Burning Issues #12: The future of US Jewry

Do you agree with JA Chairman Bielski who said there was no future for Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage?

zeev bielski 298.88 (photo credit: IDF)
zeev bielski 298.88
(photo credit: IDF)
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Question #12

In comments to the 'Post' on Sunday, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski, while attending the GA in Los Angeles, said, "One day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage." Asked if American Jews were fighting a losing battle to stay Jewish, Bielski answered in the affirmative. AJC executive director David Harris called Bielski's comments "fear-mongering" and "counterproductive." According to Harris, "American Jews face their share of problems, no doubt. But we're not disappearing any time soon. These kind of periodic pleas from Israelis have no resonance with American Jews." In fact, he argued, trends of Jewish renewal and greater involvement with the community are taking shape. In your opinion, whose position better reflects a more accurate perception of the future of US Jewry? Contributions by Michael Freund, MJ Rosenberg, Jonathan Tobin and Isi Leibler. MJ Rosenberg: There can be no question but that the community will significantly diminish in size. To argue otherwise is to assume that the soaring intermarriage rate will have no impact when, in fact, it must. Even in the case where the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism, there will be a significant drop off in the next generation as the children will feel free to do as mom or dad did and marry a non-Jew. Beyond intermarriage, younger Jews are just not very engaged with Judaism. Yes, a tiny percentage of Jewish kids become involved with Israel on campus but far more are turned off by the politicization of Judaism and, in fact, by post-Rabin Israel. Neither Israel nor the memory of the Holocaust (our odd choice as a device to keep Jewish kids Jewish) has much appeal to most American Jewish kids. The exceptions are Orthodox, day school educated, and Jewish summer campers. But even the latter two groups won't stick around if Israel no longer has general appeal. Bottom line. We are going to be a much smaller community. This is nobody's fault. America did turn out to be the golden medina for us. Anti-Semitism barely exists except on the fringes. Few of us ever experience it. It is natural to love one's own country if one feels utterly at home there. We feel that way about America. I don't care how large the community is. After all, it is not going to disappear and active Jews have always been a small segment of the whole. Nor do I care how many Jews practice the faith. Religion is a personal matter. I do, however, worry that fewer and fewer Jews are involved with Israel which was our drawing card for a long time. It isn't anymore. And it won't be until it becomes a state at peace with its neighbors, a nation that lives up to its potential, and becomes a symbol of Judaism's highest values. American Jews are political liberals. They voted almost 90% for the Democrats last week and the kids are even more Democratic than their parents. An Israel that discriminates against non-Orthodox Jews and Arabs is not attractive. An Israel that holds on to territory not for security reasons but for reasons of nationalism is not a draw. An Israel that seems obsessed with maintaining ethnic purity pushes American Jews away. Am I giving up? No way. It was the Israel I first visited as a kid that turned me into an involved Jew. I saw Tel Aviv and fell in love. And, despite everything, I still love Israel as do my kids. I look forward to the day, God willing, when I can visit Israel with grandchildren. But unless things change in Israel, a trip there won't have any more personal impact than a trip to Europe. Nice, but what does it have to do with me? And, to be honest, not as nice as much of Europe which is in synch with the values of American Jewish kids, as Israel often is not. That means the ball is in Israel's court, not ours over here. Israel, more than any other element, can keep American Jews in the fold. A smaller community can still help sustain Israel and vice versa. But the way things are going, the community here will be both smaller and far less Israel-oriented. Our future as American Jews is secure. But it breaks my heart knowing that for most Jews, Israel will not play much of a part in that future. In Washington: My hopes for the 110th Congress Jonathan Tobin: There is no doubt that the State of Israel offers the best possible answer for those who seek to live a fully Jewish life. In that sense, Jewish Agency Chair Zeev Bielski is merely doing his job when he goes to the GA and promotes aliya. But like most Israelis, what he doesn't know about Diaspora life could fill an encyclopedia. David Harris is right when he says that American Jews "aren't disappearing any time soon." This is not because American Jewry has solved the problems of assimilation and intermarriage. It hasn't. And the lack of a solution, or more to the point, the failure of the organized Jewish community to fully embrace programs, such as those that would provide for affordable day school education and summer camps for all regardless of income, is laying the foundation for a severe demographic decline in the coming decades. But to jump from that grim reality to hyperbole about Jews "having no future as Jews in the United States," is nonsensical. Indeed, what may well occur even if the unaffiliated and less religious elements of the community completely fall away, is that American Jewry will morph into a group that will be far more observant connected to Judaism and Israel. There will be economic and political consequences from such a decline but that is not the same thing as saying Jews will have no future here as Jews. Harris is also right when he points out that the United States is "exceptional" in the sense that Jews here simply do not face the same kind of existential threats that we do elsewhere. The basic truths about the lack of a future for Jews in Europe that Zionism sought to point out may be as on-target today as they were when Theodor Herzl wrote "The Jewish State." Israel was the answer to Jewish powerlessness and homelessness. But America is not Europe and anyone in Israel who doesn't understand that ought not to be trusted with the responsibility of leading the apparatus of modern Zionism. Isi Leibler: Zeev Bielski is wrong when he predicts the demise of American Jewry. The late Professor Simon Rawidowicz described Diaspora Jews as "the ever dying people" but noted that a nation "dying for thousands of years means a living nation". Of course, there is no denying that Diaspora Jews are in crisis. Half a century ago, six percent of Jews in America intermarried. Today that figure stands at fifty percent. The reason is simple. In a society in which African Americans and Whites, Catholics and Moslems, Greeks and Wasps increasingly intermarry, Jews cannot be the exception especially now that the major barrier of social anti Semitism, which previously inhibited intermarriage, has been overcome. To further complicate matters, in these days urging non religious secular youngsters not to intermarry, is perceived as racism. Aside from strict adherence to a traditional religious lifestyle, nothing - not even a good Jewish education - can inhibit a Jewish youngster from falling in love and marrying a non Jewish partner. But even though the vast majority of American Jews are assimilating, there are countervailing factors. The dramatic revival of religious and ultra-Orthodox communities itself assures Jewish continuity.And whilst only impacting on a minority, Jewish education at both the secondary and tertiary level has made tremendous progress and certainly inhibit the assimilatory process. But remaining Jewish in an open society is unquestionably a challenge. For non-religious Jews, Israel remains the most important element in their Jewish identity. Paradoxically, building bridges to Israel via direct visits and aliya is a major prescription for remaining Jewish as Birthright seems to have demonstrated. There are no easy solutions but as David Harris says, negating or denigrating the Diaspora is utterly counterproductive. Israel and the Diaspora must continue to work together to strengthen Jewish peoplehood. Michael Freund: Perhaps the only thing more certain than the current vitality of American Jewish life is the community's inevitable and unavoidable decline. Indeed, history is clearly on the side of Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski. From ancient Alexandria to medieval Spain to modern Berlin and Vienna, even the most powerful and well-educated Diaspora Jewish communities were eventually swept away, whether by external forces such as pogroms and persecution, or by internal trends such as assimilation and intermarriage. As any knowledgeable observer of the American Jewish scene can tell you, the Jewish community in the US is in crisis. Even as the larger US population continues to grow in size, American Jewry is getting progressively smaller, shrinking in number from year to year. We are hemorrhaging Jews at an alarming rate, as decades of neglecting Jewish education begin to take their toll. Most American Jewish youth do not receive a well-rounded Jewish education, most American Jews do not visit Israel, and more than half now choose to marry outside the faith. When you add all this together, it spells one thing, and one thing only: demise, decline and dissolution, and nothing else. It may take years or decades, or even several generations, but unless there is an enormous and miraculous turnaround, the fate of the American Jewish community over the long-term is not looking all that bright. To suggest otherwise is not "fear-mongering", as the AJC's David Harris asserts. It is, quite simply, a realistic assessment, based both on past experience as well as on the data at hand. This truth may be too painful for some to accept - but doing so is the first and necessary step towards bringing about change. So Kol HaKavod to Zeev Bielski for having the courage to try and awaken the American Jewish leadership from its slumber. Here's hoping that his words will have a lasting and desired effect on all who hear them.