Journal of Jewish Communal Service

Home Lands
by Larry Tye

Reviewed by Ted Comet, Executive Vice-President, WCJCS
Hon. Assoc. Executive Vice-President, JDC

“Home Lands” is an ambitious attempt to assess the future viability of Diaspora Jewish communities. It is not a sociological/demographic treatise but a deeply felt personal quest – not for “meaning’, but for Jewish “place”. Triggered by the move of a close friend to Israel who claimed that only there can a Jewish future be assured, the author, a member of a family active in the Boston Jewish community, took a leave of absence and went to see for himself.

The result is a highly readable, engaging and informative work by a skilled journalist at the Boston Globe who has an eye for the telling detail, the encapsulating anecdote and the ability to compress and convey great amounts of information clearly.

Recognizing the need to limit his scope, Tye solicited the advice of “experts” (including many of our colleagues) and selected seven Jewish communities with different characteristics: emerging — Dusseldorf; renewing — Dnepropetrovsk; developed — Boston; in crisis — Buenos Aires; declining — Dublin; in transition — Paris; growing — Atlanta.

In each city, besides history and the current scene, the focus is on a significant family or institution and their moving stories portray the larger community in an accessible way.

After spelling out in detail the many problems these communities face, both internal and external, what conclusion does Tye come to regarding the future? A BUOYANT OPTIMISM.

The basis for this optimism: 1) the extent of Jewish Renewal; 2) the growing feeling of “at homeness” ; 3) faith based on history (he enjoys referring to Rawidowicz’ essay: “Israel, the Ever-Dying People”).

The Jewish Renewal

The emphasis on Renewal is one of the major contributions of the book. Tye has tapped into this growing and broadly based phenomenon, recognizing it as a significant development not limited to small pockets of the population, and capable of shaping the future. He gives it a prominence not usually found in other works where it tends to be overshadowed by the unsettling statistics of rising assimilation and unaffiliation.

As Tye states: “The Jewish energy and vitality in all seven communities is eerie and inspiring. In each city I saw a dramatic reversal of generational roles, with children having a better grasp of their Jewish heritage. At first I dismissed the signs of Renewal as interesting anomalies but as I saw them repeated in one city after another I came to believe they reflect a real and widespread renaissance.”

As professionals, we have all experienced manifestations of this Renewal at home and abroad and no place more dramatically than in the former Soviet Union where there are many examples of the kind of Renewal activities taking place in Dnepropetrovsk (some
years ago when Michael Schneider, professional head of JDC, was asked at a Board meeting why JDC had not moved sooner into that city, his reply was: “We first had to learn how to pronounce it and then spell it.”

The FSU statistics are impressive. For example, from ground zero a decade ago, there are now: 309 schools with 26,000 students, 26 Hillels with 9,000 collegiates; 150 local volunteer-run Hasadim Welfare Centers feeding 250,000 hungry elderly; 179 JCC’s; 136 Jewish newspapers; 100 Universities offering courses in Judaic study.

But there is a cautionary note: with all this achievement less that 20% are reached in the FSU, and elsewhere. To this, the response from Paris was that we will end up “smaller but better”.

At home in a not strange land

Tye found in these communities a sense of “at homeness”. This led him to view the notion of the Diaspora as a temporary abode “with people longing to go home” as outdated. While recognizing the importance of Israel and the need to establish new forms of partnership, the Jews he met plan to stay. And so, the title of the book: HOME LANDS.

This is not news for those of us in the Jewish Communal field, so it did come as a surprise to read that Tye needed “to know if it was okay to feel at home as a Jew in Boston.” This reminds me of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s definition of a Zionist as someone who does not necessarily go on Aliyah, but feels uncomfortable not going. Here the discomfort is removed.

It is also interesting to contrast this sense of at homeness with the statement by Saul Bellow in his 1976 book, TO JERUSALEM AND BACK: “The Jews alone amongst the people of the earth had not established a natural right to exist unquestioned in the lands of their birth. This right is still clearly not granted them, not even in the liberal West.”

Feeling “at home” obviously means feeling accepted, secure and unthreatened. In this regard one can question whether feeling “at Home” is the same as being “at home”. Look how the Jews felt “at home” in Germany until the rise of Hitler; in France until the Vichy French police rounded up Jews for deportation: and in “benign” Holland locals helped make possible the destruction of such a large majority of its Jews. It is ironic that in neighboring Belgium many more escaped precisely because they did not feel “at home” — my father-in-law saved his wife and five young daughters because he felt
he had to rely only on himself.

As to Israel, it is amazing how the Jewish world has changed in the brief time since this book was written. Jonathan Sarna is quoted: “the problem in the American Jewish community is that the great causes are behind us…most important sustaining the State of Israel” Tye himself states that based on his five trips to Israel, the country is “increasingly at home with the world, at home with itself…the economy hums…a normal society.”

Then we have the November General Assembly in Washington dominated by the need to sustain Israel — politically, financially and in social services.

There are other examples of Tye’s observations being overtaken by events. In Buenos Aires he rightly states that the AMIA bombing created a psychological divide of “before and after”. But now the greater threat to the future of that great community is the economic depression which has bankrupted Jewish institutions and brought actual hunger to the large Jewish middle class (special food distribution methods have had to be instituted to enable them to retain their dignity). This is causing such a large number to emigrate that I was asked to plan a Forum on “Migration” for the gathering in Rio de Janeiro last October of Latin American Jewish leaders.

While there are reservations about some aspects of this book, including the question of how representative the seven cities are of the world Jewish scene and the selected families of their larger communities, I have no reservation in heartily recommending it as a valuable source of information and inspiration. Tye’s passion and vigorous style make the reader feel “at home” in these communities. His message of hope, of the growing significance of Jewish Renewal, and the need for creative new forms of Israel-Diaspora partnerships have special relevance for the Jewish communal field.