What Will Happen in 2009?
By Adam Dickter
From new chaos in the Middle East to philanthropic shockwaves caused by Bernard Madoff, 2009 is shaping up to be a momentous year of challenges for the Jewish community.
As the old joke goes, start worrying, details to follow. So to kick off 2009, here are my predictions for the top 10 concerns Jews will face in the coming year.
Prediction #1: The Crisis in Philanthropy...
Adam Dickter is assistant managing editor at the Jewish Week.
The Crisis in Philanthropy
Years of economic growth have paved the way for smaller, family-based foundations to supplement or even duplicate the work of major Jewish organizations in promoting Jewish identity, culture, and education. Now, the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal is causing an implosion of the Jewish charitable universe, as organizations and major donors who invested with him count their losses.
While the casualties are mounting, the real shockwave will be the reassessment of how Jewish philanthropy operates, how it will vet future investments, and how trustees will balance the need to pursue growth of their funds with the risk to their very mission.
The Threat of Terrorism
Events in the Middle East can have repercussions elsewhere, as they did in 1994 when Lebanese-born Rashid Baza, evidently angry about the massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron, opened fire on a van full of Hasidic kids on the Brooklyn Bridge. With the biggest Israeli offensive in years underway in the Gaza Strip, Jewish leaders and police officials are working with Homeland Security officials to identify possible targets here and provide visible deterrents and safety upgrades.
Working with experts, these groups are conducting real-time exercises and formulating contingency plans, while movements such as Chabad Lubavitch, which operated the Mumbai center where six people were murdered last month, are struggling to reconcile their mission of spiritual outreach with the need to safeguard themselves and others.
Worry Over Israel’s Future
When the tanks finally roll out of Gaza, Israel will be left to ponder whether the result was worth the hundreds of lives lost and its bruised world image. But scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won’t be around long to take the heat--his replacement will be chosen in elections early next month. Israeli voters will have to decide whether to elect Labor’s Ehud Barak, Kadima’s Tzippi Livni, or Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
The new Prime Minister will need to lead Israel out of the morass of endless fighting and exhibit an ability to deal with Palestinian leaders and President-elect Barack Obama, while keeping strong against Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north.
When the dust settles, Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world will still have to deal with the threat of a looming nuclear power in belligerent Iran.
Strengthening Intergroup Relations
There have been dramatic breakthroughs in Jewish-Catholic relations following Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to a New York synagogue last year. And Jews and Hispanics have joined forces to respond to a wave of anti-immigrant violence and support immigration reform. But the story to watch this year will be the relationship between Jews and Muslims.
While imams and rabbis in New York worked together to support the creation of a public school focusing on Arabic culture, the cooperation has been strained by flare-ups in Gaza. Jews and Muslims--as well as Jews and Arab groups--will need to work together to uphold civil liberties and fight religious discrimination. If the Mideast peace process gets back on track, expect plenty of joint statements calling for a more active role by the White House.
The Rise in Anti-Semitism
Thousands of people have turned out at anti-Israel rallies around the world in recent weeks as the Gaza death toll climbs (and anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand). Jews have been leaving France in droves since 2006 when a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped and murdered in Paris. Australian Jews also report a growing climate of hate.
The U.S. State Department recently named a special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, and in 2005 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe began holding an annual international conference on fighting anti-Semitism. With a simmering global economic crisis and the spread of radical Islam, particularly in Europe, the result might be a dangerous one.
Concern Over Jewish Continuity
Surveys have increasingly shown that young Jews feel distant from Israel and ambivalent about synagogue and organized Jewish life. Organizations concerned about maintaining Jewish affiliation and commitment in a rapidly aging community with a declining birthrate have focused their efforts on combating intermarriage, promoting Jewish education, and, recognizing the centrality of Israel, offering free trips to the Jewish state through the Birthright Israel foundation.
Jewish federations have also funded innovative cultural projects to attract the attention of "hip" young Jews. But these programs are reeling from the recession, and more and more Jewish families are feeling the pinch while trying to provide costly day school or supplemental Jewish education.
The good news? A recent trend of independent minyanim, or prayer groups, across the country shows a large slice of the community looking for a tailor-made Judaism that fits their needs, even if it doesn’t fit into the major denominational molds.
Preserving the Memory of the Holocaust
The recent disclosure that a celebrated concentration camp memoir by Herman Rosenblat was fabricated only adds fuel to the growing phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Sixty-four years after the Holocaust ended, the Jewish community has ensured that accounts of the genocide, in large part carefully documented by the Nazis themselves, is recorded for posterity. And Hollywood has contributed with new films like “Defiance” and “The Reader.”
But what will it mean to the next generation? “If we forget,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said of the Holocaust, “then we are guilty. We are the accomplices.”
At the same time, Jews are laboring to apply the message of the Holocaust to the need to act against contemporary genocide, like the killings in Darfur.
Understanding the Jewish Community
How many Jews are Orthodox, how many Conservative? Has the Hasidic community grown? Where is the highest concentration of Jews and what is their average income? In the past these questions were answered by the National Jewish Population Study, undertaken by United Jewish Communities. Since the findings and methodology of that study, including a 52% intermarriage rate and a figure of 5.2 million core Jews in America, have been controversial, the cash-strapped UJC isn’t planning to do the study this year. Enter the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, which will issue a preliminary estimate of the Jewish population in America, as well as a trend analysis in January 2010.
Increasing Political Activism
In Barack Obama the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community will find a president much more in sync with their agenda, and likely open to their concerns about the separation of church and state (eroded somewhat, in their view, by President Bush’s faith-based initiatives program), fighting poverty, the need to preserve Medicare and Social Security, and support of stem cell research and abortion rights. They also share his desire to end U.S. presence in Iraq in larger numbers than any other religious group.
Jewish groups have been active on both sides of the gay marriage issue, lobbying state supreme courts in California and Connecticut, with politically conservative Orthodox groups in opposition of same-sex legislation. On a global scale, Jewish groups have been in the forefront of the fight against human rights abuses.
Finding Jewish Unity
Increasingly, Jewish communities are being split by conflicts over the future of their congregations or the character of their neighborhood. In Westhampton Beach, N.Y., the construction of an eruv, a symbolic barrier that allows Orthodox Jews to carry objects or push strollers on the Sabbath, is being heavily opposed in large part by other Jews who fear an influx of Orthodox residents. A similar battle took place in Tenafly, N.J.
Liberals and conservatives argue over the Middle East, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews quarrel within Israel and in Crown Heights, factions of the Lubavitch Hasidic community are at odds over the declaration by some that their grand rabbi, who died in 1994, was or is the messiah. As it gets increasingly easier to find what divides them, Jews in 2009 will have to work harder to remember what they have in common.