The connection of young American Jews to the Jewish people is progressively declining because they are made to feel that identifying with their ethnic group is “not kosher,” a leading expert on American Jewish history said this week.
“On their university campuses, identifying with Jews as a people, which is distinct from their identifying with Judaism, is not considered kosher,” said Prof. Jack Wertheimer, who also serves as provost of the Jewish Theological Center in New York. “Only people of color are allowed to identify with their fellow ethnics. White Americans are not allowed to participate in that kind of behavior.”
Speaking at a conference at Hebrew University this week, Wertheimer said Jews “are gravitating toward universalism because of their discomfort with parochialism.” And Jewish organizations have become increasingly complicit in the process, he pointed out, citing the change of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) slogan, which has gradually evolved from “We Are One” to “Live Generously”—their new motto that does not specify the target for philanthropists’ generosity.
“Jewish organizations, instead of trying to promote the idea of taking care of the Jewish people, have soft-pedaled this idea, perhaps because they know their market and they know what will sell,” he said.
Wertheimer also lamented attempts to universalize Judaism, so that values like tikkun olam [repairing the world] and kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh [all of Israel is responsible for one another] no longer focus on the Jewish community. Lobbying for the victims of Darfur or cleaning American rivers, he said, have taken precedence over sustaining Jewish communal institutions because there is a “diminution in concern” for fellow Jews.
Wertheimer was speaking at a session on Jewish identity and multiculturalism, part of a three-day conference at the Hebrew University in honor of Prof. Gideon Shimoni, who recently retired from the university’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.
At the same session, Prof. Michael Brown of York University in Toronto spoke about the Canadian Jewish community and the impact of multiculturalism, which became official government policy in 1971 and has since weakened the sense of group loyalty among some of the country’s Jews.
“It is possible,” Brown said, “that at the end of the day, multiculturalism will have served to undermine the autonomy and uniqueness of the Jewish group in Canada.”