For a Christian, I had a partly Jewish upbringing. My father, a civil engineer, worked for a construction company that was employed for five years in completely renovating the Jewish resort, Grossingers. This was a long daily commute for my father from our suburb outside New York City to the Catskills. In the summers, therefore, we lived at Grossingers. From that experience, I lived and learned that Judaism is family and food totally blended with religion. Furthermore, most New Yorkers, no matter what their faith, are sort of Jewish anyway.
In my adult life, I have taught with Rabbis, had Jewish students in my classes and spoken in many synagogues. In all this I have come to appreciate even more that Judaism is an ancient practice of living faith that has endured through enormous, even unprecedented persecution and mass murder. While some forms of the Jewish faith, such as the Reformed tradition, engage modernity and others, such as the Orthodox tradition, resist modern culture, Judaism as a whole remains not so much a belief system as a vibrant way of interpreting life lived with God.
Jewish life in the U.S. has flourished. It is true that there are as many or more ways to be a Jew in America, especially in the last twenty to thirty years, than ever before. The Jewish population in America is aging and there is a lot of intermarriage, especially with Christians. But new organizations and even synagogues have emerged to cater to the needs of interfaith families, who are now accepted as fully Jewish by Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.
I have prayed with a Jewish/Christian women’s group from the north side of Chicago that has been meeting together for more than a decade. They employ a large number of practices borrowed from Eastern religions; this group is not unique and I know of several Jewish and Jewish/Christian groups that employ Eastern spiritual practices. In addition a new emphasis on spirituality and lay participation are reinvigorating services in Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform synagogues. Feminists have created new rituals and cultivated new roles for women in Judaism. There are many more Jewish day schools than there were 20 years ago. Orthodox Judaism is also attracting Jews in greater numbers and “secular” Jews are studying Hebrew and researching their family history.
And then there is Israel. A giant fact of Judaism, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, in the last fifty years is the existence of the state of Israel. To say that the relationship between Jews in America and Israel is complex is a gross understatement. Israel and the need to preserve its continued existence are virtually unquestioned, but how this should happen and what price this continued existence is exacting are the subject of great consternation among many.
Jewish Americans for most of their history on this soil have been more socially and politically liberal, in general, than the population as a whole. The drive to preserve Israel has drawn some formerly liberal Jewish intellectuals into extremely conservative positions; others strive to maintain their support for the state of Israel while also insisting on human rights for Palestinians and even a two-state solution.
The roiling difficulties of the Middle East and the threats leveled even at Jewish existence by extremists such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad create even more conflicts within the community. This situation has set off renewed anti-Semitism in some quarters, especially in Europe, and the perception on the part of some Jews that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.
My experience of Jewish life lived with family, food and God has been a source of inspiration in my life; I feel grief at the pain on so many fronts American Jews feel about the violence in the Middle East. Like many Jewish friends I also feel grief at the plight of the Palestinian people.
There is no other way forward than for all Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, to insist on a real and far-reaching Middle East peace process, not only for the sake of the Jewish community but for all our sakes.