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!
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • 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.