The War Against Outreach
A cannonshot of misleading and
ill founded criticisms has been fired at Jewish outreach
programs and the vision that inspires them from the most
unexpected of sources. The assault was launched from the
pages of the January issue of Commentary, published
by the American Jewish Committee.
The ill-conceived discharge was lobbed in an audaciously
titled essay, "How to Save American Jews," by three
professors from three different academic institutions.
Jack Wertheimer, the lead author, is a historian at
the Jewish Theological Seminary; Charles Liebman is
from Bar Ilan University; Steven M. Cohen is from the
Hebrew University. The last two are Americans who have
The title of their essay implies that America's Jews--living
at the pinnacle of Jewish well-being, social acceptance,
and power--are somehow in danger and need saving. That
implication is an insult to both the achievements of
America's Jews and to America. The title also implies
that the authors possess a strategy for saving those
most at risk. In fact, the authors are bent on doing
the opposite. Rather than developing a strategy for
saving anyone or anything, they devote the bulk of their
essay to damning the organized American Jewish community's
effort to reach the unaffiliated and the intermarried
amongst our people.
JOI's 1993 survey of Jewish leadership, which included
a representative sample of every branch of American
Jewry, found that efforts to reach out to the intermarried
in particular enjoyed the highest degree of consensus
among all segments.
Yet, in complete disregard for what is of real concern
to the great majority of committed American Jews, the
authors contend that reaching out to "peripheral or
fringe Jews" (they clearly do not mean Jews with tzitziyot
fringes) and interfaith couples tends to "denude Jewishness
of its particularity." Outreach, they say, caters "to
the lowest common denominator...Trying to make potential
converts feel comfortable...drastically subverts the
tribal nature of the Jewish identity...Programs targeted
at the uncommitted are virtually designed to undercut
the Jewish values of the committed."
Having replaced serious analysis with epithets, the
authors reach a predictable conclusion. They claim that
"to ensure Jewish continuity for the next generation...the
place to begin is in those sectors of the community
that are already engaged to a greater or lesser
extent, enhancing the level of their commitment." The
fact is that the authors mean to begin with the most
committed, and they also mean to stop with the most
committed. The others simply do not matter to the three
would-be-saviors of America's Jews.
"After all," they argue, "the two most engaged categories
(see note) constitute together 44 percent of American Jews, and
this percentage has not been declining by age. These
are the core of the future community; surely they should
be nurtured accordingly." Who should nurture them? The
uncommitted? And, if that is not a realistic prospect,
then what exactly is the appeal of the essay? Is it
simply a plea that the committed nurture themselves
Amazingly, the authors fail to see the absurdity of
their argument . If this core group has held as steady
as they proclaim, then why does it need "saving" now?
What do they need to be "saved" from? And, how are those
in this precious core better off by dismissing the other
56 percent of America's Jews?
If the "core" group doesn't need saving, and "peripheral"
or "fringe" Jews are not, in the authors' judgement,
worth or worthy of saving, then what exactly is being
proposed under the guise of this essay?
Ultimately the Commentary essay is not about
"how to save American Jews." Rather, it is about how
to negate the worth of the majority of America's Jews
in favor of the minority. This view is associated historically
with the discredited position of classical Zionism on
the future of Diaspora Jewry in general.
Sh'liat ha'Golah (negation of the Diaspora)
is one of the key elements of Zionist philosophy. Whether
as a result of anti-Semitism or assimilation, classical
Zionists were convinced that Diaspora Jewry was doomed
to extinction. At least for that reason, Zionists were
convinced through the darker years of the Holocaust,
for example, that there was little worth doing for European
Jewry. And they did little.
What little was done, they reasoned, should be one
for the ideologically convinced, and those who could
be depended upon to build the State of Israel. Although
modern Israeli realpolitik has abandoned or muted
Zionism's traditional disdain for the Diaspora, the
retrograde sentiment is apparently alive and well in
the minds of American olim and fellow travellers,
who seem to need to deny the reality of creative energies
in American Jewry to justify their own existential choices.
In their book, Two Worlds of Judaism, (Yale
University Press, 1990) Charles Liebman and Steven Cohen
argue that Israeli and American Judaism are growing
radically apart--and it is the former that tends to
be more authentic, more particular, and more likely
to survive in the future. The book suggests that American
Judaism is doomed to extinction as a result of its growing
universalism and accommodation to a pluralist-syncretist
culture. The Commentary essay merely echoes more
loudly than the earlier book the "doom of the Diaspora"
theme of classical Zionist thought.
Surprisingly, at least one of the essay's authors,
Steven M. Cohen, is also author of a major study of
outreach programs for the Nathan Cummings Foundation
(August 1992)--a fact conveniently left unmentioned
in the Commentary piece. In that study he urged
support for "alternative Judaic movements." Moreover
he wrote, "It is easy to understand how spiritually
oriented Jews, feminists, and environmental activists
may find most conventional Jewish communities unappealing.
For this reason (if not for the intrinsic values of
those activities) such programs are worthy of continued
Elsewhere in the same report Cohen reviewed a host
of outreach programs in synagogues, JCCs, and other
communal institutions. He wrote: "such programs may
be important as pilot projects to demonstrate the value
of new approaches to the mixed married and under-involved...Outreach
practice contains within it a valuable critique of conventional
Jewish institutions...Perhaps most critically, outreach
practice offers some hope to a Jewish communal world
and depressed by what it views as alarming rates of
intermarriage and disaffiliation."
Ignoring his own earlier work, Cohen and the other
two would-be "saviors" of American Jewry asks to place
our historical bet on those who they regard as the current
equivalent of the "saving remnant"--the religiously
committed. Instead of consigning all of Diaspora Jewry
to extinction, as classical Zionism has done, Wertheimer,
Liebman and Cohen are willing to allow for the viability
of the 44 percent "core" group" That they are willing
to write off the other 56 percent of America's Jews
is none-the-less appalling.
Whether those committed to the
Zionist future could have done more fifty years ago to
save the European Jews from the ravages of the Holocaust
is for historians to ponder. But, for those committed
to the creative and evolving Jewish civilization in America,
the apocalyptic perspective on our future can only serve
as an irritating distraction.
That Zionism's failed analysis of Jewish history should
serve as an intellectual force in the thinking of two
Jewish professors (Liebman and Cohen) who chose to make
aliyah and an historian of German Jewry (Wertheimer)
is neither surprising nor objectionable. What is deeply
disturbing is that such philosophical convictions might
be transmuted into a program for American Jewry that
could well become a nihilistic self-fulfilling prophecy.
The "Jewishly engaged," according to the authors attend
synagogue services twice or more a month, OR participate
in four out of five of the following: hold synagogue membership,
hold Jewish organizational membership, contribute at least
$570 to a Jewish charity, subscribe to at least one Jewish
newspaper or periodical and have visited Israel on at
least two occasions, OR regularly do any three of the
following: light Shabbat candles, purchase kosher meat,
maintain separate dishes for meat and dairy, and celebrate
at least four of the Jewish holidays.