Fundamentally Freund: From Soviet to American Jewry

US Jews wanted Gorbachev, Reagan and the entire world to see that they would not remain silent while their brethren were in distress.

Ronald Reagan on screens 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ronald Reagan on screens 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of American Jewry’s finest moments. December 6, 1987, was a brisk, fairly cold Sunday in Washington, the kind of day best spent curled up on a couch watching an exciting afternoon of football. But instead of staying indoors, more than 250,000 American Jews from across the US gathered on the National Mall on the eve of the Washington summit between president Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
Old and young, religious and secular, they were there to stand in solidarity with Soviet Jewry and demand their release from behind the Iron Curtain. They wanted Gorbachev, Reagan and the entire world to see that American Jewry would not remain silent while their brethren were in distress.
Remember, this was before the age of social media.
There was no way to blast a Twitter message out to thousands of activists or mobilize them via Facebook. It required an intense and coordinated effort, one that brought together a range of Jewish organizations in an unprecedented show of unity.
Thanks in part to the immense success of the rally, the cause gained momentum, and more than a million Soviet Jews would successfully emigrate to freedom in the decades that followed.
As a sophomore at Princeton University at the time, I headed down to DC together with a large contingent of my fellow students. It was a heady atmosphere, filled with solidarity, hope and determination. For a few brief hours, all the politics, intrigue, envy and resentment that so typifies much of the organized Jewish community was set aside for the sake of a greater good.
No wonder so many efforts are now being made to recapture, or even relive, that very special moment.
A series of lectures, commemorations, dinners and concerts are being planned by various Jewish communities in the US to mark the occasion.
And a worthy initiative called Freedom 25, which was started by my friend Mike Granoff, aims to ensure that the lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement will be learned by future generations.
As someone who enjoys a good dose of nostalgia every now and then, I am glad to see that this watershed event has not been forgotten.
Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that there is perhaps an even more pressing concern that warrants attention, namely: In another two or three generations, will there be any committed American Jews left to march? This is more than mere hyperbole. The sad fact is that American Jewry is facing demographic decline and spiritual attenuation. To be sure, in recent years the academic equivalent of a mixed martial arts bout has been raging among demographers.
Some, such as Hebrew University’s Sergio Della Pergola, estimate the number of American Jews to be 5,275,000, while others, such as Brandeis University’s Leonard Saxe, say it is 6.4 million.
Whatever the true number may be, one thing is clear: The younger generation of American Jews cares less about Israel, is further detached from Judaism, and is more likely to intermarry than its forbears.
Take, for example, the findings of the 2007 study on non-Orthodox American Jews that was sponsored by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. It found that 77 percent of those over 65 said the destruction of Israel would be a “personal tragedy” for them, but among those under 35, just 48 percent felt that way.
In other words, over half of young American Jews would view the elimination of the Jewish state as little more than a headline to glance at while eating breakfast.
There is a slow but steady dilution taking place, one that poses a major threat to the future vitality, clout and influence of US Jews. In major Jewish centers such as New York and Los Angeles, it may be less visible. But scratch beneath the surface, speak to friends or co-workers, or go to a college campus, and you will quickly get a sense of just how stark the situation is becoming.
Indeed, can anyone conceive of a scenario nowadays where a quarter of a million US Jews would storm Washington on behalf of a Jewish cause? Even protests directed against the threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map have failed to marshal such sizeable numbers.
Thankfully, a number of important initiatives, such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, have been making a difference in the lives of many young American Jews. But more – so much more! – needs to be done. Just as American Jewry galvanized its forces 25 years ago to rescue Soviet Jewry, it must now act to save itself, by returning to tradition and re-embracing its heritage.
So by all means, let’s celebrate today’s anniversary and revel in US Jewry’s past accomplishments.
But come tomorrow, a lot of work will need to be done to ensure future triumphs as well.