Jewish Group Pushes Awareness of Heritage: Conference Studies Identity, Survival

Article excerpt

When Jewish students at the nation's colleges and universities start the coming term, they are going to consider more than grades and careers.

On at least 100 campuses, the young women of B'nai B'rith will present them with a "Jewish Awareness Month." The hope is that they also will grade themselves on keeping their Jewish birthright.

This topic of identity and survival, whether on American campuses or in Argentina, was a unifying theme at the five-day B'nai B'rith International conference in Washington that ends today.

"It's very difficult to make a clear distinction between the issues of sole Jewish concern and those that affect us as Americans," said Tommy P. Baer, president of the 153-year-old organization.

But as usual when Jews meet to talk about community, the puzzle is over balancing the particular and the universal - being a Jew and being a world citizen.

"We have gone from Poland to polo in three generations," said Egon Mayer, director of the Jewish Outreach Center.

He said the European villages that once preserved Jewish identity are gone, requiring Jews to create new forms of village life: "These are not villages to live in, but places to draw meaning from."

As evident in an array of B'nai B'rith initiatives in 56 countries, the sources of meaning for Jews today are Israel; Holocaust memory; fighting anti-Semitism; Jewish learning, religion and affiliation; and Jewish marriage.

And yet other Jewish values - achievement, social acceptance, respectful laws and happiness - are not exclusive and even lend to assimilation into modern society, Mr. Mayer said.

"Intermarriage is the most important frontier" in trying to keep Jewish identity.

Half of all American Jews today marry non-Jews, speakers said. World Jewry used to call it the "shame" of their American cousins - until intermarriage rates began to explode everywhere.

"As the intermarriage statistics demonstrate, Jews are loved far more than they are hated," Sidney M. Clearfield, a B'nai B'rith vice president, said yesterday.

This suggests, he said, that "promoting Jewish identity based on victimhood" is no longer as effective as it was for those who knew the Holocaust, widespread anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience before the founding of Israel.

"The fight against assimilation will be won when we convince our people that we have a heritage that offers them something they need and want," he said. …