Walking Away from Judaism in America

 The Jewish community in Iraq lasted for 2500 years, from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish elite from Israel to the modern period and the exodus of Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. The Jews of Iraq call themselves “Bavlim”—Babylonians—and, indeed, their presence along the Tigris and Euphrates and later in Baghdad was ancient. This was an extraordinary community that proved that while Jews could be influenced by the world around them, they need not abandon Judaism and assimilate into the Islamic realm.

This stands in stark contrast to America Jewry. It has been little over a century that millions of Jews made their way from Russia and Rumania and settled in “The Golden Land.” But that century and a half has been a story of the loss of Jewish identity and widespread intermarriage with non-Jews. The Orthodox world has held on to the old time religion to survive and Reform has opened up a “Big Tent” that threatens to weaken Judaism through the invitation of intermarried couples into the synagogue without much pressure for the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism. Even if Orthodox Jewry is the last tenable movement standing in the United States, this movement will be weakened politically by the disappearance down the road of the majority of American Jews. Zionism as a “civil religion” was a reality fifty years ago but the pride of Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War has faded and many young Jews do not even identify with Israel. While I praise the efforts of the organizers of Birthright Israel to bring young Jews to see a Jewish State in action, it is too little, too late. Birthright is not a magic elixir that will prevent assimilation.

Just look at our campuses in the United States. The foremost concern at universities is to counter the anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel that flourishes on campuses among faculty and students. This hatred places Jewish students on campuses who support Israel either in danger or simply intimidates them. Jewish organizations have some impact on countering the hatred but this has all been in the works for the past fifty years. This is also a matter of too little too late. But the BDS movement on campuses is not the only crisis young American Jews face.

The other enemy is ignorance. A young Jew with no Jewish background who comes to a campus has a broad range of options outside of the Jewish realm. Although Jewish Studies departments are flourishing in universities throughout the world, one can easily turn to the study of Buddhism, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, literature of the British Empire, astrophysics, and the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There are so many choices to embrace that a Jew who is not strongly anchored in his or her Jewish identity will simply walk away from it. This is not the case only on campuses but in American life. To leave Judaism in America is simple—you can just walk away and meld into an American identity not tethered to Judaism or Jewish identity. In the ancient and medieval world, leaving the Jewish community meant conversion to Christianity and Islam and ending all social and religious ties with Jews. Most Jews did not choose this option because they believed their way of life was superior to that of the non-Jewish majority and their humanity and their Jewish identity were melded into one. In modernity, that is no longer the case. Ethnicity in a multicultural society cannot endure as a source of lasting identity. A passing knowledge of the Holocaust or identification with Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld as representatives of what the Jews have to offer the world will never form the base of lasting Jewish identity.

I do not have a crystal ball and cannot tell you what American Jewry will look like in a generation. But there is absolutely no reason that the trends of assimilation and marriage out of the faith will simply stop and American Jewry will enter a renaissance and be rejuvenated. Meanwhile, the Jewish community will spend millions of dollars and precious resources to resurrect our Jewry. But previous efforts to maintain a viable community continue to fail. And more Jews, especially young Jews, simply walk away. They will not do so through self-hatred but simply through indifference,