Scholars debating Y2K as a Jewish issue

Y2K — Y4US?

Is the change of the secular calendar from 1999 to 2000 a Jewish issue?

"Jews should butt out of the turn of the millennium," said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a historian and visiting professor of humanities at New York University. "It's not our calendar. We are not at the turn of our millennium."

Some in the Jewish community share Hertzberg's perspective.

Two prominent kosher restaurants in the New York area canceled planned Shabbat-oriented New Year's Eve parties. The influential kosher supervision agencies that supervise them prohibited Mendy's in Manhattan and strongly discouraged Noah's Ark in Teaneck, N.J., from holding the celebrations.

Others assert that although the millennium isn't an intrinsically Jewish occasion, it still provides an opportunity — much like Rosh Hashanah — for Jews to reflect on their experiences and goals.

"This next millennium, replete with all its hype, gives us an opportunity to look out at the world and to try and make sense of what we see, to attempt to clarify what we want the future to hold," Rabbi Rachel Sabath, an associate at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote in an essay.

"Particularly in a time when the world seems upside down, it becomes even more essential to have an orientation, a sense of time, core values that transcend all interpretations, all religions and all political parties."

Still others say that regardless of one's personal feelings toward the change in the secular calendar, it would be naive for Jews to ignore the turn of the millennium.

Jews should be prepared for possible technological problems, they say, and should be concerned about a potential backlash by right-wing Christians whose messianic aspirations remain unfulfilled when the calendar rolls over and Jesus has not returned to earth.

"Though apocalyptic expectations have always been proven wrong, wrong doesn't mean inconsequential," Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, warned at a recent symposium on the millennium sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

"The more wrong people are, the more passionate they are," he said.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is also concerned.

"A lot of my fellow Jews take the turning of the millennium as a joke but I don't," he said. "For some Christians, Dec. 31 is just a night for a great party. But a lot of other Christians take it very seriously."

Until recently, prominent conservative evangelical leaders — including the Revs. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy — were predicting mass upheaval, and warning their followers to prepare by stockpiling dried food, water and weapons in advance of an apocalyptic scenario recounted in the Christian Bible's Book of Revelation.

Dobson, a Christian broadcaster, even gave each of his 1,300 employees an extra $500 to prepare for Y2K, according to a report in the Religion News Service.

Several who had predicted widespread social crisis have in recent weeks largely backed off such doomsday scenarios, the news service noted, but other Christian fundamentalists and extreme-right hate-mongers remain a threat, according to "Y2K Paranoia: Extremists Confront the Millennium," a recent ADL report.

Inherent in Christian theology is the belief that Jesus will return to earth, ushering in the messianic era.

There are some — primarily right-wing evangelical Christians — who believe that the historical stage has now been set for that chapter to begin, since conditions prophesied in their Bible have been fulfilled: the state of Israel's creation in 1948, Jerusalem's reunification under Jewish control in 1967, and the ingathering to Israel of oppressed Jews, particularly from the former Soviet Union, since the 1980s.

When there are high expectations "and then nothing happens, there could be a backlash," Rudin said.

"If Jesus doesn't come back, who can they blame?" he asked. "Historically, Jews have often been blamed for not cooperating in this Christian end-of-the-world plan."

Others are more concerned about technology than theology.

They say that a failure of computer systems worldwide to recognize the change of the millennium could have disastrous consequences for individuals, communities and the environment.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, which is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, says that the whole problem stems from an overreliance on computers, which he has dubbed "techno-idolatry."

His concerns range from the potential interruption of crucial supplies of oil, food and medicines to what he believes is the worst-case scenario: "a chemical plant or nuclear plant going haywire, releasing massive amounts of poisonous chemicals. Most nuclear plants require electricity to shut down, so not being able to do so could make serious trouble," he said.

To prepare, he and his wife have stockpiled two weeks' worth of supplies for five people: bottled water, cans of tuna, vegetables and fruit, as well as flashlights and batteries, and a radio powered by turning a crank. They are keeping lots of books, especially a Bible, close by.

Waskow, who has been expressing his concerns at the Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim in New York, may be one of a small number of Jewish voices calling for other Jews to take such precautionary measures, but he's not alone.

"How scared do you want to get?" Rabbi Jeff Glickman, spiritual leader of Reform Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, Conn.

Glickman, too, is preparing for Y2K by stocking up on nonperishable food and filling a lined trash can with fresh water for each member of his six-person family. He is also taking "a considerable amount of money" out of the bank to hold in cash.

"Banks interact with thousands of other institutions every day. If any garbage comes in from any of them, they may have to stop and verify every transaction. How long would that take?" he wondered.

What's more, "there could be a horrible run on things at the end of December, like food and stocks, whether or not the computer glitch happens."

Waskow and Glickman have both tried to convince Jews that the real solution to millennial concerns is to work toward a greater sense of community by increasing personal contact between people rather than continuing to rely so heavily on technology.

Glickman tried to organize his congregants into "family groups" of several people who live in the same area, with the idea that they would look out for each other and develop closer relationships.

Both the rabbis, however, have gotten a weaker response than they had hoped.

When speaking about it from the pulpit, Glickman said, "I feel like I'm in a Dunkin' Donuts, with the amount of glaze on people's eyes."

Still, the two rabbis aren't the only ones hedging their millennial bets.

"I for one am not ready to give up the batteries and bottled water in my kitchen cabinet," said Pam Schafler, an ADL lay leader who introduced last month's millennium symposium.

For his part, Landes of Boston University said that even if the calendar changes over from 1999 to 2000 without incident, debate and fear will not end.

"I don't think it's intelligent to assume that this will all decrease next year."