Does being Jewish still mean anything to us?
By Harriet P. Gross

grossforwebI have a habit of fitting bits of information together that at first may not look like they’re even related. Recently, I’ve been doing it again. My conclusion: “Someone, please tell me that none of this can really be true!” But, given the sources, I’m afraid it must be.
First item, widely reported by The Associated Press and, of course, by the Jewish press: Study results from the well-thought-of and to-be-trusted Pew Research Center, culled from its “Religion & Public Life Project,” show that more than 20 percent of American Jews today have no religion.
Well, how can they be Jews if they say they’re not Jewish? After all, isn’t our religion required in order for people to be Jews?
Not at all, according to Pew. This fifth of our overall population knows Judaism, but thinks it means something other than following the Jewish religion. These are secular, or agnostic, or atheistic, or humanistic Jews. They belong to our community, they say, because they share Jewish history and culture. “A large majority said remembering the Holocaust, being ethical, and advocating for social justice formed the core of their Jewish identity,” the Pew study noted.
But they do not observe the tenets of Judaism or follow its laws. Some say, quite openly and honestly, that they don’t believe in God!
“A large majority said remembering the Holocaust, being ethical, and advocating for social justice formed the core of their Jewish identity”: This is what Pew learned from interviewing 3,475 American Jews between Feb. 20 and June 13 of this year. The margin of error for the study is only plus or minus 3 percent. This is not a good finding for Judaism today, and bodes even worse tidings for the future.
Second item: If William Rapfogel weren’t a Jew at all, he might still profess, like those in the Pew study, that ethics and social justice are key features of the Jewish identity. But it’s now alleged that he looted a major New York Jewish charity for more than 20 years, making himself a millionaire in the process. If so, where were the ethics and justice in that?
I would hope that William Rapfogel weren’t a Jew at all, since even if he were secular in the extreme, he might still have followed those who in the Pew study professed ethics and social justice as key features of their identity. But where were the ethics and justice in Rapfogel’s looting of a major New York Jewish charity, something that went on for more than 20 years and made him a millionaire in the process?
I stopped to ask myself, when I read The New York Times’ damning report on Rapfogel’s behavior, why nobody had audited books or paid attention to a lot of things a heck of a lot sooner than after two decades. But — shades of Bernie Madoff — Rapfogel was such a beloved leader of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty that, according to the Times, “he was often referred to as the Prince of the Jews”!
I would not make a good criminal myself; I could never concoct a complex, devious scheme because I can’t even understand such shenanigans when I read about them. To me, it’s like trying to decipher a foreign language. The allegations against Rapfogel are full of terms like “kickbacks” and “slush funds.” He is accused of using this charity as “his own personal piggy bank.” The New York State comptroller calls the scheme “breathtaking.”
The charity itself is indeed a good one. It’s 40 years old, and last year alone helped more than 100,000 people, according to the Times report. When Rapfogel was fired, his attorney Paul Shechtman (which, sadly, sounds like another Jewish name) said this: “It’s a sad day, but happily, people who know Willie well are still in his corner.”
It’s a sad day, indeed, when Jews stop following Judaism, when the Madoffs and Rapfogels among us instead start trampling our ideals and taking advantage of others, including their trusting fellows.
As we prepare to mark 50 years since the loss of President John F. Kennedy, we might do well to remember something he said that is not so well known: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Sadly, it’s time for us to face these truths: Not all Jews are good people. Not all Jews are even Jewish any more.

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