Jewish Communities Grow

Jewish communities from Boston to Berlin are growing and succeeding despite facing challenges.

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After nearly 2,000 years living outside our ancestral homeland, we Diaspora Jews finally can say that we have new homes. And we can know that those homes are secure in a world that, for the first time, is more promising than problematic for Jews. There are substantial threats posed by a slow shrinkage of population and its concentration in fewer lands, by a watering down of belief and a rising up of hate groups. But there is even more reason to celebrate as Jewish communities once presumed dead or dormant are being reborn from the former East Bloc to the jam-packed shuls of New York and Los Angeles.

Boston

Consider the case of my hometown, Boston. This historic city today finds itself at the edge of the wave of Jewish renewal. Boston has articulated more clearly than any city in America the three foundations of the new Jewish identity: learning, spirituality, and social justice. It is backing its talk with bold action, from pioneering a two-year, 100-hour program of adult education that is reaching thousands, to engineering a Jewish secondary school that proves Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth can thrive in the sort of pluralistic setting that too often eludes their parents. Even as Jews continue moving to outlying suburbs, many are reengaging with the inner city and launching alliances with blacks and Hispanics.

Why here, and why now? It is partly the unusual coming together of creative, articulate leaders at colleges, communal institutions, and synagogues. But over time every city gets the leaders it deserves, and this one, with its heritage of experimentation and rootedness in education, has demanded creativity and vision as a condition of employment. And Boston is big enough to pull together the people and money needed to test new ways of defining Judaism, yet small enough to avoid the rancor that can make the Jews of New York or Chicago seem more like a series of factions than a unified community.

What Boston Jews are aiming for, as Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna says, is to weave together what is best of Boston and Judaism. “The problem in the American Jewish community,” he explains, “is that the great causes of the 20th century are now behind us, whether it is fighting anti-Semitism, defending immigrants, bringing Jews out of the Diaspora in places like the Soviet Union and Ethiopia where they were in big trouble, and most importantly, sustaining the State of Israel.

“Boston is way ahead of the curve in trying to find alternative sources of meaning. There is an explosion of learning here at all levels, a real sense that meaning is to be found internally, that the future begins at home. Synagogues allow for the full range of expressions of Judaism, from spirituality and havurah and new age all the way to the traditional. You get a good sense of all the options in Judaism today by looking here in Boston.”

Atlanta

The resurgence is not limited to Boston, however, or to the conventional outposts of American Judaism. In the waning years of the 20th century Atlanta’s Jews came into their own in a way that finally made their contemptuous cousins up north take notice. It started in 1996 and it centered around money. The Jewish community, numbered at 75,000, decided to raise $25 million. It was the first time community leaders had tried that sort of solicitation for bricks-and-mortar projects, which are not easy to sell to donors worn down and tapped out from the annual fundraising drive. For it to work, professional consultants told them they would have to collect not just from fellow Jews.

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Larry Tye

Larry Tye is a former reporter for the Boston Globe, and the author of Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora.