American Jews return to their global activism over the past year

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Jewish year 5759 reversed, at least temporarily, the inward-looking trend of American Jewry.

While they still focused on the reshuffling of Jewish organizational life, education and identity, American Jews' relative insularity during recent years retreated in the face of such international events as the crisis in Kosovo, the defeat of Israel's incumbent prime minister, the stepped-up efforts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel and the arrest of 13 Iranian Jews for "espionage."

Despite the generally decreasing interest in Israel among American Jews, many have been hopeful that the election of Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, will renew the momentum in peace negotiations, said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

On the other hand, programs to encourage youth travel to Israel, such as the newly conceived Birthright Israel, which seeks to provide a free first visit to every young Jew, are attempting to use the Jewish state as a vehicle to encourage Jewish identity and commitment.

In other international developments, efforts to seek material restitution for the Holocaust were intensified. A Swiss humanitarian fund made payments to 60,000 survivors in the United States, and a toll-free number for claimants to file applications for a separate $1.25 billion bank settlement has been established.

Commissions were set up in 18 countries, including the United States, to explore Holocaust-era assets, and an international commission headed by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will launch a claims-resolution process for formerly unpaid insurance policies.

And, in what Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called "the most symbolic development," the funds derived from the remaining six tons of Nazi gold held by the Tripartite Gold Commission and left in New York and London — those not already returned to Europe's central banks — are being distributed to survivors worldwide for medical and other assistance.

"We'll fail more than we will succeed," Steinberg said of all the efforts under way. "We won't get close to total material restitution. But we're determined the truth will come out. We're morally recapturing our history."

Echoes of the Holocaust resonated this past year as well during the forced expulsions and mass murders perpetrated by Serbs against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

American Jews reacted strongly to the crisis.

"Except for crises concerning Soviet Jewry or Israel, there has never been such a response, by organizations and personally, people asking what they can do," said Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, who visited refugee camps at the request of President Clinton. "Although we kept saying not to compare the events to the Holocaust, in part people responded to the imagery on television, of train loads, of almost a million people being uprooted."

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee formed a coalition of 42 different organizations to help fulfill the humanitarian needs of the Kosovars.

More than $4 million raised in an open mailbox was used for immediate emergency assistance such as blankets, food and clothing. The JDC also set up a refugee center in Albania for those unwilling or unable to return to Kosovo and, with the World ORT Union, is training those who do return in construction skills so they can rebuild their homes.

The JDC also helped bring a few hundred Jews from Belgrade to Budapest, where they found refuge from the bombs. Some went on to Israel; others returned after the war.

This year also saw an increased commitment by Israel to the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who were left behind in previous mass emigrations. More than 1,300 Jews from the remote region of Kwara, whose Jewishness had not been questioned, arrived in Israel in June and July. Another 500 are expected to be evacuated this fall.

The fate of the thousands of Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity but claim eligibility under Israel's Law of Return, is under discussion.

"The American Jewish community took up the cause of the Kwara Jews, and many people are equally concerned about the Falash Mura," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

Will Recant, director of special projects for the JDC, said, "American Jewish advocacy has been instrumental in prodding the process and asking the Israeli government to focus on the issue. We believe the pressure needs to remain till the job is done."

Elsewhere in the world, American Jews were stunned by the arrests in March of 13 Iranian Jews — rabbis, religious teachers and community activists.

In June the prisoners were formally charged with spying for the United States and Israel. Espionage is a crime punishable by death in Iran, and since the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 17 Jews have been put to death.

An effort spearheaded by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and Iranian Jewish groups in the United States helped secure visitations by some family members and some kosher food for the prisoners. But thus far both public and private diplomacy has failed to free them.

Closer to home, Jews were shocked by the Jewish background of one of the killers in the Columbine High School shootings in April, by the burning of synagogues in Sacramento in June, the drive-by shootings of Orthodox Jews and other minorities in Chicago in July, and the JCC shootings outside Los Angeles in August.

Although such anti-Semitic attacks seem to confirm American Jews' deep-seated fears, experts who monitor hate crimes say they do not signal an alarming trend in increased anti-Semitic activity.

Another insidious threat to American Jews — that of missionary groups — is on the rise, according to Mark Powers, executive director of Jews for Judaism.

The attempt by a couple from a Hebrew-Christian congregation near Denver to "infiltrate" the Jewish community and make aliyah to further their missionary efforts, and the Summer Witnessing Campaign sponsored by Jews for Jesus in New York and other cities, are two examples of a trend that is "increasing and likely to get worse as the millennium approaches," he said.

In the Jewish organizational world, consolidation continued on the Jewish philanthropic scene as the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal merged in April to create the United Jewish Communities.

One major change as a result of the merger will be that the local federations "will own the national system and will have the opportunity to shape its agenda," said Stephen Solender, interim president of the UJC and executive vice president of New York's UJA-Federation.

That the national system will try to influence local federations in return was reflected in a June report issued by the UJC and its educational arm, the Jewish Education Service of North America, which urged federations to enhance their support for Jewish education, especially day schools.

Other dramatic changes are taking place within American Jewry's religious streams.

The myth of a monolithic Orthodoxy was shattered once more when Edah, a 2-year-old modern Orthodox organization, attracted double the number of participants expected to its conference in New York — despite the indifference and even hostility of prominent rabbis and other leaders in the broader Orthodox community.

"The haredi model has been successful, but has minimized contact" with the outside world, said Rabbi Saul Berman, Edah's executive director.

"Edah entered the scene to renew the modern Orthodox approach not as an antagonist to the haredim, but as an alternative that's also committed to halachah."

In the Reform movement, the