Jewish Communities Grow

Jewish communities from Boston to Berlin are growing and succeeding despite facing challenges.

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The yearning for a return to Zion is deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche--and has been realized with the birth of the modern State of Israel. Yet the Jewish Diaspora persists, as it has for millennia. The writer, an experienced reporter and author of Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora uses several examples to argue that the Diaspora is a vibrant and enduring part of the Jewish story..

Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism running amuck across Europe. Jews abandoning economically ravaged Argentina in favor of Israel or America. And the curses of intermarriage and assimilation linger. Those are the brow-furrowing themes that dominate the discussion of the Jewish condition worldwide these days.

argentinian synagogue

Sephardic synagogue, Buenos Aires

That image of a people in crisis is compelling. It also is only part of the story, and ignores an equally real and riveting tale of Diaspora renewal.

Europe

Reports from France, Germany, and England of a rising wave of anti-Jewish incidents are distressing. But just as the machine-gun attack at a Jewish community center in California can overshadow the comfort level Jews have achieved in America, so too dramatic reports from Europe should not blind us to their inspired success stories.

Consider the German case. Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, with the deluge of Russian Jews during the 1990s swelling its numbers from 27,000 to well over 100,000. While they make up less than .1 percent of the German population, Jews are consulted by the media on everything from politics to the arts. Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union are given citizenship along with benefits substantially more generous than they would receive in Israel or America. The rare desecration of a Jewish cemetery or temple is treated like a crime against the state. Even non-Jews are naming their children Sarah and Jacob, and they are unearthing Jewish grandmothers who, just a half century ago, would have ensured them a spot on a deportation train. Being Jewish is, quite simply, high fashion in today’s Deutschland.

Recent anti-Semitic incidents lead skeptics to rightfully ask whether, after the Holocaust, it is a trap for Jews in Germany to feel as secure, as much like they belong, as German Jews did at the dawn of the last century. But leaders of today’s German Jewish community insist that developments there over the last decade raise a profound hope for them and their co-religionists worldwide: that if Judaism can make a comeback in Germany, in the land of the murderers, it can happen anywhere.

“Here in Germany we had the biggest murdering of a people in history, more than 6 million Jews killed, and already one or two months after the Holocaust they started again to rebuild this Jewish community. Now we have the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world,” says Paul Spiegel, president of the Council of Jews in Germany. “This is one of the miracles of the century.”

Jews are achieving equally impressive results across the old Soviet Union, where they are building vibrant communities in lands that neither heard Jewish prayers nor experienced Jewish culture during 70 long years of socialist secularism. It is happening in Warsaw andKiev, inMoscow and, perhaps most impressively, in Dnepropetrovsk deep in the Ukraine, where the Brooklyn-bred rabbi says his flock has grown to nearly 75,000.

In Paris, meanwhile, there are more kosher restaurants, grocers, and bakeries to choose from than anyplace on Earth with the possible exceptions of New York and Jerusalem. Europe’s largest community of Jews also is among the Diaspora’s most ardent backers of Israel, although of late that support has spawned stinging criticism from some of their elected leaders and countrymen. All told, a Parisian Jewish community that was ravaged by the Holocaust today stands as the clearest testament that Hitler failed in his bid to stamp out European Jewry.

Argentina

In Argentina, thousands of Jews face personal bankruptcy as well as the economic ruination of synagogues, the rabbinical seminary, and other cherished communal institutions. But while some within Argentina’s nearly 200,000-strong Jewish community have responded by making aliyah [immigrating to Israel] or moving to America, most are staying and vowing to rebuild.

Argentine Jews watched how their country became the Nazis’ escape route of choice after World War II, and how 30 years later Jews made up a disproportionate share of the desaparacidos, or disappeareds, when Argentine generals waged their Dirty War against supposed subversives. They saw in 1992 how a bomb at the Israeli Embassy killed 29 and wounded 252, and two years later watched another bomb rip through the Jewish communal center, killing 86, wounding 236, and leaving a stretch of the city looking like a war zone.

But each time, rather than retrenching, Argentine Jews have come out fighting, vowing to stand up to their enemies and reconnect with their landsmen. And when their communal institutions faltered, the way they have the last few years, the faithful responded by re-cementing their ties to synagogues, schools and other grassroots institutions.

New Definition of Diaspora

Rather than isolated tales of resilience, the stories from Germany and Argentina are part of a new definition of Diaspora. It is a Diaspora made up of Jews who are forever rooted in Israel, but no longer need to live there. It is a heterogeneous people who thrive in secular societies as far-flung as the former Soviet Union and South America, but continue to embrace a core of beliefs and practices that define them as Jews. These tales of survival and renewal make clear that the Diaspora is no mere curiosity of history, but rather the reality of today and tomorrow.

After nearly 2,000 years living outside our ancestral homeland, we Diaspora Jews finally can say that we have new homes. And we can know that those homes are secure in a world that, for the first time, is more promising than problematic for Jews. There are substantial threats posed by a slow shrinkage of population and its concentration in fewer lands, by a watering down of belief and a rising up of hate groups. But there is even more reason to celebrate as Jewish communities once presumed dead or dormant are being reborn from the former East Bloc to the jam-packed shuls of New York and Los Angeles.

Boston

Consider the case of my hometown, Boston. This historic city today finds itself at the edge of the wave of Jewish renewal. Boston has articulated more clearly than any city in America the three foundations of the new Jewish identity: learning, spirituality, and social justice. It is backing its talk with bold action, from pioneering a two-year, 100-hour program of adult education that is reaching thousands, to engineering a Jewish secondary school that proves Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth can thrive in the sort of pluralistic setting that too often eludes their parents. Even as Jews continue moving to outlying suburbs, many are reengaging with the inner city and launching alliances with blacks and Hispanics.

Why here, and why now? It is partly the unusual coming together of creative, articulate leaders at colleges, communal institutions, and synagogues. But over time every city gets the leaders it deserves, and this one, with its heritage of experimentation and rootedness in education, has demanded creativity and vision as a condition of employment. And Boston is big enough to pull together the people and money needed to test new ways of defining Judaism, yet small enough to avoid the rancor that can make the Jews of New York or Chicago seem more like a series of factions than a unified community.

What Boston Jews are aiming for, as Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna says, is to weave together what is best of Boston and Judaism. “The problem in the American Jewish community,” he explains, “is that the great causes of the 20th century are now behind us, whether it is fighting anti-Semitism, defending immigrants, bringing Jews out of the Diaspora in places like the Soviet Union and Ethiopia where they were in big trouble, and most importantly, sustaining the State of Israel.

“Boston is way ahead of the curve in trying to find alternative sources of meaning. There is an explosion of learning here at all levels, a real sense that meaning is to be found internally, that the future begins at home. Synagogues allow for the full range of expressions of Judaism, from spirituality and havurah and new age all the way to the traditional. You get a good sense of all the options in Judaism today by looking here in Boston.”

Atlanta

The resurgence is not limited to Boston, however, or to the conventional outposts of American Judaism. In the waning years of the 20th century Atlanta’s Jews came into their own in a way that finally made their contemptuous cousins up north take notice. It started in 1996 and it centered around money. The Jewish community, numbered at 75,000, decided to raise $25 million. It was the first time community leaders had tried that sort of solicitation for bricks-and-mortar projects, which are not easy to sell to donors worn down and tapped out from the annual fundraising drive. For it to work, professional consultants told them they would have to collect not just from fellow Jews.

So what did Atlanta’s Jewish kingpins do? They made it even harder by nearly doubling their goal to $45 million. That, after all, was closer to what was needed to refurbish the old-age home, build a new community center, and reconstruct other critical Jewish institutions. And the volunteer fundraisers vowed not to accept a dime unless the donor agreed that giving to the building fund would not mean giving less to the annual campaign.

It took just two calls to know it would work. The co-founders of the Home Depot chain committed $15 million outright, along with a $5 million challenge grant. The campaign chairman and his sister, three honorary chairs, and five other wealthy Jews each kicked in $1 million. The best part was the $4.7 million contributed by Coca-Cola, the banks, and other bastions of the Protestant power structure. The fundraising was so successful that, barely 18 months after it began, it ended with $50.3 million--twice what the consultants had predicted and $5 million more than the quixotic goal set by its bullish leaders.

Money too often is used as a measure of a Jewish community’s strength but it does matter, more so in Atlanta than anywhere. What the community raised let it reach out to new arrivals, who have more than tripled the city’s Jewish population over the last 30 years. As word spread of its fundraising prowess, other Jewish communities have looked to Atlanta for hope that, in an era awash in stories of vanishing Jews, growth is possible and productive.

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Larry Tye

Larry Tye is a former reporter for the Boston Globe, and the author of Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora.