At this season of our renewal, as we seek to bring wholeness into our networks of relationships, we are encountering as a community a number of challenging concerns.
Kehillah: How Do we Sustain and Engage our Fellow Jews?
As we know, our society, and more pointedly the Jewish community, is living through a time of institutional realignment and leadership transition, yet some sociologists are suggesting that out of this experience we are likely to see “a return to community”. For Jews, such a “return” maybe tied to the rise of anti-Semitism and the sense of concern, even fear that may result. In recent times, I have suggested that we are witnessing “the end of community,” yet we always hold out the desire to see the rebirth of a shared commitment to Jewish peoplehood.
Sociologists argue that individuals seek “community” especially when experiencing vulnerably or isolation. One measure that we need to follow will be the presence of larger numbers of participants joining or attending communal or synagogue-based activities. Social media engagement will also offer us another measure of this connection to community.
Security: In a Period of Heightened Concern for the Safety of Individuals and the Welfare of Institutions, What Are People Feeling?
While we have acknowledged for years the presence of anti-Semitism in this society, the sudden uptake in both personal and collective incidents of hate has sparked a new concern on the part of many Americans and in particular, Jewish Americans. The security upgrades in connection with Jewish institutions is but one demonstration of this heightened level of attention. What are the responses on the part of Jews in living with this new reality? Will we see a greater reluctance by some of us to avoid public or Jewish spaces, out of fear? Or might we see some push back on the part of some that we are creating a fortress mentality around our synagogues and institutions that is in part designed to keep folks out who may otherwise wish to participate or make those who enter feel even more vulnerable, as captives within their own community? We continue to struggle in determining an effective balance of preserving safety with a desire to be “welcoming”.
Maklokhet: Controversy and Division within our Community: Can we Change the Current Cycle?
At a time of extreme political tension both around domestic issues and Israel policies, are we finding “brave space” to share ideas? Clearly, some Jewish professionals are reporting that any statement made by an individual leader or by an institution that seems to advocate a particular position is immediately subject to criticism or worse: threats of resignation, the withholding of donations, or efforts to censure those who are outspoken. As I have recently written, the Jewish wars are contributing to the diminution of communal discourse.
American Jews are living with internal challenges that separate Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish State. The political walls that divide us around Israel and its political destiny represent a major challenge to our collective wellbeing. Has the Israel that some of us envisioned left us behind? The proposition that Israel would be seen as both a focus of our constant attention and our uncompromised loyalty may no longer hold value. In this New Year, can we create new conversations, free of hate-filled rhetoric?
Social Media: What Strategies Can Be Introduced to Promote Responsibility on the Internet?
No other instrument of communication in American society has shown such significant growth as social media. Today, some 3 billion households are using social media worldwide, including 78% of Americans. Indeed, there are many positive outcomes. Yet, 4 in 10 Americans are reporting that they have experienced Internet “harassment”. Social scientists noted that in addition to cyber bullying and the growth of “hate speech”, social media is producing an array of problematic outcomes including social isolation and addiction, stress and anxiety. What can we recommend by way of guidelines, new legislation or patterns of “best practice” in connection with managing the Internet?
Economy: Are we Living in a new Gilded Age? What do we need to understand about the American economy?
Some American sociologists are defining this economic period of affluence and growth as our second “gilded age”! We are reminded of the period immediately following the Civil War where greed and corruption occurred at the expense of the working class. The “robber barons” of that period employed intimidation and their political connections to exploit workers and to hold down wages. The economic divide of that era is being recreated in our times as we identify income inequality that defines the American marketplace.
This economy, at least according to most studies, appears to be growing, providing new job opportunities for many, yet some economists and a few social scientists offer a different perspective; they are suggesting that there is growth but the “trickle down” impact is minimal and that many working class households are living at or near the poverty line. Data from the New York Jewish Population Study offers some sobering news in connection with the rise of the “new Jewish poor” or “near poor”. Some of this maybe tied to the inability of some families to have recovered from the 2008-10 “great recession”. Data about recent college-graduates and young families provide additional insights about the impact of college loans, the inability to afford housing, the high costs of medical coverage, and the limited options within the job market in certain professions. In some cases, individuals on fixed incomes and pensions have had to delay retirement in order to strengthen their financial position in part connected to the negative impact of the recession. Many of these generic economic trends are affecting the lives and wellbeing Jewish Americans, as well.
As this New Year approaches, we find ourselves today in a different place. We require the types of conversations that defined our identity, direction and focus in the 20th century. Internally, we are bereft at this moment of Jewish ideologies that might inspire and guide us into the future. Do we seem to have the visionary leaders and necessary institutions to carry us forward? Our communal discourse, at this time, is deeply imperiled by the Jewish wars taking place around us and by the political divide that exists both within and beyond our community. Our economy is defined by greed and inequality, just as our community is challenging itself in seeking to manage the issues of security and social media.
In this moment of our renewal, as we prepare to recalibrate our lives in preparation for a New Year, let us reflect on those challenges that define and shape us as a community.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.