Next year: Let’s end consumerist Judaism by becoming Jewishly ambitious

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-7-10

Two of the most traumatic cataclysms Westerners endured this past decade coincided with Rosh Hashanah. September 11, 2001 fell one week before the Jewish New Year. Some religious Jews who normally would have been in the Twin Towers when the planes hit were delayed because of the slichot, repentance, hymns which extend the morning service in Elul. Then, two years ago, the financial system melted down during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some synagogues in New York, rabbis had to implore their congregants to turn off their Blackberries as the constant buzzing with market updates interfered with the PA system.

Alas, to echo White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, we collectively have wasted these crises. The high anxiety experienced around the High Holidays did not propel us collectively to greater spiritual or moral heights. Traditionally, wars and economic crises have triggered geysers of self-sacrifice, streams of idealism, pools of communal concern, amid waves of revulsion against the complacency that often accompanies peace and prosperity. After 9/11 some regretted not having done more good works during the good times. Americans considered making September 11 a national day of voluntarism. But most of us followed President George W. Bush’s advice to get back to normal, to return to the malls. The opportunity for mass reckonings or dramatic reform vanished.

Instead, an unchecked consumerism continues to pervert our politics, our culture, our intimate relations, even our spiritual lives. Consumerist Judaism distorts across the religious spectrum. Consumerist Judaism reduces our profound link in the chain of Jewish civilization to another take-it-or-leave consumption choice. It fosters a paradoxical sense of harsh judgmentalism and enervating passivity. We scrutinize Judaism hyper-critically, picking and choosing whatever fragments work for us, if and when it is convenient.

Rather than using our critical faculties as springboards to transform modern Judaism, we take it as it is. We behave like shoppers not owners, an audience to be lured not empowered agents of change and renewal, rarely taking responsibility to make Judaism better, richer, deeper, more meaningful.

As a result, a corrupting materialism has too many focusing on what they will wear to synagogue rather than how they will grow by going; too many rites of passage showcasing the fancy “bar” not the meaningful mitzvah; too many community leaders selected because of their net worth not their Jewish values; too many communal decisions driven by the bottom line not a transcendent vision. We risk turning our Etz Chayim, our ever growing and flourishing Tree of Life, into an elaborate icon, frozen in time, evoking the past but not heralding an appealing future.

To start acting like concerned Jewish citizens not lazy Jewish shoppers, we must become Jewishly ambitious. The awkwardness of the phrase reflects the rarity of the phenomenon. This goes way beyond a few New Year’s Resolutions, treating Rosh Hashanah like a second January first. We should set ambitious goals for ourselves as Jews, individually and communally. Rather than simply pressuring our kids to do well in school, to achieve materially, we should start inspiring them – and ourselves – to grow spiritually and communally. And our institutions must start becoming more dynamic and visionary, taking risks to accomplish great missions not just trying to survive.

Religious Jews need less humility regarding Judaism as a system while modern Jews need more. Too many religious Jews confuse the current religious status quo with God’s vision. Halachic Jews need to distinguish between Torah-based essentials and cultural adaptations that should change. Too many modern Jews fail to appreciate Judaism as a way of life, a worldview, a moral vision, not simply a catalogue of traditional rites, stories and superstitions.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would involve the religious world – in Israel and the Diaspora – rising up against the Rabbinate’s torpor, corruption and heavy-handedness – understanding that religion thrives from internal impulses reinforced by communal norms not government coercion.  It would involve remembering that mitzvot are means to morality and meaning, not chits to accumulate competitively or yardsticks for feeling superior vis a vis one’s fellow Jews. It would mean ensuring that Religious Zionism is more concerned with people than with land while building a state that showcases Judaism’s best values and Jews’ better selves.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would also involve secular Jews refusing to allow themselves to be turned off by letting the rabbinate or ineffective rabbis define Judaism. Instead, we need ways to turn on to a vital, substantive Jewish identity that is historic, authentic and challenging – not simply a quaint ethnic or ancestral ritual or two. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society not a slave to the latest trends.

To be Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life, we must take ownership. Individual happiness comes from taking responsibility for your own actions, for your destiny. Jews from across the religious spectrum can feel more fulfilled Jewishly by investing enough, learning enough, caring enough, committing enough, to make Judaism their own – and make the community better.

We forget how lucky we are. Never before have so many Jews lived with such freedom, with such prosperity. And for 2000 years we lacked a state that could serve as a point of pride, a source for protection, and, most important of all, home to half of world Jewry – even more if they choose to come. These gifts offer tremendous opportunities. This New Year let’s celebrate our good fortune with a mass Jewish revival, setting sweeping goals, taking more responsibility, pushing toward a Jewish community that thrives and a Judaism that sings an old-new song of revival and redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at


Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.