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A Bunch Of Waldos


Released in 1987, Where’s Waldo? was the first of illustrator Martin Handford’s Waldo series of books to become a sensation. Where’s Waldo? introduces readers to the eponymous hero, a distinctively dressed young man who sets off on a worldwide journey. Waldo travels to everyday places, like the beach, ski slopes and the zoo, each of which is detailed by two-page illustrated spreads filled with people and activities. Somewhere amidst the intricately crowded scene is the camouflaged Waldo, and readers are asked to scour the detailed illustration to locate the lost traveler.

The phrase “Where’s Waldo?” has become a shorthand idiom for finding distinctive characters hiding in a crowded maze. Our contemporary Jewish world has become such a maze, and a search for the hiding Waldo in Jewish leadership is in order. Where’s our Waldo Jewish leadership?

The month of June is a special month, filled with important life cycle events. More marriages take place during this month than in any other: approximately 264,000 couples will marry in the United States in June. That is the good news. The bad news is that among Jews, the rate of intermarriage has been sharply rising for decades now.

June is also a month of graduations from educational institutions. These graduations celebrate the culmination of long and arduous educational journeys. The Jewish community in America is among the leading constituencies to earn college and post-college degrees. Fifty-five percent of Jewish young people obtain college degrees compared to 28 percent of all other Americans. As well, 24 percent of American Jews obtain graduate degrees compared to 5 percent of all other Americans. We Jews value education: that’s the good news. The bad news is that while many Jews are secularly well educated, Jewish illiteracy is rampant.

A key indication of our current state of illiteracy is that the festival of Shavuot, which we celebrated earlier this week, always flies unnoticed under the radar of most American Jews. Most Jews don’t know that Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the formation of the Jewish people. Shavuot is the culmination of the 49-day countdown between Passover’s liberation and the moment at Mount Sinai when the Jewish people accepted the Torah and became a light unto other nations. The holiday of Shavuot is the commemoration of that awesome moment.

If the current Jewish community will be known as the “Generation That Abandoned Jewish Children,” then what should we label the current hiding leadership?

Jewish leadership is an oxymoronic moniker because we Jews don’t like to be led by anyone. Everyone knows the old saying: two Jews, three opinions. But for purposes of this discussion, leadership will be defined as the pulpit rabbis, the policy wonks, the self-anointed lay chairmen and paid staff people at our Jewish communal organizations, who claim to set the agenda for Jewish philanthropy; the controllers of the local communal budgets and those wealthy Jews in the community who choose which philanthropies, if any, they want to support.

The only glue that has connected four millennia of Jewish continuity has been intergenerational Jewish education. Without young children in every generation learning their heritage, we have no Jewish people. Throughout history, Jewish communities have somehow figured out vehicles to educate their children. The enormity of the crisis of funding Jewish education and our inability to provide an opportunity for every young Jewish family to Jewishly educate their children is a shameful omission from the Jewish philanthropic agenda. The Jewish community should scream out, “Where’s the Waldo Jewish leadership?”

Where are the pulpit rabbis? They command prestigious sanctuaries and sermonize from their raised pulpits about every imaginable social topic except providing free high-quality Jewish day school education for all children who seek it regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish Federations? They are allegedly the central community charity chests in every local community. There is not one Jewish Federation in the United Sates that has stated in its written policy, and backed it up with an enormous financial commitment, that every local constituent community will ensure that every Jewish child can attend a Jewish day school at no charge regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish mega donors? Every individual can choose whether he wants to give charity or not. If he chooses to donate, he obviously may give his money to whomever he wishes. That does not, however, prevent the rest of the Jewish community from asking which charity is the beneficiary of the donor’s beneficence. According to recent surveys, less than seven percent of major Jewish philanthropists’ gifts went to Jewish institutions.

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It makes no sense. It defies logic. You’ve got two reliable statistics from two reputable sources and yet they stand in utter opposition to each other, like statistical non-sequiturs.

Released in 1987, Where’s Waldo? was the first of illustrator Martin Handford’s Waldo series of books to become a sensation. Where’s Waldo? introduces readers to the eponymous hero, a distinctively dressed young man who sets off on a worldwide journey. Waldo travels to everyday places, like the beach, ski slopes and the zoo, each of which is detailed by two-page illustrated spreads filled with people and activities. Somewhere amidst the intricately crowded scene is the camouflaged Waldo, and readers are asked to scour the detailed illustration to locate the lost traveler.

Nearly 52 years ago, on October 5, 1956, a newly released movie billed itself as “the greatest event in motion picture history.”

There is an allegorical story about a luxury passenger ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean that hits an iceberg and begins to sink. On the lower decks, the crew and passengers make a valiant but unsuccessful effort to plug the hole in the ship’s hull. On the upper deck, first-class passengers rearrange the deck chairs, sun themselves and play shuffleboard, seemingly oblivious to the disaster around them. Meanwhile, the ship’s band plays on.

Every year Forbes magazine publishes a list of the highest paid individuals in the world. This year Forbes informed us that the actor Johnny Depp made $92 million while Nicole Kidman was Hollywood’s highest paid actress, commanding an estimated $16 million per movie.

Every January, in an annual rite, nearly half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. About half of those will pledge eternal servitude to their new diet plans. Sometimes the diets work – in the short run. We drop a size or two, look younger, more svelte and bask in insincere gratuitous compliments from colleagues and friends. But two-thirds of Americans who lose weight gain it back within a year. Over 90 percent gain it back within five years.

Everyone is familiar with the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest, but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? To some, that may sound like a silly rhetorical quandary, but it actually provides a wonderful metaphor to describe a huge problem facing today’s Jewish community.

In Yiddish folklore, the real-life Polish town of Chelm was characterized as a legendary community of fools. According to this folkloric tradition, Chelm’s residents were exceedingly proud of their tradition of non-wisdom and convoluted insight into the world’s problems. They viewed themselves as brilliant.

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