Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 1999 / 12 Shevat, 5759

Jonathan Rosenblum

Keep the money

AMERICAN JEWS WILL WITHHOLD one hundred million dollars in annual giving to Israel if the Knesset does not adopt the Reform position on religious pluralism, threatened Reform leaders at a January 5 press conference.

The truth is that a strong argument can be made for redirecting a good deal of Jewish charitable giving currently going to Israel. The rule of Jewish charity has always been: the needy of one's own city take precedence.

And American Jewry surely does not lack for pressing problems. Intermarriage is above 50% and rising, fertility rates are below replacement levels, the unaffiliated constitute the largest group of American Jews, and 10% of those born Jewish list their religion as "none'' or "other.'' Given that profile of a community headed towards extinction, the energies devoted to religious pluralism in Israel border on the insane.

There is surely much room for devoting increased communal resources to Jewish education. Study after study shows that a day school education is by far the best protection against assimilation. Yet the cost of tuition places such an education beyond the reach of many parents who would like to send their children to Jewish schools. A hundred million dollars could provide a lot of scholarships.

Even if Reform and Conservative donors were to use money withheld from Jewish federations for projects specifically identified with their movements in Israel, no one could object. Everyone is entitled to direct his charitable giving to projects close to his heart.

It is high time that the Reform and Conservative movements tested the enthusiasm for such projects in the fundraising market rather than seeking to extort money from the federations with threats of donor boycotts. That would allow the federations to return to their proper business of supporting social welfare projects in Israel for which there is a consensus of support across the Jewish spectrum.

Unfortunately, the Reform leaders made no attempt to place a positive cast on their threat to withhold vast sums from charitable giving in Israel. They spoke neither of the need to address the crisis of American Jewry or of the desire to concentrate on particular projects in Israel. The threat to withhold funds was wielded as a club plain, pure and simple.

That negativity has characterized the entire pluralism campaign, and is itself a reflection of the crisis in American Jewry. Anger generated by the false claim that Israel and/or Orthodox Jews do not consider the non-Orthodox to be Jews has proven by far the most potent tool for mobilizing Reform and Conservative constituents in recent memory.

Yet if the heterodox movements had ever succeeded in arousing their constituents spiritually, they would not now be so obsessed with religious pluralism in Israel -- an issue of no consequence to any American Jew and of little interest to Jews in Israel.

Ultimately the biggest losers from the call to withhold funding from the social welfare projects of the federations will be the non-Orthodox movements themselves. Jewishness plays an ever declining role in the self-identity of the movements' constituents, and a sharp drop in charitable giving would only exacerbate the decline.

The more one's self-identity revolves around one's Jewishness, the greater the bond with other Jews; the more attenuated Jewish self-identity, the weaker the bond with fellow Jews. Today that bond has weakened to the point where only 17% of Reform Jews claim to identify strongly with the fate of Jews in Israel, and 42% say they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.

Edgar Siskin, a Reform rabbi, has argued in this vein that waning American Jewish support for Israel has little to do with opposition to right-of-center governments or concerns about religious pluralism, but is attributable to larger patterns of assimilation. (Indeed it is the very tenuousness of the connection to fellow Jews that lends credibility to the Reform leaders' threat to punish poor Jewish children in Israel.)

For many of the Reform movement's constituents giving to projects in Israel is their last connection to their Jewishness. That giving reinforces whatever tenuous sense of connection to fellow Jews they still possess, and, in turn, increases their Jewish self-identity.

Even today the money raised by Jewish charities dwarfs that raised by such community-wide charities as the March of Dimes, the American National Red Cross, and the American Cancer Society. Charitable giving and concern for those less fortunate than themselves remain the most defining Jewish traits.

Yet talk to any Jewish fundraiser and you will hear a rising sense of panic about the future. Our parents and grandparents, whether religious or not, viewed charitable giving as an obligation. Money for tzedakah came off the top, like income tax. The younger generation of Jews is increasingly likely to view charity as money to be given only after the kitchen is remodeled and the car updated.

The great danger of the threat to cut off funding to Israel is that it will legitimize reduced charitable giving. Rather than wending its way into communal coffers in America, much of the money withheld from social welfare projects in Israel will go to paying Club Med dues and the like.

That would be a tragedy.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum