Passion, preservation, passivity mark U.S. Jewish life in the past year

new york | It seems there was nothing American Jewish communal officials wanted more than for 5764 to be a year of Jewish passion.

As it happened, it was the year of “The Passion of the Christ,” with Jews demonstrating the mix of passion and passivity that has come to characterize U.S. Jewry on the eve of its 350th anniversary in America.

Unlike in Israel, where Jews continue to live under the threat of Arab violence, or Europe, where Jews again have become the targets of anti-Semites, Jews in America remained relatively safe this year.

American Jews were able to focus their energies on threats to Jews elsewhere, while Jewish spiritual and organizational leaders struggled to stoke the passion of American Jews for the two great historical Jewish obsessions: saving Jewish lives and preserving Jewish souls.

Following publication of the National Jewish Population Survey in September 2003 — which painted a portrait of a community that was numerically stagnant, aging and increasingly less observant of tradition — American Jews in 5764 showed they were more American than ever.

That fact was on national display in this year’s Democratic presidential race.

When Al Gore selected Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate in 2000, the move was hailed as a breakthrough for American Jews and a sign that Jews finally had made it to the center of American political life.

But in 2003, when Lieberman announced his candidacy for the presidency, the move prompted far less discussion. That was partly because Lieberman’s candidacy had little steam, but also because after Lieberman’s first foray onto the national political stage, many Americans — including Jews — simply felt that this time around it was no big deal.

“The novelty wore off,” said Bruce Phillips, professor of sociology at both Hebrew Union College and University of Southern California. “He was really judged for who he was as a candidate. There was a general irrelevance of Lieberman being Jewish.”

In fact, Lieberman wasn’t the only presidential candidate with Jewish roots or ties.

Gen. Wesley Clark’s grandfather was Jewish, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is married to a Jew, can recite the Chanukah blessings in Hebrew and was a graduate of Yeshiva University’s medical school. Even the ultimate Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), had two Jewish grandparents and has a brother who converted to Judaism.

Perhaps more than any other single group, these presidential candidates represented the face of American Jewry’s future: a traditional Jew, two products of intermarriage and a non-Jew with Jewish children.

“Suddenly, having Jewish ancestry is something that is an asset rather than a liability, something people take pride in,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“On the other hand, there’s the disturbing fear that Judaism will be part of the past of American Jews rather than their future. It’s ancestry rather than reality.”

Population surveys this year of American Jewish life bore out that notion, demonstrating flat growth or declining numbers.

And while the number of Jews marrying out of the faith held steady or declined slightly compared with a decade ago, this year it seemed that the assimilation of Judaism and Jewish culture into mainstream America had accelerated.

Madonna gave herself a Jewish name, stopped performing on Friday nights and began incorporating tefillin into her concerts.

Actor Ashton Kutcher said he was inspired to wear head coverings by yarmulke-wearing Jews.

And the Fox TV network built an entire show, “Average Joe: Adam Returns,” around a nice Jewish boy from New York searching for his soulmate.

Yet Jewish spiritual and communal officials had a harder time stirring passion among Jews.

Long before the theatrical release of “The Passion of the Christ,” the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, went on the offensive, hoping to stir passions against Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the crucifixion of Jesus. Foxman argued that the film blamed Jews for Jesus’ killing, and that the modern-day passion play would fuel anti-Semitism.

Jewish opinion was divided on Foxman’s offensive, with some Jews blasting him for making a mountain out of a molehill and creating an image of Jews as whiners, and others echoing Foxman’s warning that the movie’s falsehoods could inspire attacks against Jews. As it happened, the movie came and went without any palpable effect on Jews other than a flurry of interfaith meetings, lectures and discussions of Catholic-Jewish ties and history.

If “The Passion” did not ignite Jewish passion, European anti-Semitism continued to garner the attention of many American Jews.

But even more than attacks on Jews in Europe, American Jews were roused to action by attacks against the Jewish state — both in the form of terrorism and international condemnation.

Though the sense of panic and anger that marked the American Jewish response to the early years of the Palestinian intifada subsided as Israel had greater success in stanching Palestinian terrorism, American Jewish passion on the issue did not wane.

American Jews took to the airwaves, campuses and airplanes to defend Israel and its policies, particularly the construction of the West Bank security barrier.

On U.S. campuses, new pro-Israel groups helped push Jewish students to take the offensive in the public relations battle for the Jewish state.

Alan Dershowitz wrote a high-profile book, “The Case for Israel,” and went on radio, TV and the lecture circuit to outline his defense of the Jewish state. Hillel, The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were joined by newer groups like the Israel on Campus Coalition, Stand With Us and The Israel Project to help rally Jews to the Zionist cause on and off campus.

With all this activism came the gradual return of American Jews to the Jewish state — not as immigrants, but as visitors.

In Washington, Israel advocates helped keep the Bush administration solidly behind the Jewish state. However, a few Jewish groups argued that it would be best for Israel if the Bush administration forced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon back to the negotiating table.

Despite the internal debate, American Jews continued to resist strong criticism of Israel from outside the Jewish community.

Some of Bush’s Middle East policies doubtless will earn him Jewish votes. But domestic issues, and the ongoing violence in Iraq, kept that enthusiasm from translating automatically into support for Bush this November. Polls show that American Jews remain solidly Democratic.

Jewish groups came out against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, which passed in late 2003, opposed a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, and continued to rail against perceived dangers to the separation of church and state.

On each of these issues, at least some Orthodox groups took the opposite stance.

On the matter of security, however, the Jewish community was unified.

Jewish groups joined in supporting a bill for funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions. They also pressured the administration to take a tougher stance against the Syrian regime because of its support for terrorism. The president enacted sanctions against Syria in May, following months of lobbying by Jewish groups.

For all their worries about security, however, Jewish groups increasingly voiced concerns about the erosion of civil liberties in America after the passage of the USA Patriot Act, which gave federal authorities broader powers to investigate and prosecute terrorist suspects.

Along with these national and global developments, American Jews also focused on their local communities.

For many Jews in America, the biggest stories of the year were the ones that occurred off the front pages of newspapers and far from the halls of government or the boardrooms of Jewish organizations.

They were the ongoing stories about synagogues and community groups, about Jewish education and Hebrew schools, about children leaving the faith and adults rediscovering God, about the birth of new Jewish communities and the fading away of foregone Jewish cultural customs.

They were the stories of Jewish America.