Jewish groups should refocus energy on the committed

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If you were an emergency room doctor in charge of triage, would you give top priority to a patient whose heart was strong or to one who barely had a pulse?

The answer seems simple: You help the person with the greater chance of survival.

But in the American Jewish community's crisis of continuity, struggling to stave off assimilation, we tend to take the opposite approach. More communal dollars and programs are focused on outreach to marginal Jews — those who are loosely or not at all engaged in synagogue worship, Jewish institutions or home ritual — than to those who are more active in Jewish life.

That is the thesis of an article in the January 1996 issue of Commentary magazine challenging the status quo approach to our communal crisis. "In our view," write Professors Steven M. Cohen, Charles Liebman and Jack Wertheimer, "rather than heeding the call of its task forces, the organized Jewish community would do better to redirect its attention, its funding and its programming from the periphery to the core; to turn to its most dependable members, whose participation it has taken for granted, and support THEIR activities." Namely, more funds for synagogues, day schools, summer camps, youth and campus programs that stress Jewish values, heritage and knowledge.

The three professors acknowledge that to do so, the community "may have to adopt a view of Jewish identity as being at least partly in tension with the values of liberal, universalist modernity, and that any effort to strengthen `the fabric of Jewish life' may necessarily entail challenging if not rejecting aspects of that very ethos, an ethos with which both secular Jewish leaders and many religious ones as well have been prominently allied."

More simply, we would have to acknowledge that Judaism and liberalism are not identical, that Judaism takes precedence and that our religion's particularisms should be celebrated rather than neutered.

Some of us have been saying this for a long time, but Cohen, Liebman and Wertheimer have gone a step further, using their article as a springboard for action. The three professors invited a group of communal professionals and academics to spend a day together to advance the theories generated in the article. The result was a fascinating daylong "consultation" held at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary last month, attended by some 30 men and women. They represented a cross-section of denominational, political and ideological viewpoints, including Paula Hyman, a political liberal, from Yale, and Ruth Wisse, a political conservative, from Harvard, as well as Marvin Schick, an Orthodox leader, representing the Avi Chai Foundation, and Rabbi Michael Meyer of the Reform Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

What they shared, myself included, was a common concern that the current approach to issues of outreach, identity and continuity is doomed to the polite failure of blue-ribbon commissions that generate more rhetoric than action. That is because in our consensus-driven community, we strive so mightily to find the lowest-common-denominator solutions to our problems that, in the end, we would rather do nothing than set forth a plan of bold action that might offend part of the group.

Steven M. Cohen calls this the "non-Jews on the bimah" approach, shorthand for a policy among some Reform temples to allow non-Jewish spouses to participate in religious services so as not to offend them. Cohen, an American-born sociologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers such a policy beyond the pale of Jewish life and would like to establish boundaries for Jewish participation as well as "a ladder of commitment," asserting that "if religion makes demands on us, we have to meet them."

He says that the battleground for the Jewish future lies in the middle, not in the extremes, and that the most effective means of attracting people is by emphasizing rather than neutralizing what Judaism has to offer.

The other participants agreed, though one area of tension was in acknowledging both the need for embracing Jewish traditions and pluralism, which could be problematic for the Orthodox community. Still, it was also the belief around the table that if American Jews were forced to choose between Orthodoxy and no Judaism at all, the latter would win out.

There was much discussion and debate among the participants about whether they should establish an ongoing group, and if so what form it should take and what goals it should set for itself. By day's end, there was agreement to form a steering committee charged with drafting a statement of purpose for the others to sign. The statement would be what one participant, Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee, called "a counter-voice" to the prevailing attitude of an anything-goes Judaism that favors universalism over choseness. Wisse urged the statement to establish "a hierarchy of values."

Individually or collectively, the influential participants promised to make themselves heard on how best to spend communal funds and to tackle some of the difficult issues of priorities. "No one has come out and said, take dollars from social services and put them toward day schools, but I might," said Cohen. Others suggested shoring up funds for synagogues and reassessing the level of Jewishness in Jewish social service organizations.

Whether or not the five-hour discussion was simply an academic exercise or will result in real change remains to be seen. But this group is comprised of core, not marginal Jews, in their parlance and their message is too powerful to ignore.