About two weeks ago, Mosaic United, formerly the Israel-Diaspora Initiative, announced its first big money grant. The initiative is a project of the Israeli government and its longterm mission is to focus on diaspora-centric issues like intermarriage, assimilation, and the relevance of the State of Israel. This first grant is an even split of about $22 million between three campus-based organizations — Hillel International, Chabad on Campus, and Olami — and each organization is required to match those funds two-to-one. Of the recipients, Hillel International is a known entity to establishment, federation Judaism. The other two are right-leaning orthodox organizations.
And that was enough to set off alarms.
As if on cue, voices among the non-Orthodox movements went ballistic. Op-eds and articles were posted online with headlines like “Israel, Don’t Tell Diaspora Jews How to Be ‘More Jewish’” and “Jewish Identity Plan Raises Ire of non-Orthodox Jews in U.S.” The usual chorus piped up, demanding inclusion. The complainers cried foul and were miffed, “Orthodoxy is too narrow and one-dimensional,” they said.
First of all, non-Orthodox Judaism is getting funding — Hillel International is a pluralistic organization. Hillel caters to everyone and of the three grant recipients, has the biggest footprint. So what’s the problem? But more to the point, Mosaic United’s grant is a matching grant. The grantees have to pony-up, too — big time — and the three recipients already have the existing infrastructure, manpower, and donor base to make that two-to-one match a reality. Does anyone else? The Conservative movement couldn’t even find the funds to save Koach, their movement’s dying campus program.
But none of that matters. Not really. And that’s because non-Orthodox Judaism already had its chance — and they blew it.
For, I don’t know, 70 years? — at least since the dawn of Woody-Allen-Phillip-Roth-style Judaism — the Reform and Conservative movements dominated American Jewish life. They had the funding, the donors, the temples, the summer camps, the youth groups, the influence, the prestige, the Hebrew schools, and the bar/bat-mitzvah-high-holiday monopoly. They had it all. They had the prime, once-in-an-eon opportunity to put their stamp on Jewish identity.
And look at the mess they made.
Intermarriage — for most people the key indicator of Judaism’s relevance — is at 71 percent. Assimilation is rampant. Support for Israel is dwindling. Even Birthright — you know, the free trip to Israel — is struggling. Temples are closing, or merging, or being taken over by yeshivas and churches. Donors are disappearing and their children aren’t interested in Jewish causes. Jewish day schools are searching for students. The great secular American Jewish experiment is in danger of fading into oblivion. (Hello? Why do you think the Israeli government is interested in spending millions on diaspora outreach in the first place? Because diaspora Judaism is thriving?)
Could it be that despite a captive audience, unlimited resources, and sincere and honest intentions—the Jewish establishment failed to provide a compelling reason to be Jewish?
I grew up in the Reform movement. My family belonged to a prominent temple in northern New Jersey. Our rabbi was a good guy and popular (or to quote my grandmother, “The rabbi kissed me!” She loved it). Attendance suffered during the year — this was in the early ‘80s — but high holiday services were packed. I went to our temple’s Hebrew school, had my bar mitzvah there, and stayed on for confirmation in tenth grade. But after high school, I left home and never stepped foot in a synagogue again.
I was done.
I didn’t hate being Jewish. I liked it. And in the multicultural soup of college and then pre-hipster Brooklyn, being different was an asset. But I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know how Judaism was different or how that difference shaped my identity. What I did know—what I was taught in my eight-plus years of supplementary Jewish education—was that Judaism was about liberal social justice, optional religious observance, and Holocaust awareness (and that bible stories were like a kosher version of Aesop’s Fables). None of that is necessarily bad per se, but it isn’t necessarily Jewish. I wanted Jewish. I wanted cultural identity and authenticity. I wanted Jewish pride the same way my black friends had black pride. But alas, it wasn’t to be. My temple didn’t offer that and organizations like Chabad on Campus and Olami didn’t exist back then.
I am Orthodox today. Why that happened is too long to go into here, but I am an anomaly. Most of my peers are Pew Study statistics. I don’t say that critically, my friends are intelligent people. They made good decisions based on their experiences and backgrounds. They live rich and rewarding lives. But I can’t help but wonder how different our lives would be had our temples, Hebrew schools, rabbis, and others not squandered their opportunity. We were there. We were listening—we had to be — imagine if they preached Jewish identity with the same clarity and passion as Chabad and Olami.
But they didn’t — they blew it — and now they bellyache about diversity, alternative perspectives, and equal treatment. They want more money, too. But for what? To continue the same failed programs, prop up the same failed institutions, and promote the same failed agenda of the last 70-plus years?
Maybe Orthodoxy isn’t the only answer. We can argue theology, arrive at different conclusions, and agree to disagree. But there is no hiding the disaster that 70-plus years of secular Jewish leadership has wrought upon diaspora Jewry. The Israeli government wants results and it’s opted to back a winner.
What’s wrong with that?