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From Sea to Shining Sea: The 2000s Proved Tumultuous the World Over

December 31, 2009 By:
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Suicide bombings in Israel were practically the norm for years early in the decade, like this rush-hour scene in 2002 near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
If Jews weren't seemingly hard-wired to remember everything, especially calamity, the first decade of the 21st century might be one to simply forget.

From war in the Middle East to years of bombings in Israel, to global financial collapse and scandal at home, the 2000s -- or whatever we decide to call those 10 years, in retrospect -- will surely be recalled as a disorienting, and oftentimes frightening, beginning to the new century and millennium. From airplanes being turned into catastrophic weapons to a Ponzi scheme that upended Jewish philanthropy and revealed much wealth as illusory, the period seemed to contain one inversion of reality after another.

At the same time, the full impact of the recent advances in technology and communications on religious institutions have been no less than staggering. Ten years ago, no one had a Facebook page or Twitter account, iPods didn't exist -- let alone an "app" for an electronic siddur -- and most homes had dial-up Internet access.

In terms of Jewish life, many consider this a transitional moment, a time when a deep recession is forcing synagogues and organizations to either sink or swim. Many predict that 10 years from now, the way Jewish life looks and functions will be substantially different from today.

'In the Moment'

In terms of the mood of this transitional moment in this still new century, several rabbis, academics and counselors noted that Americans -- Jewish and otherwise -- are simply hoping that 2010 will present a more positive economic outlook for themselves and the country at large.

Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, who directs Chabad Lubavitch's Jewish Heritage Program, and also oversees Lubavitch's activities at the University of Pennsylvania and throughout Center City, said that "people are still kind of reeling from what's been happening this last year-and-a-half."

But on a brighter note, he stated that, in the midst of economic crisis, many people have placed a higher priority on family, community and religious life.

The economy, coupled with the unemployment rate, is also the top concern for members of Congregation B'nai Jacob, a Conservative shul in Phoenixville. According to Rabbi Rachel Brown, few have bothered to mention the coming of the new decade.

"They are really just in the moment," she said, noting that the congregation has been hard-hit by unemployment.

"They are either thinking, 'I'm so glad to have a job' or 'I can't believe I don't have a job.' People are thinking, 'How am I going to get through tomorrow,' which is really sad.

"The people who I am coming into contact with, they are thinking about the economy. They are not thinking about Israel. They are not thinking about Iraq," said Brown.

But some can't help but be preoccupied with what's going on abroad as well, according to Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, principal of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia.

Despite the fact that a number of parents at the school have either lost their jobs or are faced with financial hardships, he said, right now it seems that many are far more concerned with threats facing Israel, particularly the threat that a nuclear Iran poses.

"The concerns about the dangers facing Israel are close to overwhelming," he said.

But when considering the situation of the Jewish people 70 years ago -- the State of Israel didn't exist, and the annihilation of European Jewry was under way -- it's much harder to be pessimistic about the arc of history.

"I think we have to be amazed and be thankful to God that we have made such wonderful progress," said Jablon.

Perhaps no one one is better qualified to discuss how people are feeling right now than therapists, who see individuals on a regular basis.

Frani Pollack, for example, a licensed psychologist in Bryn Mawr who has a number of Jewish clients, reported that folks tend to focus on personal problems, rather than global ones.

Still, Pollack recalled that 10 years ago, some clients spoke about the coming new millennium and their fears that a Y2K computer virus could spread global chaos.

She also reported that, at the present, many clients appear to be at least somewhat more confident in the state of the economy than a year ago.

"Perhaps I see people feeling a little more optimistic about the economy and their future, which may have a positive effect on their mood and relationships," said Pollack.

'Loss of Trust and Credibility'
Clearly, a number of complicated factors have to align to bring about a broad-based recovery in which Wall Street, Main Street, the housing and job markets all come out as beneficiaries.

But according to Jerry Wind, who teaches management and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, the recovery is to a large part dependent upon an uptick in mood and consumer confidence.

"There is a huge issue of loss of trust and credibility" in business and political institutions, reported Wind, director of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management. "That has to be restored before anything can happen. The real challenges are lack of growth and unemployment -- the two are obviously interrelated."

It's been well-documented that an array of Jewish groups and initiatives suffered serious economic setbacks. They took major hits when the economy tanked in September 2008, followed immediately afterward by a flurry of press coverage surrounding the Bernard Madoff scandal.

Some groups actually shut down; others were severely diminished. Many commentators have noted that these fiscal challenges are causing Jewish organizations to rethink themselves in a way that hasn't happened in decades.

Rabbi David Teutsch, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said that the next 10 years may bring more change to Jewish life and institutions than any decade since the 1950s, when Jews moved to the suburbs in sizable numbers and established the congregations that eventually came to dominate Jewish life.

'Adapt in Order to Remain Effective'

Teutsch said that the trauma brought about by the financial collapse and the havoc it brought to Jewish groups -- combined with rapidly transforming technologies, and evolving ideas about the function, shape and future of the Jewish community -- have created an atmosphere that is ripe for transition to a new era, although he's not certain what it will look like.

"More and more, synagogues are increasingly starting to realize that thinking primarily of serving their own members is too narrow a definition of the tasks they are going to face," he explained. "I expect we are going to see vast change in American Jewish life. The large organizations are going to be forced to adapt in order to remain effective."

Ross Berkowitz, the executive director of both the Collaborative and LimmudPhilly, posed things in slightly different terms.

With the proliferation of social media and other technologies, he said, the first decade of the century has been defined by choice -- the growth of the sheer number of options in terms of personal identity and affiliation.

This holds especially true when it comes to a new generation of Jews who, continued Berkowitz, perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory, approach Jewish identity on their own terms.

"So often, I have heard Jewish leaders pose the question, 'How can we make Jews more affiliated,' " Berkowitz wrote in an e-mail. In his view, that's the wrong question to ask.

"We cannot tell people that they must be Jewish, or that they must be Jewish in a particular way," he explained. "This is how the 21st century has begun. Each member -- and potential member -- of the Jewish community will make their choices. Can we continue to make Jewish life appealing, attractive and meaningful so that it is chosen?"


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