Diaspora continuity

Orthodoxy’s success in fostering Jewish continuity in the Diaspora is undeniable.

Brooklyn Bridge in New York City 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Brooklyn Bridge in New York City 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
How do we safeguard Jewish continuity in the Diaspora? If you asked David Ben-Gurion or writer A.B. Yehoshua, the answer is simple: You can’t. For them, the Jewish Diaspora has no future.
Only the State of Israel can sustain the Jewish people into the 21st century. Only Jewish sovereignty can provide the Jewish people with a comprehensive reality in which all aspects of life no matter how mundane – from the roads and fields to the buildings and the computer programs to the culture and the language and the military – are permeated by Jewishness by virtue of the simple fact that they are the products of a sovereign Jewish people’s collective endeavor.
If, on the other hand, you asked an Orthodox Jew, you would be told that strict loyalty to tradition is the key to Jewish continuity. The rigorous demands of Orthodoxy foster commitment and self-segregation – the best bulwark against assimilation.
One is constantly reminded of one’s Jewishness via adherence to a comprehensive system of heavenly inspired rules and regulations – Halacha – that governs every aspect of one’s life, from the way one should tie one’s shoes to the most intimate matters involving relations between husband and wife to the percentage of one’s income that should be set aside for charity.
These rules and regulations are relatively standardized so that a Jew in Casablanca shares much in common with a Jew in California or in Calcutta. All discussions of the law exist in books, which became – after their traumatic exile from the Land of Israel nearly 2,000 years ago – the Jewish people’s “portable homeland.”
There is truth in both these claims. Israel is the only country in the world where the Jewish population is actually growing. And the State of Israel has also become a focal point for strengthening Jewish identity abroad. Birthright-Taglit, probably the single most successful outreach program ever, has Israel as its centerpiece.
By simply bringing young Diaspora Jews to Israel, Birthright has proved that the Jewish state, so often portrayed in the media as embattled and controversial, can also be incredibly inspiring.
Numerous studies have shown that coming face to face with Israel is such a profound experience that it actually encourages Jews to marry other Jews and deepens Jewish connectedness in numerous ways.
Israel seems to provide young Diaspora Jews with a unique opportunity to confront their Jewishness on their own terms while experiencing the miracle of the Jewish people’s return to national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox community – particularly the haredim – have emerged as the engine of Jewish population growth, not just in Israel (where they are expected to make up one-fifth of the Jewish population by 2028, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics) but also in the Diaspora.
The UJA Federation of New York’s recently released population study showed that thanks to haredim, the Jewish population living in the “five boroughs” (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) as well as Westchester County and Long Island, is actually growing after decades of stagnation.
Amazingly, 74 percent of Jewish children living in the five boroughs are Orthodox. Orthodoxy’s success in fostering Jewish continuity in the Diaspora is undeniable.
On Tuesday night, the Israeli Presidential Conference kicked off with the forward-looking theme “Facing Tomorrow.” Some of the greatest Jewish minds are scheduled to address the most pressing challenges facing the Jewish people. High up on the priority list is the question of Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.
One panel in particular, titled “To Be Jewish: The Challenge of Being Jewish in the Diaspora,” which will be moderated by The Jerusalem Post’s editor-in-chief, Steve Linde, on Wednesday evening will deal exclusively with this issue.
The role of Israel – in projects such as Birthright – and the lessons that can be learned from haredi and Orthodox Judaism’s success – at least when it comes to Jewish continuity – must figure prominently in any discussion of Jewish continuity.