Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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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.