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Jewish Life Is Too Insular, Driving Many Idealists Away, Writes Consultant

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2003

Organized American Jewish life, argues Gary Wexler, an advertising executive and consultant to Jewish agencies, is too insular and closed-in, driving many idealists who are seeking spiritual answers to the world’s moral and ethical problems away.  

Writing in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (reprinted in Washington Jewish Week, July 3, 2003), Wexler tells the story of a senior officer at the World Bank who is from Bombay, India and has a Jewish wife. They are bringing their children up in both identities: “He then said something very upsetting but yet understandable to my ears. His oldest son, who attends an Ivy League university, is now turned off to Judaism and turned on to being a Hindu. He began college open to Judaism. Several times he attended meetings of Jewish organizations on campus and always walked away with the same feeling. All he heard at the meetings was about the Jewish world and Israel.”  

In contrast, Wexler notes, “When he attended meetings of the Hindu students, they spoke about India and Hinduism, but they also spoke about the world, American society and the issues on campus that had nothing to do with ethnic identity. As a result, his son now feels that to be Jewish is to live in a very closed-in world of Jewish concerns, where people relate only to the particular and not the universal.”  

This assessment is, Wexler believes, widespread: “I know what he is saying. There are times I walk away from a Jewish event or an evening with friends who are also active, committed Jews, and I say to myself, ‘It’s Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish.’ A recent study by the Charles and Andrea Bronfman philanthropies of the new generation of young Jews in their 20s and 30s has found that many of that generation’s business and cultural leaders have reached the same conclusion as my friend’s son. They are positive about their Jewish identities, but they don’t relate to the core group of active Jews or their Jewish offerings. They feel that the Jewish world is narrow, insular and out of touch with the larger society. They further commented that they live in a diverse world, interacting with friends and colleagues who come from many backgrounds, with whom they share many cultural experiences. They feel that the Jewish world, as it is presented to them, is narrow.”  

In Wexler’s view, “I believe their feelings about the organized Jewish community have validity. Many of us who are among the core of activist Jews are losing our balance. We are passionate and concerned about Judaism. We fear for the future of the Jewish world. We work in Jewish causes. But we are forgetting we are part of a broader humanity and a broader culture. We are losing our ability to relate beyond our particular, to embrace diversity beyond our own, to experience life outside the Jewish box ... At times, I feel we are moving back into the shtetl and voluntarily closing the gates at night. We are not only separating ourselves from the world but separating ourselves from the 90 percent of Jews who don’t relate to organized Jewry. ... We will become irrelevant to the vast majority of Jews and the world. Ask the uninvolved Jews of the next generation. They are our lifeline to the future.”  

He concludes: “We need to remain vibrantly universal in order to thrive in our particular ... Balance, I am learning for myself, must be the ongoing companion to the passion of my Jewish identity ... Today, when I walk away from an event or social evening that is just Jewish, Jewish, Jewish ... I say to myself, it really wasn’t very Jewish.”  

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