The recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews has ignited discussions
extending from gloomy predictions of the inevitable demise of Diaspora Jewry by
assimilation, to optimism over the finding that the number of Jews has risen to
6.7 million from the 5.5 million estimated in the 2001 National Jewish
The Pew survey results are complex and lend themselves
to endless interpretation. But what they undeniably show is a wide-ranging
definition of Jewish identity, increased polarization of the American Jewish
religious experience, a changing connection to the State of Israel, and above
all, a mushrooming demographic crisis.
The most dramatic Pew survey
finding is an alarming increase in the rate of intermarriage. Among all married
Jews who participated in the survey, 44 percent had a non-Jewish spouse. Of
those who married in 2000 or later, the figure dramatically increased to 58% –
an increase of 41% from 1970, when the rate of intermarriage was
This substantial escalation in the rate of intermarriage in just one
generation represents nothing short of a hemorrhage of the American Jewish
community, and a level of assimilation unprecedented in Jewish
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has aptly described the process of
assimilation as “a self-inflicted Holocaust.” It is, he says, “like a person
getting into his bath, cutting his veins, and peacefully bleeding to death.” The
survey also highlights the absurdity of the notion that intermarriage augments
Jewish numbers, and confirms that only a small proportion of children of
intermarried couples retain a Jewish connection.
The Pew survey notes
that the Conservative Movement has been in dramatic decline, while the Reform
Movement has expanded and absorbed large numbers of intermarried families.
However, the ascendant Orthodox community has, to some extent, offset these
numbers. Intermarriage is practically nonexistent among American Orthodox Jews:
Fully 98% of the married Orthodox respondents have a Jewish spouse. The number
of Orthodox Jews is likely to expand beyond its current 15% of the Jewish
community, because of their high fertility rate (the survey found that the
Orthodox have an average of 4.1 children, compared with the 1.9 average of
American Jewish adults overall). In addition, the study maintains that more
Orthodox Jews today retain their religious commitment throughout their lives
than was the case in the past.
The survey highlights that cultural
identification is replacing religious identification among many American Jews.
In stark contrast to 10 years ago, when 93% of American Jews identified
themselves as Jews by religion, increasing numbers of Jews now define themselves
as “Jews of no religion.” Two-thirds do not belong to any synagogue; 42%
maintain that having “a good sense of humor” is more essential to their Jewish
identities than observing Jewish law; most describe liberalism and a commitment
to tikkun olam as the defining characteristics of their Jewishness.
Jews are delighted with this “universalist Judaism” and characterize its
adherents as “proud Jews” who are contributing enormously to American
One commentator satirically remarked that for every Jew who
keeps a Christmas tree, there are 100 non-Jews who like bagels. Oy! Another
highly disturbing survey finding is the extent to which Judaism and Christianity
have become blurred in the minds of many American Jews.
The criteria for
qualifying as being Jewish have been broadened to the point of absurdity. For
example, 34% of the respondents stated that a belief in Jesus as the Messiah was
compatible with being Jewish, and 30% of the “Jewish” families surveyed have
Christmas trees. As Hebrew Union College Prof. Sara Benor observed, “more people
than in the past believe that you can be both Christian and
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International
Fellowship of Christians and Jews, predicts that a new religious category will
soon emerge for those who consider themselves Jewish but accept Christian
doctrines regarding Jesus. This confused state of affairs is both a reflection
and a consequence of an appalling meltdown of Jewish values in
However, the survey does confirm that Israel remains a principal
factor in American Jewish identity. Seventy percent of respondents said they
were somewhat attached, attached, or very attached to the Jewish state, and a
significant 40% said they had visited Israel. But only 38% believe that the
Israeli government is genuinely pursuing peace with the Palestinians. This is
not surprising, given that the primary Jewish values of a substantial proportion
of respondents are liberalism and a “good sense of humor,” rather than
dedication to the Jewish people or Judaism.
The Pew findings held few
surprises for me. In my analysis entitled “The Israel-Diaspora Crisis: A Looming
Disaster,” published in 1994 by the World Jewish Congress, I predicted a gloomy
outcome for Diaspora Jewry.
I noted that in open societies with
escalating levels of racial religious and ethnic intermarriage and increasing
numbers of gentiles willing to marry Jews, Jewish intermarriage would inevitably
While I foresaw an increase in the numbers of religiously
observant Jews who would consume more kosher food, buy more Jewish books and
provide their children with Jewish education, I predicted that the vast majority
would be swept up by assimilation and would distance themselves from their
Jewishness. I said that, regrettably, no Diaspora Jew could confidently state
that his grandchildren would remain Jewish. Television and the Internet have
only accelerated these trends.
I was certainly not alone in my gloomy
Arthur Koestler, for example, a proponent of assimilation,
prophesied doom for the Diaspora as far back as the 1950s, and suggested that
those who wished to remain Jewish should move to Israel.
scenarios fail to take into account the ebbs and flows of Jewish history. As the
late Prof. Simon Rawidowic wrote, Jews are an “ever-dying people” whose
“incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, and beginning
anew…. He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly
a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link
in Israel’s chain.” Jewish history has always been propelled by a minority that
has retained its identity and traditions, and thus furthered Jewish religious,
cultural and political life.
Despite the alarming statistics of
intermarriage, which demonstrate that as many as 71% of non-Orthodox Jews are
marrying non-Jewish spouses, we must never write off any Jewish community.
Although the indicators suggest that Diaspora Jews in open societies are in
danger of being reduced to Orthodox enclaves, we must stimulate all avenues
likely to enhance Jewish identity. Each community – and certainly America’s –
holds potential for Jewish continuity and contribution. Each carries with it the
hope of the late Prof. Emil Fackenheim, that Jews must add a 614th Jewish
precept to deny a posthumous victory to Hitler by ensuring the survival of
Judaism and the Jewish people.
We should not be under any illusions.
Diaspora Jewish life is under greater threat today from loss of identity than
from anti-Semitism. But whatever the outcome, Jewish continuity is assured now
that Israel exists as a politically independent entity and has become the center
of gravity for Jewish spiritual life.
As Diaspora Jewry seeks to define
itself and its role within the global Jewish arena, Israel remains the only
place in the world that today provides an environment in which religiously
observant and non-observant Jews alike can fully express their identity while
satisfying the existential requirements of peoplehood.The writer’s
website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com.He may be
contacted at email@example.com.
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