Friday, June 18, 1999

Changing the Culture (Jewish Week)


by Joshua Hammerman

As we rush headlong into a new century, there’s been a lot of talk about the dramatic changes taking place in the world around us. It is difficult to imagine the world of one hundred years ago, before automobiles, telephones, televisions and computer connections were commonplace. Bat Mitzvahs didn’t even exist back then, until Mordechai Kaplan instituted the practice for his daughter Judith in the 1920’s. Imagine Israel a century ago, without Tel Aviv, the Kibbutz or Hebrew University – in fact without it being Israel. Zionism was a vivid dream back in 1900, but only beginning to be translated into reality. Pogroms were seen to be the ultimate attack on Jewish lives and property; they seem almost quaint now, in comparison to later horrors.

So much has changed that it is hard to remember that each positive change was the result of Herculean effort and outstanding leadership. Without Ben Gurion’s monumental chutzpah and courage, there would have been no Israel. Without Kaplan’s vision, we would likely not have a world today where almost all Jewish girls see it as a given that they will become Bat Mitzvah, even if they are from Orthodox backgrounds. Looking back, change seems to have happened naturally, inevitably. But looking forward, the challenges seem far more daunting, if not impossible, and certainly not inevitable.

"Changing the culture" has become the rallying cry of Jewish life, but it is turning out to be much more difficult to accomplish than changing the calendar. January 1 will come and go, but we’ll enter a new era with the same old problems unsolved: sterile suburban synagogues, a growing chasm between American Jews and Israel and the prospective loss of the bulk of an entire under-40 generation to meaningful connection with the Jewish people.

Grand visions abound, but changing the culture implies finding the means, step by step, to turn a few of those visions into reality, knowing that the path won’t be easy and that obstacles will abound. Most dreams never get far beyond the drawing board, others are nurtured over time and manage to stick. We can never know which dreams will endure, but trust that our hard work will yield some fruit. It is ironic that in the ‘60s, the pioneers of cyberspace worked in relative obscurity while the conquest of outer space dominated the front pages. Yet today, while the Internet is the most powerful cultural phenomenon of our time and the founder of Time’s Person of the Year, Americans haven’t set foot on the moon in a quarter century and the recent Mars fiasco has changed only the meaning of the expression "rocket science." Go figure. Similarly, Herzl died a despondent and tragic death, but within half a century, his wildest dream was realized.

So now, what dream should we be nurturing?

I’ve hitched my wagon to Birthright Israel. Through some vigorous lobbying by local Federation leaders (and some extra noodging by me), my community has been selected as one of ten pilot Jewish communities for the summer of 2000, as this visionary project expands to what many consider its most significant phase, the high school market. Up until now we’ve been hearing primarily about the college trips set to go this month. But most experts feel that the full impact of the program will be felt when the vast majority of Jews living outside of Israel see it as their "birthright" that the Jewish world will send them to Israel on a summer teen tour of at least four weeks in duration.

Until now my community has not done especially well in this regard; but the rest of American Jewry has little to crow about either. But the early returns indicate that this summer the number of teens we send to Israel will likely quadruple, as we present them an offer they can’t refuse: big money and the chance to make history.

Last night I visited a group of teens to promote a trip that my synagogue is planning in conjunction with Birthright. I asked how many had been to Israel. Less than a tenth responded in the affirmative, and this from the kids who are actively involved in Jewish youth activities. I am not surprised that Israel isn’t on their radar screens. But when they heard that they could be part of a historic moment, the Halutzim of a great transformation in Jewish life, that turned them on. I then asked them to imagine why the State of Israel would commit $70 million to a project like this when a million Israelis live below the poverty line and when Israel still has great security needs. A number of the teens were ready to sign up then and there.

I do believe that Birthright has the potential to change the culture of Israel-Diaspora relations, but only if we allow it to. The problem is that the High School phase is much more complicated than the College phase. We’re dealing with individual communities with vastly different needs and with local federations that may be far more reluctant to buy in. Many of those who oppose Birthright look for the bureaucratic inconsistencies and exploit them, or bemoan that cheap Israel trips are no panacea for assimilation and therefore a waste of resources. Such people would likely have advised Ben Gurion to cut his losses and hold off on statehood. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says that a leader should aim to be at most 15% ahead of his people. I sense that in this case the people, especially the students, are at least that much ahead of some of their leaders.

While there is indeed no panacea for assimilation, neither have there been many other grand ideas with such potential to bring together so many Jews for the common good and bring back to the Jewish fold many who otherwise might never return. Already, the power of this vision has lit a spark in my community – the culture is changing before our eyes. Israel has invested wisely, demonstrating a deep concern for my teens and our future. We now know how much Israel cares. We’ll soon find out how much the rest of us do.