Pleading for change

Tal Keinan offers an impassioned but underwhelming treatise on Judaism today.

Jewish star (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Jewish star
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Tal Keinan is worried. The Israeli-American entrepreneur and businessman thinks that Judaism – in the United States and Israel – is facing an existential crisis. His deep-seated concern has led him to pen the earnest and thought-provoking God is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism.
In the US, with soaring rates of intermarriage and assimilation, Keinan sees Jews simply disappearing in a few generations. In Israel, Keinan believes, factional infighting and an inability to agree on an approach to solving conflict with the Palestinians will drive secular Israelis out of the country and effectively spell its end.
As both a treatise and entreaty on modern Jewry, Keinan’s work is deeply flawed. But he is a compelling writer – and at his best when speaking about his personal experiences. Throughout the book, he tells of his secular upbringing in Florida, the spiritual renewal he underwent while a student at Exeter, and his decision to enlist in the Israel Air Force and serve as a fighter pilot. One passage, where he describes his first Yom Kippur in Israel, is particularly moving. Since age 13, Keinan had fasted and attended synagogue on Yom Kippur. But that all changed in the IAF.
“I assumed we would walk to the synagogue, which I had never seen, that evening,” he writes. Instead, he discovered his comrades preparing grilled-cheese sandwiches with a celebratory spirit. “I made my way to my cot as casually as I could, struggling to avoid betraying my confusion and a welling bout of panic. I had just committed years of my life to Israel, an enterprise it sometimes seemed I barely understood. There was no emergency exit.”
Though the day began with panic, a sense of calm later set in.
“For the first time, I grasped a practical difference between being a modern Jew in America and being a modern Jew in Israel. In America, I had to make an active effort to disengage from school... [a] ritual that had been the confirmation of my membership in the tribe. In Israel, the ritual was unnecessary.”
Similarly, Keinan movingly recounts being in Tel Aviv the day that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and calling his then-girlfriend Amber in the US with the news.
“Another siren wailed outside my window, then faded and stopped as the ambulance turned into the hospital entrance. The line was quiet for a few seconds. ‘Tal, shouldn’t you be calling someone from work [the IAF] right now? Why are you talking to me?’” But Keinan knew that the assassination would not call for an air force response – the prime minister had been murdered by a Jew. “No. There is nobody for me to call.”
Interspersed with his personal journey are Keinan’s musings and concerns about the future of Judaism. But his radical ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – are almost an afterthought in the close to 300-page examination of the state of global Jewry, which is high on sweeping proclamations but low on supporting data.
Indeed, the question I continually asked myself while reading this book is: Why Keinan? Why are his grandiose ideas worth more attention than those of anybody else?
Sure, the 49-year-old has lived in both Israel and the US, has served as an Israeli fighter pilot, has an MBA from Harvard and is a business success. But is that enough? In an epilogue to the book, Keinan admits that he is not an expert but a “concerned member of world Jewry.”
Bona fides aside, unsubstantiated claims and niggling misstatements throughout reinforce a feeling of doubt while reading Keinan’s work.
Early on, he claims that “intermarriage rates among Israeli Jews living in America are even higher than the rates for American Jews.” He provides no evidence and offers no citation; a study by the Israeli-American Council shows the opposite to be true.
Later, Keinan asserts that a marriage outside Israel between a Jew and a non-Jew “is not recognized in Israel,” affecting both taxes and the legal status of their children. This is a very partial truth; the Interior Ministry will register any couples married outside Israel as legally married with full tax benefits. While the rabbinate will not recognize the wedding, and therefore a divorce cannot be granted in Israel, any children born to a Jewish mother will be registered as Jews, and if a parent is Israeli, so are the children.
Similarly, the author recounts a story about a pioneering female cadet joining the air force in the 1990s and how much he admired the strict National Religious male cadets for their openness and acceptance of their female cadet. He credits growing National Religious enlistment for creating “a more professional, more effective, and more humane organization.” The fact is that today the establishment National Religious movement is rather ardent in its opposition to female enlistment, and Keinan’s willful ignorance of that undermines his point.
AFTER LAYING out the pressing problems, the author comes up with his admittedly radical solutions, seeking to harness the power of crowd wisdom and critical mass to keep Judaism alive.
Among his ideas are transforming the role of Israel’s president into one serving – and elected by – global Jewry. He also seeks to establish a “Jewish World Endowment” where families commit 1.25% of their pretax income to a fund that will provide for their children’s Jewish educational needs.
The ideas, equal parts interesting and unlikely, feel like a postscript to the book.
Considering Keinan’s assessment of the ambivalence of American Jewry, he offers no compelling reason why Jewish families would participate. And considering his dismay at the sharp divisions in Israeli society, he doesn’t address how unlikely and difficult it would be to change Israel’s de facto constitution and establish this role.
It is clear that Keinan is driven by his keenly felt need for change. But his efforts to contribute to the solution are underwhelming.