Counterpoint: Don't bury American Jewry

Its problems are real, but surveys don't capture a vibrant reality.

us israel flag aipac 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
us israel flag aipac 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What is happening to the American Jewish community? According to all the surveys, it's in dire straits. American Jews not only lack cognition of Jewish tradition and Jewish history, they also lack identification with the Jewish people. Assimilation, along with interfaith marriage, is decimating the US Jewish scene. Who am I to argue with famous sociologists and demographers publishing their research on America's Jewish population? My world is rather limited. True, I belong to the largest segment of the community (in the United States), Reform, but the Reform movement represents only about one-sixth of the total number of American Jews, as most Jews are unaffiliated. Yet here I am in the US, traveling from coast to coast, lecturing in Reform and Conservative synagogues, as well as at community centers and federations, interacting with a representative sampling of three-fourths of the affiliated American Jewish community. What I experience contradicts all those high-powered sociological predictions of doom for American Jewry. This is not to say that I am overly impressed by the level of Jewish commitment and knowledge of those with whom I come in contact, or that increased assimilation and mixed-married couples becoming more commonplace do not trouble me. But to forecast such a gloomy picture whereby academic researchers tell us it is only a matter of time before American Jewry becomes a mere episode in the history of the Jewish people is deceptive. We are told that Israel is no longer on the radar screen of American Jews. For certain, there are worrisome signs that the Jewish state doesn't have the same emotional hold on the younger generation that it did on those who experienced its birth, or other milestones such as the Six-Day Way, Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, the First Lebanon War, the arrival of Russian Jews, the Gulf War, Operation Solomon and so on. Yet, despite cause for genuine concern, my encounter with one slice of the American Jewish world has been most encouraging. AMERICAN JEWRY is different than it was when I grew up in the States in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The good news is that it seems to continually reinvigorate itself as it tries to cope with the ever-changing nature of the community. Synagogue life has become dynamic, offering a host of social and educational programs. Services are no longer the stodgy presentation of prayers that I experienced as a youngster. They are engaging and creative, while still respectful of tradition. Rabbis have assumed more of a teaching than a preaching role. Admittedly, the supplementary education that a child receives is sorely lacking, primarily because only a few hours a week are set aside for Jewish learning. But even here, there are far-reaching changes: A growing number of synagogues are emphasizing family education; that is, both parent and child attend religious school. At times they study together, and at times the children learn separately while their parents choose an elective of Jewish interest. Adult education is thriving. In one synagogue, representative of many others I visited, there were no less than 20 different courses on Jewish themes. Social action takes on special importance in the life of the synagogue. Virtually every congregation sponsors a Mitzva Day, mobilizing the entire community to become involved in a range of activities to help the needy. There are also long-term social projects which enlist large numbers of participants. Outreach plays a vital role in the synagogue world. Gays and lesbians are welcomed, accorded full participation in all aspects of religious life. Unique programs serve different communities within the synagogue - singles, the elderly, pensioners, the newly married, the intermarried, widows and widowers. For those confined to their apartments because of ill-health, the synagogue comes to them. Classes are held downtown on a range of Judaic subjects so that Jewish professionals can study during their lunch breaks. Enrollment in Jewish camps is growing, a young Jew can experience what it feels like to live in a self-contained Jewish environment 24-hours a day. Weekend retreats for families and adults provide an intensive worship and learning atmosphere. Interfaith activities are a priority. Dialogue with liberal and conservative Christian denominations is open and honest. Engagement with the Muslim community was given a necessary boost when the president of the Reform movement addressed the Islamic Society of North America, stressing the need for tolerance and understanding while condemning extremism. Most significantly, I found that Israel remains of great interest to American Jews. The majority of guest lecturers at synagogues and Jewish community centers are Israelis, be they biblical scholars, archeologists, political scientists, human rights activists, authors, settler movement advocates, Peace Now spokespeople or those advocating for Israel's MIAs. And Israeli politicians of every ideological stripe are regulars on the lecture circuit. American Jewish influence on US government policy vis-à-vis Israel is still considerable. Most important, in addition to birthright israel providing a free trip to Israel for every college-age youth, synagogues and federations set aside money so that any young person can afford to travel to the country. Synagogue and community trips to Israel are also booming. No survey is needed to recognize the obvious: Assimilation and intermarriage undermine the staying power of Diaspora Jewish life. Yet, despite its questionable future, it would be premature to begin composing a eulogy for the American Jewish community.