Only God can save the US Jewry - opinion

US Jews want to fit in and be 'normal' Americans, so they are sacrificing their Jewry for it.

 PRAYING FOR forgiveness at the Western Wall before Yom Kippur (photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)
PRAYING FOR forgiveness at the Western Wall before Yom Kippur
(photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

During my recent US visit, one Jewish leader remarked: “A year-and-a-half-ago [when COVID-19 hit] young Jews stopped doing anything Jewish – and they didn’t miss it.”


“And they didn’t miss it” may be American Jewry’s epitaph. Last week, I opposed exaggerating the Israel-bashers’ threat. The hysteria locks the Zionist conversation into political zones, partisan fights and paranoid tones which don’t sway the Blame-Israel-Firsters while alienating the “I-don’t-care-ers.”

Those five words – “And they didn’t miss it” – pose the real threat. It’s Juicide – Jewish suicide. Too many Jews ingest a slow-acting poison of wannabeism and not-wannabeism – wanting to fit in and not wanting to stand out, wanting to be “normal” Americans and not wanting to be burdened by Judaism, Zionism, Israel, tradition.

True, we are all addicted to iPhones that individuate and isolate, to a leisure culture that coddles and distracts, and to a lifestyle that indulges and shirks.

Moreover, our best and brightest absorb (and their foolish parents finance) a propaganda onslaught that begins in high school – if not earlier – and peaks on too many campuses. Universities offer the credentials students crave while negating religion and nationalism, demonizing Israel and America, and mocking Judaism and Zionism.

Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism? (credit: REUTERS)Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism? (credit: REUTERS)

It’s self-destructive to reject the core values that have made America work, let alone sustained Jews for millennia while shaping our modern miracle-in-the-making, Israel.

The Jewish establishment often makes matters worse. Too much of the American Jewish experience involves guilt-tripping, fear-mongering or finger-pointing.

Too much American Judaism is sterile, stale, forced, apologetic and derivative – aping modern trends, trying to make our ancient ways look hip. And too much of the American Jewish conversation is passive, about “being Jewish,” not “doing Jewish,” with your Jewish identity a weight you schlep around, not a catalyst for finding meaning and improving the world. Even much tikkun olam talk rings false – how can it keep tracking the Democrats’ agenda so closely, for decades?

Even a lightning-fast, 10-day Birthright trip to Israel transforms many young Jews because Israeli Judaism is more natural, less defensive, more authentic. It throbs with energy, as an ancient people returns to its natural habitat in this old-new land.

May 1967’s gallows humor – before the Six Day War – had Israelis asking the last person to abandon the country to “please turn out the lights at Lod Airport.” Today, many non-Orthodox American institutions will ask the last person to “please power down the computers.”

For two decades, I have argued that identity Zionism can jump-start drifting Jews’ Jewish journeys. The many Israel experiences prove it. Moreover, living in the Jewish state provides so many deep, overlapping, mutually reinforcing, built-in Jewish ties, values, experiences and associations, that it’s the only place where nonreligious Jews can truly thrive from generation to generation.

BUT ZIONISM and peoplehood are one leg on which Jewry stands. There’s a second leg, long-neglected, especially in America: that oft-avoided three-letter word: God.

The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) taught that if you cannot see God everywhere, you cannot see God anywhere. That one-liner pulverizes the American Judaism I learned. Liberal Judaism was part-time, contingent, utilitarian Judaism. It was the godlessness that failed. God popped up here and there: on Shabbat, in synagogues, on holidays, when useful.

But God couldn’t be everywhere, because our lifelong mission was to be normal, to master America’s post-God society. Our Judaism was an on-off, kippah-in-your-pocket Judaism. We lived the great Enlightenment gift to be a Jew at home and a regular person on the street. God forbid you should be too godly.

And God forbid you should talk about God. Even Orthodox Jews rarely did that. Praying was more like belting out drinking songs, not lobbing spiritual first serves to our Maker and Constant Companion.

I keep reading new proposals to revive American Judaism: Learn! Pray! Meditate! The best approach is simple but profound: Bring God back to your life – full-time, not part-time; everywhere, not here and there.

I write “bring God back” because my friend the late Rabbi Ron Aigen used to note that when he ran a pre-bar mitzvah retreat for 12-year-olds in his quite traditional Reconstructionist synagogue in Montreal, the kids often listed God as central to their Judaism – while the parents didn’t. He then watched most young people grow out of that belief – when the real adult quest involves growing into it.

ULTIMATELY, YOUR challenges with your God and your people are similar. You can’t be guilt-tripped into a relationship with either. And you can’t keep turning them off and on; they become like disposable cigarette lighters, doomed to run out of gas. True relationships – with God, your people, one another – have remarkable, constantly renewable energy sources.

Part-time Judaism isn’t sustainable, meaningful or transferable. But if you buy into the whole hog – as it were – you can’t be bullied out of that relationship either (which returns us to the alienated-from-Israel conversation).

Once you wrap yourself fully in either bond, you cannot escape, you don’t wish to flee – you would miss it. You would find ways to connect, even in lockdown, because it’s so central to your identity; it’s the blood you circulate, not the clothes you keep changing. In short, it’s full-time, deep-dive doing, living and being Jewish – rather than just being Jew-ish.

This defensive focus on surviving doesn’t help. Let’s teach toward thriving as godly, peoplehood-loving Jews – that’s who we always have been.

The Kotzker Rebbe also taught: “When you say ‘I will’ – this is bad; when you say ‘I want to’ – this is neither here nor there. But when you say ‘I am’ – this is good.”

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.