Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Defying the doomsayers

by James D. Davis, Religion Editor

February 22, 2002

Larry Tye has heard the stats, too. The ones on intermarriage, assimilation, low birthrates among Jews, new outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

He doesn’t think the numbers lie, exactly. But they don’t divulge what he has seen as a reporter.

Things such as two Argentinian rabbis leading singing and dancing in a fast-growing synagogue in New York City. Or thriving Jewish communities in former hearts of darkness such as Germany and Ukraine. Or people giving so much to UJA in Atlanta, they overshot the campaign goal — twice.

In short, world Jewry has once again defied the doomsayers who predicted its demise. Instead, Jews sing, pray, teach and study in areas where they once were endangered with assimilation — or extermination.

The demographers have their numbers, and their concerns are legitimate, says Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter and author of the new book Home Lands. But I’ve seen communities that are defying the pattern of history.

My book is 325 pages, but I could make it into a three-word message: ‘Not to worry,’ he says.

Tye’s book (Holt, $27.50) is a massive study of seven Jewish communities in Europe and the Americas, telling of the amazing revival of religion and culture: an increase in ritual, new Hebrew schools, new thinking on what it means to be Jewish.

In the process, he argues, the communities are building a new Diaspora, mature and confident — an equal partner in religion and culture with Israel.

Instead of saying ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ for Passover, maybe people should say ‘Next year in Boca Raton,’ he says tongue in cheek during an interview in Miami Beach, before two talks he’ll give on his findings.

Tye, 47, spent 15 years traveling the world for the Globe, writing on medical, political and environmental issues. He also gave the newspaper a bonus: a stream of stories about Jewish communities, in places like Belfast, Moscow and Hong Kong. What he saw convinced him to take a one-year leave to dig deeper.

He consulted 15 Judaic scholars, including Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis and Arnold Eisen of Stanford, for communities to focus on — getting a dizzying array of suggestions. He finally pushed the ideas aside and relied on his reporter’s instinct, varying for large, small and influential areas.

Also for surprises, of course. Such as Dusseldorf, Germany, home of the world’s fastest-growing Jewish population, in a country where Hitler wanted to wipe out all Jews. Just as amazingly, the new German Jews are not ethnic Germans: Most are Russians, who for various reasons could not or would not emigrate to Israel.

If Jews would be unlikely to move to Germany, it would be doubly so for Russians, Tye says, mentioning the Russian invasion of Hitler’s Germany during World War II.

Yet he found each of the seven communities remarkable in its own way, including Paris, Dublin, Buenos Aires and his native Boston.

In Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, he found a community reputed to number some 35,000 Jews, founded within the last decade. At the heart was a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who told Tye he was keeping a promise to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Lubavitch’s leader, who died in 1994.

Here was a Jewish community that had been suppressed by the Nazis and the Communists, Tye says. It’s a miracle comparable to Israel.

Then there was Atlanta, among the fastest-growing American Jewish communities — a shock to Tye’s colleagues in Boston, who thought Florida was the only Southern home for Jews.

And the Atlantans showed their commitment with cash. Tye recalls a recent UJA drive that started with a $25 million goal. During the first two days, $20 million was pledged, and the goal was raised to $45 million. By the end of the campaign, $50.3 million had been pledged, Tye says with amazement.

How has this transformation been possible? One factor, especially in America, is the waning of classical anti-Semitism, Tye says. The new story is philo-Semitism. Wherever I go, church people ask me about Judaism. Especially evangelicals and Pentecostals. And when the crazies came out after 9/11, the entire country turned against them.

Another factor has been globalization, including travel, international trade and the Internet. While it diversified centers of power and culture, it also made for alienation, Tye says. When people no longer know their neighbors, Judaism offers something attractive: religion, culture, people, making personal connections.

What this means is a coming of age for world Jewry, Tye says. The Diaspora — a somewhat pejorative word meaning “scattering” — not only includes 55 percent of all world Jews; it has developed its own resources, working methods and scholarship; and it has a view of the world equally valid as that of Israel.

We can learn not just at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but also Hebrew College in Boston, Tye says.

He suggests that Diaspora Jews can teach Israel important lessons in religious and cultural education. He notes that a recent study showed many Israeli youths knew little about Judaism.

The Diaspora can also model how to live in a pluralistic society — a skill that even Israel must learn, with its vocal Reform, Conservative and secular factions, Tye says.

Finally, Tye says, the Jewish experience serves as a model for other diasporas — Chinese, African-American, Tibetan, Irish and others. Even the Dalai Lama has talked to Jewish leaders on how to keep his people together, in exile from their homeland.

He agrees with demographers that the numbers of Jews may shrink somewhat during this century. It’s true that the numbers are on a downward trend, but that’s not news, he says. The news is what is happening to those others. There will be fewer Jews, but better Jews.

Even Israelis have voted against the idea of every Jew moving to Israel — voting with their feet. Tye says four times as many Israelis live in the United States as American Jews live in Israel.

Despite his findings, he won’t hazard a guess on whether the Jews have been preserved supernaturally, as the Bible says.

I’ll leave that to the scholars, he says. I’m reporting from the ground.

James D. Davis can be reached at jdavis@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4730.

© 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel