Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Was Right. And Wrong.

In this post about the American Jewish World Service, I wondered what was in fact Jewish about the AJWS if anything, and whether the organization's good works give people an ability to express their Judaism without any danger of meeting any Jewish content. It seems that I was on to something. A recent NY Times article about the AJWS video on YouTube (which has garnered enough hits to generate a news story), quoted several of the celebrities who participated in the video.
“I am a secular type,” Ms. Silverman said in an e-mail this week. The “J” in American Jewish World Service may stand for Jewish, she wrote, but “it’s just because it’s run by Jews (like the media and the banks).
“But it’s for everyone and anyone in need, and they do truly just work.”
Mr. Apatow, one of the all-powerful media figures Ms. Silverman had in mind, e-mailed a similar comment about his Judaism.
“I am the kind of Jewish person who feels very Jewish but does not practice at all,” he said. “I did not take part in this project because Jewish people run this charity. I got involved because they do very important work that is changing many people’s lives in a positive way."
In essence, that's what passes as Judaism for probably most of America's Jewry - and these are the Jews who both "feel" Jewish and actually consider themselves Jewish as well. Either you like the "chesed" or you just like that Jews are doing good work. Nothing wrong with either, but not very Jewish itself.
At the same time, I was wrong about the AJWS itself.
Ms. Messinger says that Mr. Apatow’s humor has proven a valuable way to reach many who, like Mr. Apatow, have no interest in religious Judaism. But she says that the American Jewish World Service is committed to religious learning, and that the students it takes around the world on service trips are taught the Jewish roots of their work. For example, the trip leader might ask students to consider the biblical context of a jubilee year, when slaves were to be freed and debts forgiven.
“The Torah commentary is, if you don’t forgive debts every 50 years, you will end up with permanent classes of people, those who have, and those who don’t,” Ms. Messinger says. “Guess what? That’s what we have.”
I guess the AJWS has found a great combination: woo the donors and contributors with "easy" Judaism. Give to our good works, feel Jewish, enjoy some self-deprecating humor, and we'll see you in shul next Kol Nidrei. But at least it understands the need to convey some authentic Jewish learning in some of its programming, which gives me hope that the next generation of donors might want more than a Judd Apatow video at the gala fund raising dinner.