What does 'Jewishness' mean today?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Yet he has chosen to regard himself as "100 percent Jewish," and to become active in Jewish life through Hillel at Middlebury College in Vermont, largely because he had attended Hebrew school three days a week as a child and studied two months at a Jewish high school in Israel.

"I just didn't feel the same instant acceptance or click with the Latin American organization on campus," says Mr. Vilarello, now a senior at Middlebury.

Instead, for the first time in his life, he became a regular at Friday evening Shabbat services, because "it makes me feel at home. It's the prayers I learned every day Thursday through Sunday from third grade through seventh grade. It feels right to be at these services."

Vilarello's passion for Jewishness has rubbed off.

In his first summer home from college, Vilarello's family adopted a new habit: lighting a candle at sundown every Friday to mark the Sabbath's arrival. Some friends have learned to like the Israeli music that now fills his iPod. And he considers it his job to invite Jews on campus to explore the riches of their tradition through Hillel.

For all its passion, however, Vilarello's approach highlights some of the challenges of the future in terms of claiming what it means to be a Jew in America.

Different ways to 'be Jewish'

The traditions, he says, are "presented to you in such a way that you can pick and choose what you want from being Jewish." For one person, therefore, living "Jewishly" might mean cooking traditional foods or collecting works by Jewish artists. For another, it might mean having Jewish friends or being active in progressive or pro-Israel politics.

Whether such a self-directed and individualistic approach can deliver a robust identity to American Jews remains to be seen.

Indeed, organizations committed to affirming Jewish "peoplehood" have struggled in recent years, according Jonathan Sarna, chief historian of the anniversary project known as "Celebrate 350" and author of "American Judaism: A History."

B'nai B'rith, for instance, a primary magnet for Jewish donations and influence 100 years ago, now struggles to keep pace as donations flow to newer groups with more specialized missions.

"At a time when there are so many ways of being an American, it's not surprising there are many ways of being Jewish," Dr. Sarna says. "Yet what makes Jews distinct is that Jews are both a people and a religion.... You can't have one without the other."

Even the loosely knit movement known as Orthodox Judaism, whose participants define themselves by holding closely to Jewish law and custom, has in some sectors accepted that Jewish identity is up to the individual to define. For instance, not all members of the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City keep kosher, according to Senior Rabbi Marc Angel, although the leadership there hopes someday they will.

"We have different people looking for different things," Mr. Angel says. "Still, we believe if people are exposed to Jewish law in a serious way, they will be attracted.... We hope they're moving closer to the tradition rather than away from it."

Going forward past the 350-year landmark, Jewish institutions entrusted with passing on traditions are facing pressure to review what makes them relevant in today's setting, where the dynamics and challenges have changed so dramatically from the days when Jews were barred from certain neighborhoods and industries.

The role of organizations

Prominent Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, for instance, has publicly criticized some of American Jewry's historic groups for being "backward-seeking organizations," preoccupied with yesterday's problems. He has instead steered his considerable resources to new projects, such as Birthright Israel.

But in the view of Dr. Saxe, of Brandeis University, historic institutions may continue to play a vital role, especially if they can adapt to the changing needs and demands of the people they serve. "Jewish institutions, whatever they are, are going to have to figure out how to play different roles," he says.

The secular ones might have to infuse more religious content into their programming, he says, while the religiously conservative ones might need to accept such difficult realities as intermarriage.

"They'll need to provide opportunities for the next generation of Jews at least to know what this tradition is and choose if they want to be part of it," Saxe says. "You really can't reject something that you don't know. You can ignore it, but you can't reject it until you learn about it."

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