Preserving Our Jewish Family

runyan_josh_otYou have to hand it to the sisterhood of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Greengate Jewish Center in Baltimore. The Tuesday afternoon meeting was billed as a chance to meet the JT’s new editor, but in the space of about an hour, the group of about 40 women — and one man — cut to the heart of the dilemma facing Jewish communal life.

Do we want to be inclusive or do we want to preserve tradition?

Their question, of course, was specifically directed toward the challenges faced by publishers in the Jewish press, but it speaks of a larger issue facing each and every one of us. If the conclusions of the oft-discussed Pew Research Center’s recent study of Jewish American life are correct — if the American Jewish community is losing its members to a rising tide of assimilation, intermarriage and religious apathy — shouldn’t the response be to strengthen our numbers?

Some have indeed endorsed that approach, sometimes seeming to embrace a whatever-the-cost strategy in widening the Jewish communal tent.

Still others, though, have apparently circled the wagons, adopting what some pejoratively have termed a “ghettoized” approach and whose adherents call protecting tradition.

Such an environment certainly amplifies the crossroads at which American Jewry finds itself. But since when are inclusivity and tradition mutually exclusive ideals?

This might be a revolutionary statement, but I would venture that Jewish youth, who have always been searching for truth, have migrated out of the fold not because our traditions need updating, but because we as a community haven’t been doing a good enough job of communicating those traditions’ essential core. The Jewish people aren’t unified because each of us calls himself or herself “Jewish”; Jewish unity instead resides in the shared experience of being Jewish. So to the extent that vast swaths of the Jewish community are searching — and they are — at least they’re doing a quintessentially Jewish thing: They’re looking for truth.

Now comes the task of providing it, and doing so can take an inclusive approach.

For years, the social sciences focused on how individuals responded to various conditions, from physical handicaps to learning disabilities. Now, however, psychologists, therapists and social workers — some of whom you’ll read about in our cover story about siblings of children with special needs and in an article about a new addiction treatment center — talk about how a family collectively copes with a challenge.

“Families need to step back and look at their schedules,” Owings Mills-based psychologist Eve Band advises those who have children with and without special needs. “Make arrangements to spend time alone with the other siblings, even if it’s just for a Sunday morning bagel run.”

The same advice can be applied to larger communal issues. As members of the global Jewish community, each one of us has special needs, whether they be financial, familial, spiritual or physical. Above all, each of us has a need to belong.

In meeting those challenges, it would be easy to forget how each part of the community works as part of the whole. So let’s collectively take a step back; instead of throwing our communal net wider or letting those departing fend for themselves, let’s think of ways we can preserve that which makes us a Jewish family.

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