HIAS as Mirror: The Transformation of the American Jewish Community from Tribal Affinity to Tikkun Olam

Last month, Mark Hetfield spoke at our synagogue. He is the President and CEO of HIAS, an organization once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and now (tellingly) referred to only by its acronym. Several things stood out for me about his presence and presentation, all of which point to a significant change in the American Jewish landscape.

The first issue was a question of institutional exposure. One woman, who grew up in activist circles but with little formal Jewish education, was surprised by HIAS’ story. “I didn’t know they had such a history,” she said. “I thought they were a group that helped Syrian refugees.” Another woman said that, paraphrasing again: “Oh, HIAS. They’re for Eastern Europeans in the 20’s, and Soviet resettlement in the 70’s. Are they still around?” Two comments, heard within minutes of each other.

The difference speaks volumes, I think. But it is not yet clear exactly what the discrepancy means, until we add in one more observation. Last summer, when the current refugee crisis reached a tipping point of public awareness, and all eyes were on so many millions on the move, I first heard Mark Hetfield utter a phrase about HIAS’ mission which has remained with me all year. As expected, he shared this insight again last month. And in his words, I think, a profound change in Jewish vision and values becomes clear.

So what was the line? “We used to help refugees,” he asserted, “because they were Jews. Now we do so.. because we are Jews.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a succinct summary of what sociologists and observers of American Jewish religious life have been trying to say, for many years. Whether it is in the work of Lawrence Hoffman and Ron Wolfson in Synagogue 2000 (now Synagogue 3000), the insights of Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen in The Jew Within, teachings at the Shalom Hartman Institute about the role of peoplehood, my own perceived need to emphasize folk as well as faith in the face of fading communal commitments, or in dozens of other places, the trend is very clear Once, American Jews felt bound to one another, and to Jewish causes, out of a sense of tribal connection, and group loyalty. Now, what speaks to many and moves the heart is a call to idealism, a mission expressed through the concept of Tikkun Olam (mending/repairing the world).

As so many others have indicated, we can still be moved to action by the call of Jewish values. And, indeed, both impulses – to help our own, and to heal the world – are values statements. But the core world views here are very different. The old tribal pull was an expression of externally imposed and internally comforting particularism. What works today, in the non-Orthodox world at least, is a universally defensible moral mission, a humanistic solidarity that, expressed as a Jewish value, you don’t have to be Jewish to step into.

My goal in what I teach is, as best I can, to help us hear both voices. Pride, without prejudice. Peoplehood, and purpose. Loyalty to family, and love of the world. You could describe these voices in many ways: Jewish need versus Jewish aspiration, solidarity versus social justice, reaching inward versus reaching outward. Whatever words we use though, I believe that to build a healthy and lasting community, we need both. Hillel, of course, said something very similar. “Im ein ani li mi li? U’ksh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Years ago, at the Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington D.C., I saw my first I-Max movie. It was a documentary called Powers of Ten. It depicted a man, laying on a beach. The camera focused on his hand. And then it retreated, outward, ten meters away. And then ten times ten meters. And then ten times that. And so on. And soon we had a view of looking downward from… the outer extremities of the universe.

The camera zoomed in, and then the process began again. Only this time, it was ten to the negative ten meters, going inside the cells on his skin, and then to a view of the DNA, and then to the space in between the molecules, and then to the tiniest particles. And, at least in this film, as I recall, the view from the inner world, and the view from the outer edge… looked essentially the same.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.