NEW YORK — One of the more intriguing subtexts of the annual Jewish Funders Network conference, recently held in St. Petersburg, Fla., was whether philanthropists should continue to seek out and fund innovative start-up groups, like those hoping to attract younger Jews through the arts, culture, Jewish study and social service, or retrench during these scary economic times and get back to basics. That would mean giving most of their dollars to help the new needy find employment, housing and food, mostly through federations and other establishment organizations.
To be sure, the majority of family foundations and individuals in attendance — there were about 225 — do both on a regular basis, and even the most avant-garde are major supporters of their local federations. And it should also be noted that while there was much talk during the conference about new projects, many of the foundations have put a hiatus on such funding, not even entertaining proposals for the balance of 2009.
Still, there was a creative tension in discussions about whether cutting back on the trendy start-ups was good common sense, a matter of triage when dollars are tight, or a short-sighted move that would have a long-term negative effect on future efforts to attract younger Jews to communal activities.
The Passover Hagada, with its powerful themes of faith and freedom, could be cited as Exhibit A on both sides of the debate. Consider: The seder begins with a command that resonates in a most timely way in these difficult times: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
The seder is about extending ourselves to those less fortunate, opening our hearts to strangers as well as family and friends, sharing our bounty with those who might not otherwise enjoy the holiday meal.
The message is clear. Rituals must be observed, traditions carried out and history remembered. But first, provide sustenance for those in need.
Yet the very fact that the seder and Hagada have survived for thousands of years is living proof that without creative responses to emergencies, Jewish life and culture would not survive.
The Exodus from Egypt happened only once, thousands of years ago. But it remains part of the Jewish experience today because our ancestors were wise enough to establish and maintain an annual service so rich and compelling that it continues to have meaning in the 21st century.
Indeed, Jewish history is filled with examples of bold innovations that carried our people forward at times of crisis, from creating the daily prayer service after the destruction of the Holy Temple, replacing animal sacrifices with personal and communal petitions to internalize our faith, to founding a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel after thousands of years of exile.
At the conference last week, I had the privilege of moderating a session that underscored the power and inventiveness of revitalizing ancient traditions and giving them additional, broader meaning.
Titled “Old Wine, New Bottles,” the program featured Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota, who helped found Hekhsher Tzedek, a proposed certification for kosher food products prepared in an ethical manner; Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose new Jewish Values Network seeks to bring Jewish principles to mainstream America, starting with making Friday night dinner a family event; and Anita Diamant, the best-selling author (“The Red Tent”), who founded the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh in Newton, Mass., reinventing and broadening the immersion experience to meet the needs of women today, beyond the Orthodox community.
Each spoke with passion of how he or she became involved in reinterpreting and expanding a very old mitzvah — kashrut, Shabbat and mikveh — and of the rewards in seeing how so many people have been captivated by these efforts.
Rabbi Allen noted that even though Hekhsher Tzedek has yet to put its stamp of approval on a single product (that’s expected to happen by the end of the year, he said), it has given people a positive focus and outlet at a time when kashrut scandals have shaken the belief for many that kosher equals ethical.
Rabbi Boteach asserted that Jewish outreach efforts have, for the most part, failed. The way to reverse this, he said, is to “bring Jewish life to the rest of the world,” through media, art and culture, “and not the other way around.” When, for example, Americans come to realize the benefits of a family Friday night dinner (comprised of two hours of uninterrupted time together, with two invited guests and two important topics of table discussion), Jews will take pride in reclaiming this tradition.
The rabbi said 45,000 families have signed on to hold such dinners at home.
Anita Diamant noted that in its first five years, Mayyim Hayyim has held 6,000 immersions of women, men, boys, girls and infants, marking “transitional moments in their lives.” The mikveh ritual has been practiced primarily by Orthodox women for centuries, but Diament said that by creating a modern space with educational classes, art galleries, tours and programs on spirituality, in addition to the two immersion pools, Mayyim Hayyim has been “a welcoming and inviting place” and been able to reach a wide variety of people who might not otherwise ever have visited a mikveh.
Listening to each of the speakers, one realized they were testifying to the vitality and optimism in American Jewish life today, despite these grim economic times.
And perhaps they were offering up a solution, implicitly, to the question of balancing back-to-basic philanthropy with more experimental efforts. Judaism has always been about renewal from within, expanding the traditions without weakening the foundation. And just as the Hagadah has power in its age-old message of liberation and holy service that continues to be reinterpreted in contemporary language and themes, the three panelists – and so many other caring, creative Jewish practitioners – are transforming mitzvot by bringing out their essence in ways Western society can understand and appreciate.
Tzedakah for the needy and for the next generation is not an either/or proposition. It’s a delicate determination that goes back to the eight degrees of giving offered by Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher, who wrote that the highest level of charity is to help make the recipient self-sufficient.
That still holds true, and that is why we say, at the outset of our seder, “now we are slaves; next year may we be free,” to suggest that the struggle for perfection never ends. We must continue to help the needy — and feed our creative energies, as well, in improving the world, and ourselves.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared The Week.)