President's Message

A Common Language

By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.

During my career as a surgeon, one of the numerous societies that I belonged to was the International Society of University Colon and Rectal Surgeons.  Members from around the world would meet periodically to discuss the latest advances in our field.  How were individuals from different ethnic groups, national origins and disparate native languages able to conduct successful conferences?  There were three contributing factors — surgical literacy, common language and a common goal.  All the physicians were familiar with the previous surgical literature and accomplishments and were therefore able to intelligently discuss past and, hopefully, future surgical studies.  We also shared the common language of medicine in which basic definitions were universally understood.  Our common goal was to achieve an increased life span along with a commensurate increase in quality of life for our patients.

Today, as a Jewish lay leader, I must report that the lack of a common language is nowhere more obvious than in our intra-organized life.  Until last December, I had never attended a General Assembly, commonly referred to as the GA, which is the annual meeting of UJA Federation leaders.  This year’s GA took place in Jerusalem immediately following the Jewish Agency meeting.  It saddens me to admit that my overall impressions were unfavorable.  If I had to characterize the disappointment, it would be my sense that the Orthodox representatives did not share a common language with our co-religionists.

Let me digress for a moment to note that this was the first time the GA was held in Israel.  For some delegates, it was their first trip to Medinat Yisrael.  With the impending UJA/UIA/CJF merger, communal philanthropy will be in the hands of many of these leaders.  The fact that people have reached a level of communal service where they are responsible for disbursing communal assets to Jewish organizations, without ever having visited Israel, does not speak well for the training of UJA leadership.  It is also sad to note that the handbook given to all delegates divided its “Suggested Restaurants” list into kosher and non-kosher.  Was it really necessary to inform the “leaders of American Jewry” where to find non-kosher food in Israel?

Allow me to share a vignette that may seem trivial, but which reflects a greater concern.  On the Friday afternoon preceding the GA, at 1:30, a full-course chicken meal was served at a luncheon meeting of the Jewish Agency.  Shabbat that week in Yerushalayim began at 4:10.  It was clear from my conversation with various leaders that serving a full-course luncheon was not meant to denigrate Shabbat or those who observe Shabbat and, had someone mentioned it, a light snack would have been provided in lieu of the full-course meal.

The problem here is that the concept of Shabbat, of what Shabbat stands for and how it is traditionally observed, is basically foreign to many “Jewish leaders.”  We do not share a common frame of reference.  Clearly our respective concepts of Shabbat are on different planes.

Two of the GA sessions were introduced by short films.  Delegates were seated in small groups, each of which had a designated leader to facilitate a discussion using pre-arranged questions and points of interest relating to the film.

One of these films depicted young students — Israelis and Americans — on an Israeli college campus discussing the problems they encounter.  I commented to my group that the film portrayed Israel as a democratic and secular country, with no mention of the Jewish traditions and ideologies upon which the country was founded, and was devoid of any implication of pride in being Jews.

Where was the influence of a David Ben Gurion or a Chaim Weizmann?  Israel’s founding fathers were secular Jews, to be sure, but they were not untutored in the history and customs of our people.  And they were able to dialogue with the rabbinic authorities because, although they were not religious, they also were not ignorant.

The religious and secular leaders of Israel 50 years ago spoke a common language – the language of our heritage.  When the secular leaders chose to reject the values of the religious leaders, at least they were educated enough to know what it was they were rejecting.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many of today’s communal leaders.

After the movie, I voiced my concerns, which were rejected by my discussion group, that if young people in Israel are being raised as Israelis only, and not also as Jews, then the future of Israeli society may mimic American Jewry – including the devastating effects of rampant assimilation and intermarriage.

At another session, participants were asked to evaluate the gala opening of the GA’s first night, an extravaganza rivaled only by Hollywood.  Though it was impressive in its portrayal of the breadth and scope of Israeli life, I pointed out that to have a gathering of 3,500 Jews, in Israel, and not have one word of Torah, even in the form of a short introduction, and to portray the history of Israel with barely a nod to Judaism or the contributions of the Torah community, was inappropriate.

It’s the language thing!  How do people communicate meaningfully on important issues without a shared literacy?  How can common goals be shared if they cannot be defined?  How do people who have never heard of the Mishnah or Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch discuss how best to educate Jewish children?  How do you answer some Federation leaders who belittle the yeshivah/day school experience when they themselves are spiritually and Jewishly ignorant?  How can our community raise funds for Jewish education from Jewish philanthropists who know nothing about their heritage and who therefore prefer to support the arts and non-Jewish education?  How can we accept the definitions and criticisms of Modern Orthodoxy leveled at us by those who do not even understand what we stand for, and with whom we do not share a common language?

How do you approach the leaders of the GA and the Jewish Agency and inform them that year after year, despite the fact that they try to present a balance of sessions, they only infrequently invite mainstream Torah scholars to lead sessions?  If these leaders want the Orthodox delegates to feel included, they must ask our theological and halachic leaders to present our point of view to the GA.

Our rabbis teach that the Tower of Babel was created not because man wanted to reach heaven, but rather because man wanted to be god-like and master the universe.  To thwart that attempt, God created different languages.  Without a common language, there is no communication.  Without communication, no common goals.  The situation is not unlike what we encounter today.  There are those who, by rejecting tradition, prefer a religion where they alone interpret God’s Will, often by discarding Jewish history and Torah.  How can our goals be the same as theirs?

Our goal is not to make everyone believe the same as we do, although that would be our fondest wish.  Rather, our challenge is how to reach people in order to create a common language.  The Union must develop initiatives and a campaign for Jewish literacy even as we continue our kiruv work in high schools across the country and, hopefully soon, on college campuses.

In order to reach the Jewish audience which lacks the proper education, we must use the newest communication tools available, such as the Internet and infomercials on cable television.  The Union must develop programs that will whet the appetites of Jewish masses; programs that will instill in them a desire to learn.

All Jews want continuity.  We all want our children and grandchildren to be Jewish, to carry on our tradition, to ensure that what has kept our people alive for thousands of years will continue to thrive.  But if our fellow Jews are ignorant of our tradition, and our history, and how the symbiosis between the two has ensured our survival over the millennia, then we can’t possibly share the same goal.

The literacy.  The language.  The goal.  When Jews of all denominations become literate in our heritage, only then will we share a common language.  And only then can we strive for a common goal and the dialogue begin in earnest.

This article was featured in the Spring 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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