rabbinic tradition, but also adding alternative rabbinic views and non-rabbinic views). For example, education the variety of Jewish views of G-d. (Many Jews are atheists because they are unaware of the alternative views.) In another example, Adam Kirsch’s “The People and the Book” provides a fascinating exploration of the contexts and times when 18 classics of Jewish literature were written. An alternative understanding of the Tanach can be found in Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Who wrote the Bible.” These books build Jewish identity. (Contrast that with the books offered by the JCC-SF’s “Jewish” book club. It includes few Jewish books; instead members read “Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse,” “Catcher in the Rye”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and “Pachinko”, books which do not advance Jewish identity and are suitable for any book club.) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, has written many books relating Judaism to modernity, including “The Great Partnership” to assist us in finding a Jewish solution that includes science in our search for meaning.
Jews in America are in a fight for our lives. We are losing, here in Santa Rosa and throughout the country. Beth Ami’s resilience as a Jewish home requires focusing again on building our Jewish identity.
Prof. Eli Cohen
Santa Rosa July 19, 2019