CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS in Jerusalem. According to the author, homegrown assimilation tops the list of threats to the survival and future of the Jewish people. (.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Only about 650,000 Jews lived in Israel in 1948, compared to 5.2 million Jews living in the United States at the time. Today, more than six million Jews live in Israel (how symbolic), while the number of Jews in the US remains virtually unchanged, trending downward due to increasing intermarriage, currently at an all-time high of 58%. Diaspora Jewry is dwindling.
The future of Judaism is the future of the State of Israel.
Its Jewish majority is solid, its birthrate among the highest in the West, its language is Hebrew and its symbols and holidays are Jewish. All this dramatically increases the ability of the Jewish people and Jewish culture to survive and thrive. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that it is guaranteed: the demographic and cultural safety net provided by the State of Israel is full of holes.
When discussing the concept of assimilation, most people automatically assume that Jewry outside of Israel is involved. That is an optical illusion. Homegrown assimilation tops the list of threats to the survival and future of the Jewish people.
What is homegrown assimilation, you ask? The answer is in the details, in the little day-to-day minutiae that make up our lives: the little Santa Claus hat that decorates the logo of the Israeli sports channel on Hanukka; the Christmas trees seen in restaurants all over Tel Aviv; the American cultural motifs that Israel’s younger generation are increasingly embracing, from high school proms to New Year’s Eve and Halloween parties; in the latest vogue to emigrate to Berlin; in the highly rated TV programs that mock every aspect of Judaism; in popular music and much more.
We used to be known as the People of the Book.
Nothing could be further from this designation when one takes an honest look at Israel’s young people. The people of the smartphone might be a more fitting name. But how can we blame young people when twothirds of their teachers, according to a Hagal Hahadash survey conducted last year, are unable to answer the question of what event in Israel’s history occurred on November 29, and a third are unable to name the five books of the Pentateuch (not necessarily in order). The kids are merely a reflection of their teachers.
In the spring of 1908, the students of the first Hebrew high school, Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv, set out on their annual school trip. Two of the school’s teachers, Chanina Karchevsky and Yisrael Dushman, were asked to write a marching song for the students, and they wrote “Po be’eretz hemdat avot.” These were its lyrics: “Here in the land beloved of our forefathers All our hopes will be fulfilled.
Here we’ll live and here we’ll create Lives of liberty, lives of freedom.
Here the divine spirit will dwell Here the language of the Torah will thrive...”
No one speaks this language in the Gymnasia Herzliya of 2016. Just a few weeks ago teachers from the school invited NGO Breaking the Silence to give a talk to the students. It is doubtful if anyone there still remembers Karchevsky or Dushman. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
The future of the Jewish people and culture depend – as always – on its teachers and cultural icons. There is an alternative to the increasing homegrown assimilation.
Its outline was drawn in the past by Ahad Ha’am and Bialik, among the leaders of spiritual Zionism, who envisioned the State of Israel as the cultural or spiritual center of the Jewish people.
Their vision did not go unheeded. On Israel’s cultural landscape and in its education system – but beneath the sensation-hungry media radar – in-depth processes unlike anything Israel has seen before are taking place.
Increasing numbers of young men and women – currently more than 15,000 – wish to be part of the pre-military academy programs that advocate a vision of Jewish- Zionist renewal. Organizations for Jewish renewal are springing up like mushrooms and community living frameworks are gaining increasing momentum, especially among young people.
I could conclude this article on an optimistic note and with a promising forecast for the future, but in fact the battle being waged between the opposing cultural forces in Israel is in a dead heat. That is why those who cherish Judaism must devote their time and best efforts to fortifying the resilience of the Jewish state, and especially its Jewish spirit and culture.