Making the American Jewish community great again
Why is it that the tendency of the Jewish community is to splinter over the tiniest of disagreements, to near battle stations when issues as critical as the existential threat to Israel posed by Iran’s nuclear capabilities become an issue of contention? Our ancestors are, no doubt, terribly puzzled over the petty infighting that has emerged into public displays of disaffection. We used to keep our infighting private — if Jews were arguing amongst themselves, it was never something we’d share with the outside world.
Now there is a visceral response to air each and every seemingly minute grievance through real or virtual bullhorns. It’s not just our ancestors who are puzzled; the rest of the world is too.
For example, there was a recent hullabaloo over whether or not to attend the Chanukah party thrown by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. A generation ago, we would all have attended proudly, bragged about our affiliation with whichever organization we were involved and noshed politely on latkes. This year, not only did Jewish organizations not attend, they actually boycotted it. Why? Because it was held in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Really? The president-elect was not even on the guest list!
Perhaps I’m too kind when I point out the behavior exhibited by supposed leaders of the organized Jewish community. What kind of statement is made when we boycott our own events? How on Earth did the Jewish Federations of North America — as middle-of-the-road an organization as they come — get sucked into this mess when it decided not to attend?
I’m disappointed in the way we are treating each other, the way we respond to members of our own community. Perhaps we should take a look at what some people outside our community have been up to in ways that relate to us directly.
I just had the honor of attending a series of events where Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan made outreach to the Jewish communities in the very blue state. I traveled with the governor to Israel in September as part of a Maryland Trade Mission, and he gave me the added honor of lighting one of the Chanukah candles on the menorah in his house during his annual Chanukah party.
Hogan made stops last week in Maryland’s Montgomery County, where he visited and toured the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and he was feted by a Chanukah presentation by children across the street at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Earlier in the week he visited with members of the Baltimore Jewish community, an hour away, where he stopped at the Bais Yaakov School for girls and announced a doubling of state grants, to $10 million, for school choice for students at the school.
While he was in Baltimore, suburban Washington and Annapolis, the governor joked about how, during his September trade mission, he brought the different Jewish factions together, in peace, at the Wailing Wall. He used this as a comical precursor to establishing peace in the Middle East.
It was funny, but only a little bit funny. Because we all recognized that underlying his intuitive view of our community, he saw the fissures.
Our bickering is on display to people outside our own “community.” They view American Jews as being splintered. Politicians view segments of the Jewish community rather than the community as a whole. Are we really big enough to be segmented?
Perhaps our Jewish community should take a deep breath. Instead of shooting from the hip and assuming that the incoming president portends doom and gloom, maybe we should see how he is prepared to govern. Instead of taking nuanced views about how Israel should or should not behave (as if it is up to us to have a say in that at all), or the role that Jewish organizations and synagogues should play in building up (not tearing down) the U.S.-Israel relationship, maybe we should judge the measure of the man and his administration by the policies he enacts.
When I was a kid growing up in the Jewish community on the South Side of Chicago, we acted as a community — we acted together. Although our community was not huge, it supported three synagogues (one Conservative and two Reform) and an Orthodox minyan hosted at the University of Chicago’s Hillel House; a Jewish community center; and a K-8 Jewish day school.
The day school, perhaps, best exemplifies the small Hyde Park Jewish community. The Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School was formed in 1972 when the Akiba Jewish Day School, an Orthodox school in South Shore, merged with the Conservative Solomon Schechter School in Hyde Park. The “Conservadox” merger was done in recognition that neither school had the population to go it alone, and that jointly they could continue the important mission of Jewish education and community building on Chicago’s South Side.
Over the years, the Jewish community united each May for the Annual Walk With Israel, rallied together against Nazis marching in Skokie, supported the efforts of those seeking to aid refuseniks in the Soviet Union, shared in each other’s joys, and supported each other through life’s difficult stages of grieving and loss.
Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to look back at how things were done in the past. It was nice to be in a community that supported its members and didn’t take them down to make a stand and to earn a soundbite on the news or a tweet on Twitter. Whoever was advising the Jewish Federations of North America to not attend and other Jewish organizations to boycott the party may not have had the community’s best interests at heart.
Bonnie Glick is a nonprofit executive and veteran American diplomat and businesswoman.