Fundamentally Freund: From Soviet to American Jewry
US Jews wanted Gorbachev, Reagan and the entire world to see that they would not remain silent while their brethren were in distress.
Ronald Reagan on screens Photo: REUTERS
Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of American Jewry’s finest moments.
December 6, 1987, was a brisk, fairly cold Sunday in Washington, the kind of day
best spent curled up on a couch watching an exciting afternoon of football. But
instead of staying indoors, more than 250,000 American Jews from across the US
gathered on the National Mall on the eve of the Washington summit between
president Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
young, religious and secular, they were there to stand in solidarity with Soviet
Jewry and demand their release from behind the Iron Curtain. They wanted
Gorbachev, Reagan and the entire world to see that American Jewry would not
remain silent while their brethren were in distress.
Remember, this was
before the age of social media.
There was no way to blast a Twitter
message out to thousands of activists or mobilize them via Facebook. It required
an intense and coordinated effort, one that brought together a range of Jewish
organizations in an unprecedented show of unity.
Thanks in part to the
immense success of the rally, the cause gained momentum, and more than a million
Soviet Jews would successfully emigrate to freedom in the decades that
As a sophomore at Princeton University at the time, I headed
down to DC together with a large contingent of my fellow students. It was a
heady atmosphere, filled with solidarity, hope and determination. For a few
brief hours, all the politics, intrigue, envy and resentment that so typifies
much of the organized Jewish community was set aside for the sake of a greater
No wonder so many efforts are now being made to recapture, or even
relive, that very special moment.
A series of lectures, commemorations,
dinners and concerts are being planned by various Jewish communities in the US
to mark the occasion.
And a worthy initiative called Freedom 25, which
was started by my friend Mike Granoff, aims to ensure that the lessons of the
Soviet Jewry movement will be learned by future generations.
who enjoys a good dose of nostalgia every now and then, I am glad to see that
this watershed event has not been forgotten.
Nonetheless, I cannot help
but think that there is perhaps an even more pressing concern that warrants
attention, namely: In another two or three generations, will there be any
committed American Jews left to march? This is more than mere hyperbole. The sad
fact is that American Jewry is facing demographic decline and spiritual
attenuation. To be sure, in recent years the academic equivalent of a mixed
martial arts bout has been raging among demographers.
Some, such as
Hebrew University’s Sergio Della Pergola, estimate the number of American Jews
to be 5,275,000, while others, such as Brandeis University’s Leonard Saxe, say
it is 6.4 million.
Whatever the true number may be, one thing is clear:
The younger generation of American Jews cares less about Israel, is further
detached from Judaism, and is more likely to intermarry than its
Take, for example, the findings of the 2007 study on
non-Orthodox American Jews that was sponsored by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman
Philanthropies. It found that 77 percent of those over 65 said the destruction
of Israel would be a “personal tragedy” for them, but among those under 35, just
48 percent felt that way.
In other words, over half of young American
Jews would view the elimination of the Jewish state as little more than a
headline to glance at while eating breakfast.
There is a slow but steady
dilution taking place, one that poses a major threat to the future vitality,
clout and influence of US Jews. In major Jewish centers such as New York and Los
Angeles, it may be less visible. But scratch beneath the surface, speak to
friends or co-workers, or go to a college campus, and you will quickly get a
sense of just how stark the situation is becoming.
Indeed, can anyone
conceive of a scenario nowadays where a quarter of a million US Jews would storm
Washington on behalf of a Jewish cause? Even protests directed against the
threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map have
failed to marshal such sizeable numbers.
Thankfully, a number of
important initiatives, such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, have been making a
difference in the lives of many young American Jews. But more – so much more! –
needs to be done. Just as American Jewry galvanized its forces 25 years ago to
rescue Soviet Jewry, it must now act to save itself, by returning to tradition
and re-embracing its heritage.
So by all means, let’s celebrate today’s
anniversary and revel in US Jewry’s past accomplishments.
tomorrow, a lot of work will need to be done to ensure future triumphs as well.