There has been an uptick these past weeks in the appearance of the late Prof.
Simon Rawidowic’s pithy reference to the Jews as an “ever-dying people” whose
“incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, and beginning
The use of this quote by various Jewish pundits is intended to
poke a finger in the eye of the assimilation genie that has emerged from the
bottle following the recent publication of the Pew Research Center survey of
American Jews entitled “Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
But any scoffers
should reread its findings. The data clearly does not bode well for American
Jewish life in the decades to come. The rate of intermarriage among US Jews is
the highest ever recorded, involving some 70 percent of all Jews who have
married since the year 2000. Jewish religious identity is down, being supplanted
by cultural and ethnic identity. In fact, there is no single measure in the
survey that suggests anything other than the continuing slow but certain waning
of this once robust community.
The American Jewish e s t a b l i s h m e
n t ’ s response to the Pew survey, as expected, will be to devise new
educational programs and incentives intended to increase Jewish commitment among
young Jews. These efforts will be aided, financially and programmatically, by
the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel. These efforts will
Why? Because before this crisis is about Jewish education and
identity strengthening programs it is about sociology.
“One of the
bedrock goals of the American value system has always been the ultimate
assimilation of racial and ethnic groups into mainstream society,” says
sociologist David Newman. In an open and tolerant society non-Orthodox Jewish
life is simply non-sustainable beyond a few generations. The American Jewish
community is now in the process of demonstrating this principle.
countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, close to full
assimilation is inevitable. This situation will not occur in the near future,
but will eventuate in time.
How much time? In a little more than half a
century from now, the space of three generations, if present conditions prevail,
no open, Western democratic country will be home to a viable Jewish community
other than that identified as Orthodox (and probably not including what we
recognize today as “modern Orthodoxy”) or such selfstyled “New Age” syncretic
groups that retain the name Jewish but have no substantive historical connection
to the Jewish past.
The goals of the new programs will be the same as
those developed in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that
launched the “Jewish continuity campaign.”
These were conceived to
provide young Jews with a respectable level of Jewish education and to instill
Jewish meaning in their lives; to give them a reason to be Jewish and to marry
other Jews. Many millions of Jewish community dollars were invested in the
development and execution of these programs. Their achievements were
What is the proof for this? The Pew data. Pew and the fact that
American Jewish leaders again feel impelled to create and spend millions of more
dollars on the implementation of a new round of assimilation-fighting
A future viable Jewish community in America will not be
acquired through programs. Until the European Enlightenment some 300 years ago,
every Jew took for granted that he or she was a member by birth of a distinct
people, a separate community and scion to a unique historic
Today identification with these membership circles is
optional. In contemporary Western society individuality rules; group
distinctiveness is anathema to American Jews.
Personal identity for Jews
in the United States over the past century, and looking ahead only a couple
generations, will have traversed the following trajectory: Jew – American Jew –
Jewish American – American of (partial) Jewish descent. This is the path the
juggernaut of assimilation is taking among American Jews.
Jewish camping are positive forces. However, the key shortcoming of both
Birthright and Jewish camping is that these experiences occur outside the real
lives of participants; they are but a brief respite from the highly attractive
non-Jewish worlds to which they return.
Decades of survey data
demonstrate that Jewish day school or yeshiva graduates, especially those who
complete both Jewish elementary and high school, retain a deep Jewish commitment
and are much less likely to intermarry than respondents whose Jewish education
was acquired at a part-time s u p p l e m e n t a r y Hebrew or Sunday school.
The Catch-22 here is that more intensive, and thus more effective, elementary
and secondary school Jewish education is only an option for Jewish families
already committed to it.
In addition to the onerous private school
tuition and fees, enrolling one’s children in a full-time Jewish school
separates them from the public education mainstream; this still strikes many
Jews as un-American or overtly tribal behavior.
Quality Jewish education
has never been a priority of most American Jewish parents. As principal of an
independent non-denominational Jewish Sunday school many years ago, I asked the
members of the board of directors, all parents of children enrolled in the
school, how much Jewish education they want their children to receive. The
answer that found consensus was “a smattering.”
The American experience
has allowed for the deracination of Judaism over time to the point where many
Jews truly believe that Judaism is “whatever I want it to be.”
longtime observer of American Jewish life I have come to associate two popular
cultural references with what I sadly believe to be the destiny of the American
Jewish community. The first is no more than the title to the theme song from the
1970s TV sitcom M.A.S.H.: “Suicide is Painless.”
The second reference is
more classic: “[Alice] was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting
on a bough of a tree a few yards off. ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and
vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’ “‘All right,’ said the Cat;
and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and
ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone”
(Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6).
was certain that, contrary to all doubt and despair, Jewish life would not be
extinguished. However, his optimism did not disallow the natural ebb and flow of
Jewish life over time and place. The American Jewish community will continue to
grow smaller, its institutions collapsing, eventually to a point of functional
What will remain are pockets of haredi Jewish life in those
large, socially separate, urban enclaves where such communities thrive today.
Over the coming decades the great majority of other Jews for whom having Jewish
grandchildren is a priority will move to Israel. The 20th century will be known
as the “Golden Age of American Jewry.” Tragically, even in the wake of the Pew
survey, as their numbers continue to dwindle many American Jews deny that their
community is facing an existential crisis.
Their grin, like that of the
Cheshire Cat, will be the legacy of the 42% of American Jews who, according to
the survey, think a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish.
author lives in Efrat and is the founder and director of www.italkisrael.com.
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