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What does 'Jewishness' mean today?

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2004

As a Jewish girl growing up in the 1980s and '90s in Greenwich, Conn., Alexis Gerber never struggled to fit into American society, as her ancestors did. Instead, she lived comfortably with her parents and two siblings in an upscale neighborhood where, she says, Jews were unwelcome some 60 years earlier.

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Yet Ms. Gerber has nonetheless faced her own Jewish struggle, one that resonates with young Jews across the nation and is compelling Jewish institutions to raise tens of millions of dollars for the cause.

For many like Gerber, today's challenge is not for Jews to learn the ways of America, but rather for these Americans to learn how to live as Jews.

"I hated the rabbi. My mother hated the rabbi. So we never went" to synagogue, says Gerber, now a Tufts University senior with plans to become a rabbi herself. "It's not like I didn't have a Jewish identity. It was always very important. But I never did anything to express it."

As American Jewry turns 350 and looks to the future, Gerber's journey from disinterested to devotee tells of a new twist in a centuries-old story.

A people who perennially have struggled both to assimilate and also to maintain a cultural identity have by and large assimilated with flying colors. Jews currently live and work far beyond the Northeast urban enclaves of the previous centuries; 35 percent of the nation's 5.2 million Jews now live in the South and Midwest.

In a more controversial sign of blending, 47 percent of Jews who married after 1996 chose a non- Jewish spouse, up from 13 percent before 1970, according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001.

With such thorough assimilation, however, has come the unprecedented task of "Judaizing" a bloc of ethnic Jews who can and sometimes do opt out of cultural Jewish life.

Whether the mega-project amounts to rescuing an endangered culture or fueling a vibrant renaissance depends on the vantage point of the speaker, but either way, Jews and their institutions are gearing up for what promises to be a new ballgame.

"Jews have made it," says Leonard Saxe, director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "The issue now is not the fight against assimilation. It's giving the next generation of Jews a sense of their heritage and identity."

Change is in the air

To that end, a surge of investment has swept the landscape of Jewish institutions:

• From 1980 to 1999, the number of non-Orthodox Jewish high schools jumped from 10 to 22. Since 2000, plans have taken shape for 13 more, some of which are already built.

• Between 1970 and 1999, the number of Jewish day schools affiliated with Reform Judaism grew from two to 22.

• The number of Chabad Lubavitch centers, which specialize in acquainting lapsed and secular Jews with the celebratory ways of Orthodox observance, has doubled from 300 in 1994 to about 600 in 2004.

• The budget for Hillel, the Jewish life centers with programs on more than 400 college and university campuses, has doubled from $25 million in 1994 to $52 million this year.

• More than 70,000 young Jewish adults have visited Israel in the past five years through Birthright Israel, a program that offers a free, 10-day trip to Jews ages 18 to 26.

All this investment speaks to a "mood of regeneration" in American Jewry at its 350th anniversary, according to Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Yet behind the shiny façade of new buildings sometimes lurks a fear that even a strict Jewish upbringing isn't enough to keep young people on the right path. This fear is represented in a decision by several Orthodox families to send their children who just graduated from high school to Israel for a year of yeshiva study, where students probe Hebrew Bible commentaries amassed through the centuries.

"The implication is striking," Dr. Wertheimer wrote in The Jerusalem Post in July. "Parents who are religiously observant and Jewishly engaged, who have sent their children to day schools from preschool through high school, raised them in dense Jewish communities, enrolled them in Jewish summer camps, and taken them on trips to Israel, seriously doubt whether they have adequately prepared their children to live as committed Jews in America's open society."

The road to commitment

Michael Vilarello knows the draw of that open society. Raised in Miami in the 1980s and '90s by a Jewish mother and Roman Catholic father who fled from Cuba as a child, he found his religious and ethnic identity were largely his to choose.