Forward Thinking

Should Jews Build Bridges or Fortresses?

By Naomi Zeveloff

  • Print
  • Share Share

Imagine that contemporary American Jews run their own government system made up of just three ministries. Depending on how you see the world, you work in one of the three. Are you a Department of Defense Jew — someone who sees threats to Jews and Israel at every turn? A Department of Education Jew — someone committed to religion and education? Or a Department of Health and Human Services Jew — a person devoted to progressivism, looking beyond the Jewish community to make common cause with other groups?

The three categories — more succinctly described as “protective,” “expressive,” and “progressive” — capture the ideological breadth of active American Jews, according to Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School. Cohen spelled out the distinctions at a BJPA event, during which a Department of Defense Jew and a Department Health and Human Services Jew dialogued about the tension between expressing Jewish values and advancing Jewish interests.

The Department of Defense Jew was Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish. Her counterpart in the in the Department of Health and Human Services was Joy Levitt, the Executive Director of Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center.

For Levitt, living out Jewish values sometimes means the abdication of real or perceived Jewish interests. In one recent example, Levitt said, the JCC opened its gym on Saturday mornings to non-Jewish community groups who use it for sports practice for impoverished kids. Though the gym wasn’t in use by the Jewish members on Saturday morning, Levitt said that she was confronted by one individual who saw her as prioritizing the needs of the arguably needier non-Jewish kids over those of the Jewish members. And yet, Levitt said, she stood by the project as the JCC’s “finest program — and not a single Jewish child benefits from it.”

In another example, Levitt said that the Jewish community found itself grappling over a false choice between its interests and its values when it came to support for the Cordoba Initiative, the proposed Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan, which sought to emulate the JCC. Rather than standing “firmly” behind the community center — dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its critics — the Jewish community lamentably waffled, with some Jewish leaders like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman saying it would be better for the group to build elsewhere.

But where Levitt saw the need to build bridges with non-Jewish groups, her Department of Defense co-presenter saw the need for fortresses against some of them. Wisse began her presentation saying that there are two major challenges to Jews today: assimilation and global anti-Semitism. Unlike their European predecessors, Jews in America aren’t forced into identifying Jewishly by the state. “American Jews are Jews by choice,” she said, but the ability to assimilate is both “our greatest blessing” and “our greatest challenge” as Jews succumb to intermarriage. Also a seminal challenge: shifting the conversation around Israel from one in which Israel is a defendant on the world stage to one in which Israel is the plaintiff, prosecuting what she sees as Arab misdeeds. Jews lack moral confidence, she said. “Jews want acceptance from those who transgress against them.”

After Wisse spoke, Cohen asked her how she might map her philosophy onto to the real world challenges elaborated by Levitt. In essence, how would the Department of Defense handle the work of the Department of Health and Human Services? “I want to understand the application of your values,” said Cohen. Would she open the JCC on Saturday morning for local, non-Jewish kids? Would she partner with Muslim groups in the name of coexistence?

Wisse said that inviting non-Jews to use the gym of the JCC on Saturday morning was “not problematic at all.” But on the second topic, she warned against Jewish naiveté in partnering with organizations without doing their research ahead of time. Jews “should know better” than to join with groups without first looking into them.

Much of the question and answer session that followed was filled with hand wringing over inclusivity. If the Jewish communal world espoused Wisse’s strict interpretation of Jewish interests, would it isolate young, liberal Jews? Wisse balked at the idea that left-leaning Jews were not having their say in the Jewish communal world. “I would like to see one person whose voice has been still in our community.” In fact, she said, she is a marginalized voice at Harvard.

Then, in the spirit of cooperation between two very different types of Jews, Levitt offered Wisse a platform — at least in theory: “If you lived in New York I would invite you to be on my board,” she said.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.