A Shabbat talk in a Tel Aviv Synagogue.
(photo credit: COURTESY UNITED HATZALAH,COURTESY US EMBASSY TEL AVIV,COURTESY US NAVY PHOTO ARCHIVE)
The Jewish Federations of North America held their annual General Assembly this week. American Jewish continuity, a subject that never fails to induce much hand-wringing, was on the agenda yet again.
Two slightly contradictory studies generated quite of bit of interest. One was a re-analysis of data in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of American Jewry” study.
Probably the most comprehensive sociological research into American Jewish life, the Pew study was rehashed in a piece for the online journal Mosaic by two eminent scholars of American Jewish life, historian Jack Wertheimer and sociologist Steven M. Cohen.
The upshot was that each successively younger age cohort is smaller than the one before, is less Jewishly attached and is less likely to give its children a strong sense of Jewish identity.
American Jews aged 30 to 49 number 1.2 million, compared to 1.8 million in the 50 to 69 cohort. They are about 50 percent less likely to donate to Jewish causes, attend synagogue, join Jewish organizations, feel attached to Israel and socialize mostly with Jewish friends. Their fertility rate is lower and they intermarry more (80% of Reform Jews marry non-Jews).
Jewish day schooling is an excellent way to counter the drift away from Jewish particularism, say Wertheimer and Cohen. Educating young American Jews to believe that remaining separate from the gentiles in matters such as marriage, intimate friendship and philanthropy is a good guarantee against assimilation and the dissolution of American Jewish cohesiveness.
But here is where the other major study comes in and complicates the situation. “A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the US 2013-2014,” conducted by Marvin Schick for the Avi Chai Foundation and published on October 30, found that over the past decade and a half there has been a sharp drop in the number of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools.
If in 1998 about 20% of US Jewish students were enrolled in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, today only 13% are.
In contrast, there has been a sharp uptick in ultra-Orthodox enrollment. Hassidic day schools more than doubled the number of students registered and “Yeshivish” day schools registered a 59% rise.
Religious faith and devotion to the strictures of Halacha that lead to physical and cultural self-segregation have always been a bulwark against the forces of assimilation.
Once, Jewish clannishness was accompanied by a healthy dose of anti-Jewish sentiment among gentiles. This made assimilation a humiliating, self-effacing process.
Today, with anti-Semitism in American practically nonexistent, Jews have to generate their own meaning and justification for Jewish particularism.
The problem is that when irrational faith is taken out of the equation, it is quite difficult to convince Jews through reason to make the sorts of sacrifices necessary to ensure Jewish continuity into the 21st century.
But while ideas on how Jews might best go about ensuring their continuity abound, it seems there has been no serious discussion about why it is important for Jews to remain a distinct people in the Diaspora.
Sometimes, being a member of the tribe among gentiles is advantageous for purely practical reasons such as conserving social capital. But inevitably, for the nonreligious, the rationale for remaining in the fold becomes intensely personal and, therefore, non-transferable to offspring, students or even receptive audiences.
Zionism as an ideology appeared on the scene of Jewish history in large part to solve precisely this problem. How can the Jewish people become a full and equal partner of the nations of the world without giving up its unique characteristics? Zionists sought to normalize the Jewish people so that they could partake of and contribute to world culture without risking assimilation and self-negation. Only by establishing a sovereign state in their historic homeland could the Jewish people become “a nation among the nations” without sacrificing their unique culture.
Only in Israel can Jews – religious or not – live their lives normally like other nations. In their own land, they speak their own language, marry Jews, and bear Jewish children who bear Jewish children of their own. This is the only model of Jewish existence that ensures continuity without exacting the price paid in the Diaspora of self-segregation and parochialism.