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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Why I’m optimistic about our future

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Norma Joseph

I’ve been writing this column since 2003. I never imagined that I’d last this long or like the process so much. Intriguingly, I didn’t know I was so confident about our community and our future. I also could not imagine people’s reaction to the columns themselves.

People often ask me how I choose my topics or find the time. Typically, I have no idea how my words or thoughts are received. People don’t necessarily comment or contact me. And that’s fine. However, every now and then, a column seems to resonate with people, and I get feedback.

Personal columns often reverberate with readers. Early on, I wrote a column about women saying Kaddish. That struck a deep chord, and different women commented. They were interested in the struggle for women’s ritual practice. In general, you’re interested in my struggles when you hear your own experiences validated or exposed.

Then there are columns that come out of questions people ask or insights friends offer. One such column was my discussion of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and our poor powers of remembrance. After it appeared, The CJN dedicated serious time and space to the campaign for Gilad’s release. I’m proud to have been part of that. I was, and still am, concerned about Israeli MIAs. How can we keep them present in our minds and in Israeli political discourse? Your interest sparks my consideration.

Aside from commenting on things political, I like to dialogue about our community and our religious practices. Last month’s column about who is religious quickly received many reactions. Many thought it was worth sharing with others. I’m especially proud that a teacher I respect greatly used it in her Grade 5 class. I felt strongly about what I wrote – about our heritage and the religiosity of Jews in all walks of life. I often feel we lose sight of our great strength and disavow our own diversity. There is a self-confidence that we as a community are entitled to, a sense of robust survival that we should not yield or hide from.

Significantly, I’m not afraid to criticize our community, its leaders and its members. There are issues we have not addressed or about which our record is poor. As you know, I practically rant about the deplorable state of agunot, women who can’t receive a Jewish divorce. I blame all of us: rabbis, lay leaders, professionals, marrying couples, husbands and the Jewish legal system itself.

Clearly, I write about things I’m passionate about. These topics emanate from my concerns for our existence as a Jewish community. Thus, I’m writing today to tell you that I’m proud of our communal presence and vibrancy. I see a strong and successful Jewish world today. Many write that we’re in a time of crisis. I don’t agree. Despite the recent Pew study of U.S. Jewry, or perhaps despite its distortion, I’m heartened by our vitality. Reading the study carefully supports my optimism and confidence.

Never before in history have we had such a strong Jewish community or domain. Clearly, it’s different than in the past, but change doesn’t necessarily mean decline! Today we live in a world where there is a free and democratic Jewish State of Israel. Yes there are problems, but the state has significantly restructured our purview. One grand transformation of our community is signalled by the fact that American Jews are the most educated community ever in history. While some will fear this development as a sign of our secularization and the supposed attendant distancing from our ethnic or religious identity, that is not evident.

Significantly, there are more Jews getting a Jewish education today than ever before. Astonishingly, women are included in that demographic! Moreover, people are talking about their distinctiveness as Jews and acting in ways that endorse and promote their identity. There are more Hebrew speakers than ever, Yiddish hasn’t died, and there are Jewish studies departments in countless universities. Jewish social networks have increased. Likewise, our social institutions have multiplied and diversified.

We’re not unified or uniform, but don’t be afraid. Diversity establishes a richness and vigorous presence. New ways of being Jewish in this world are developing, and that’s a sign of dynamism, not death.

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