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July 4th Afterthought: Greatest Diaspora in the Greatest Nation

Flexigidity: Gidi's Newsletter
July 4th Afterthought: Greatest Diaspora in the Greatest Nation
By Gidi Grinstein • Issue #3 • View online
For the Fourth of July 2018 I am sharing this special issue on what made the United States of America the home for the most remarkable Jewish community in history and what is required to keep this prosperity going. 

Why the USA?
American Jewry is probably the greatest Jewish community in history in terms of its influence and affluence. But it is not the first great Jewish diaspora. It was preceded by Egypt, Persia, Poland, Germany and multiple others. So why the USA at this time? 
My answer is that the Jewish People is organized in a world-wide web of communities, which is permanently evolving. It is gravitating to places that grant Jews security, freedom of association and religion and ability to prosper from places that don’t. For this reason, Jews started coming to the USA as of the 17th century, and flooded from Europe to this great country as of the 1880s. America promised Jews freedom and protection, and the Jews came. As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport in 1790: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
George Washington Letter to the Jewish Community of Newport, Aug 18, 1790
George Washington Letter to the Jewish Community of Newport, Aug 18, 1790
On Jews and America's Greatness
History teaches two very interesting lessons about Jews and  greatness of their hosting societies: First, emigration of Jews from a country is a sign of imminent decline, and immigration of Jews into a city or a country is a sign of imminent rise. I first read about this phenomenon in the Historian David Landes awesome book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Second, Jews have always been extraordinary contributors to the wealth of their nations. This was true since the story of Joseph in Egypt and throughout history. The USA is no exception: it is the greatest nation of our time and the Jewish People can be very proud of its contribution to it. Nearly every university, museum, hospital and significant charity are a testament. 
Torou Synagogue, America's oldest. Dedicated 1763.
Torou Synagogue, America's oldest. Dedicated 1763.
Why is America Great for the Jews?
I have three primary answers to offer: First, America is a nation governed by a quest for morality and justice as is Jewish society. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” is one of the most remarkable sentences in history, which resonates with every Jew. 
Second, the rule of law. It not only gives Jews protection, but also allows them to thrive. The basic Jewish intellectual capability is reading, understanding, interpreting, applying and developing the law. It is no coincidence that Jews have been so prominent not only in the American legal community, but also in heavily regulated areas such as finance and real estate. 
Third, a decentralized structure: America is structurally decentralized into states, districts and cities. The Jews are structurally decentralized into a network of communities. As you lay one society on top and within the other, the synergy is profound. It allowed every Jewish community to thrive with its local talents and based on its local relations with its local community. Multiply that by hundreds and thousands of locations, and the engine of Jewish prosperity in America lies in clear sight.  
What's Made the Jews Succeed in America?
My answer is: the institutions. For twenty six centuries, Diaspora Jewish communities have been self-organizing around core institutions such as synagogues, schools, welfare organizations, community committees and funds. This tradition was developed in the USA to unprecedented degree of quality and density: federations, schools, synagogues, community funds and so much more. And then there are national organizations such as AIPAC, AJC, ADL and Hadassah; thousands of specialized ones and even global organizations such as the JDC. The ability to create and sustain these organizations turned Jews into probably the most successful minority in this great nation. 
Federations are the backbone of American Jewry
Federations are the backbone of American Jewry
Why Is the USA so Close to Israel?
Many people attribute this proximity to shared interests and shared values between Israel and the USA. I say: this is true but it is not the whole truth. The USA shares equally attractive ‘packages’ of values and interests with other nations in Europe, in South East Asia and Latin America. So what’s special about the relationship with Israel? My answer: the organization and mobilization of the Jewish community, as patriotic Americans, to support this special relationship. Hundreds of organizations and synagogues have contributed to this reality, across the political spectrum, but AIPAC stands heads and shoulders above all else. Its contribution to the Jewish People in the USA and in Israel is of centennial scale. 
What is the Future of the 'special relations'?
It is not clear. I believe that Israel must remain a bi-partisan issue for Americans. Unfortunately, some are working to make it a wedge issue. They are betting on the support of the coalition of the Republicans, Christian Evangelists, orthodox and right wing. This is a big mistake. First, our history - such as in Egypt and in Europe - teaches that whenever the stature of Jews became a wedge issue, a disaster eventually followed. Second, the political pendulum swings. In this respect it is more important for Israel to have the support of six millions politically diverse Jews than eighty millions on one side or another side. Some of my Republican friends are trigger-happy to write off the Democratic party as Israel’s friend, and I say to them: if you are indeed an Israel-first voter and donor, than your membership in the Democratic party counts more than in the Republican party and your political donations on the left matter more than your donations on the right. My message is not to be A Democrat or A Republican but to understand the real secret souce of these ‘special relations’: It is bi-partisanship!
What is the future of Jews in America?
It is hard to imagine more prosperity and influence and greater contribution. We have to assume that the Jewish community in the USA may have peaked as a community, not just because it may be true but also because this is the right attitude. Nothing should be taken for granted, especially as Jewish history teaches that every great Diaspora eventually declines.
How do we reverse the trends? My answer is: in the past, community institutions, with their lay and professional leaders, made American Jewry great, and it is community institutions and their lay and professional leaders that will sustain that greatness. This is not a new point, but in a world of accelerating pace of change and permanent instability, its significance is reinforced all the time. 
Why Am I Concerned?
My top concern is the polarization within Jewish communities that impedes on the ability to get great things done. The rise of American Jewry to prosperity was driven by the ability of communities to work together. In recent years, the polarization of American society has been mirrored into the Jewish communities who went “from a debate between right and left to a debate between right and wrong.” 
I realize that for many people, the primary threat is the high rates of assimilation and intermarriage within the Jewish community that will lead to the eventual decline of American Jewry. This is an obvious threat. But I believe that the Jewish People has contended with these challenges forever, and has survived and repeatedly thrived. Furthermore, for the first time in our history, many intermarried couples are open to staying a part of the Jewish community. 
What Would be My Agenda?
My top priority would be to invest smartly in our key institutions (sorry for the alphabet soups): federations and the JFNA, Hillel international, JCCA (Association of JCCs), JCPA (of JCRC network) all share one communality: they were created in an era of top-down and need to thrive in a time of bottom-up, they were created as keystones and need to thrive as hubs. Their weaknesses compromise the entire community and their strengths strengthen it. They may have different missions, but they share a common challenge: mastering the art of bringing value to their networks of institutions.
What would be my vision?
The United States of America has given Jews the opportunity for unprecedented prosperity and America’s Jews have reciprocated individually and collectively. The testament to that is in every university, museum and hospital. 
How will Jews continue to play such a role in this society? My answer has three pillars: to remain ‘other’, to build communities and to embrace leadership. First, on otherness: As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, otherness is an essential condition for leadership, because it allows for a unique voice. The Jewish system that combines ancient and new is as relevant today as ever before. 
Second, communities will be as important in the future as any other time in the past. American Jewry must continue to nurture the resilience and prosperity of its communities through their institutions. Especially in an age of disintegrating communities, this model is very relevant to America’s future. 
Third, on leadership: the USA will face many challenges and Jews have so much to contribute. In an age of accelerating change, we know a thing or two about value-based societies. In an age of poermanent technological innovation, we have mastered societal innovations. And there is so much more.
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Gidi Grinstein

Flexigidity: Gidi's Newsletter

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