Israel and US Jewry: A shared destiny

Israel and American Jewry have a shared destiny and a symbiotic relationship. We can and must provide support to one another. Both of our futures depend on it.

US and Israel flags 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
US and Israel flags 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Attempts by non-Orthodox Jewish organizations in the US to foster “continuity” have failed miserably.
That seems to be the conclusion that many attending this week’s GA have drawn from the results of the recently published Pew Research Center report entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
“What we’ve seen is a tremendous amount of Jewish organizations doing very good things that are essentially not leading to the outcomes that we would all like,” Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman told The Jerusalem Post’s Sam Sokol on Monday.
Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, was more blunt: “The Pew study says that we are doing very badly on many things.”
But Shrage, Silverman and other leaders of the American Jewish establishment should not be so hard on themselves. American Jewry is facing unprecedented challenges. For the majority of Diaspora Jewry’s history – even in the modern era – a central element in Jewish continuity was not just the strong sense of identity and religious affiliation, it was also the antagonism of the surrounding gentile culture. Even in America until the 1960s and 1970s, most ethnic groups were endogamous.
Pre-Holocaust Germany is one of the few places in the world where intermarriage rates were comparable to the 58-percent rate that the Pew survey of American Jewry uncovered. If not for the Shoah, German Jewry might well have been “loved to death” through assimilation and intermarriage.
Today, non-Orthodox American Jewry is attempting to prevent intermarriage in the US at a time when practically no external barriers prevent a Jew from full integration.
Only Orthodoxy continues to succeed in placing self-imposed limits on assimilation and intermarriage.
Aspects of Jewish practice such as keeping kosher and wearing distinctive clothing were specifically designed to separate Jews from the non-Jewish population.
Strict adherence to the laws of Shabbat – particularly the prohibition against driving – and obligatory synagogue attendance during the week served to foster tight-knit and geographically compact Jewish communities.
The Pew survey and past polls consistently show that Orthodoxy continues to be a bulwark against intermarriage and assimilation. But obviously most Jews in America and the Diaspora are not Orthodox, and are unlikely to move in the direction of embracing an Orthodox lifestyle.
A more open-minded approach or a less stringent observance of Halacha might be more in line with America’s zeitgeist. But adopting such an approach increases the probability of assimilation and intermarriage for oneself and one’s children.
Another option is to make aliya and choose to live in Israel. Unlike in the Diaspora, where maintaining Jewish continuity entails tough choices and at least some commitment to Jewish particularism, in Israel it is possible to ensure Jewish continuity by simply living here.
Making aliya has the added advantage of enabling one to be a full-fledged partner in the ongoing process of building a uniquely Jewish state. However, as aliya statistics prove, moving to Israel is also not an option for most American Jews.
Amid this troubling situation, maintaining the strength and vitality of American Jewry is an Israeli interest as well.
A full 79.1% of Israelis say that the future of Israel is connected to and dependent on Diaspora Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular, according to a poll commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and conducted this month by Teleseker.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that 68.8% of Israelis say they are saddened, concerned or frustrated by the Pew survey’s findings that more American Jews are intermarrying and not raising their children as Jews.
Israel and American Jewry have a shared destiny and a symbiotic relationship. We can and must provide support to one another. Both of our futures depend on it.