Facing a painful reality

In countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, close to full assimilation is inevitable.

General Assembly Israel 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy Jerusalem Press Club Twitter)
General Assembly Israel 2013
(photo credit: Courtesy Jerusalem Press Club Twitter)
There has been an uptick these past weeks in the appearance of the late Prof. Simon Rawidowic’s pithy reference to the Jews as an “ever-dying people” whose “incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, and beginning anew.”
The use of this quote by various Jewish pundits is intended to poke a finger in the eye of the assimilation genie that has emerged from the bottle following the recent publication of the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews entitled “Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
But any scoffers should reread its findings. The data clearly does not bode well for American Jewish life in the decades to come. The rate of intermarriage among US Jews is the highest ever recorded, involving some 70 percent of all Jews who have married since the year 2000. Jewish religious identity is down, being supplanted by cultural and ethnic identity. In fact, there is no single measure in the survey that suggests anything other than the continuing slow but certain waning of this once robust community.
The American Jewish e s t a b l i s h m e n t ’ s response to the Pew survey, as expected, will be to devise new educational programs and incentives intended to increase Jewish commitment among young Jews. These efforts will be aided, financially and programmatically, by the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel. These efforts will fail.
Why? Because before this crisis is about Jewish education and identity strengthening programs it is about sociology.
“One of the bedrock goals of the American value system has always been the ultimate assimilation of racial and ethnic groups into mainstream society,” says sociologist David Newman. In an open and tolerant society non-Orthodox Jewish life is simply non-sustainable beyond a few generations. The American Jewish community is now in the process of demonstrating this principle.
In countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, close to full assimilation is inevitable. This situation will not occur in the near future, but will eventuate in time.
How much time? In a little more than half a century from now, the space of three generations, if present conditions prevail, no open, Western democratic country will be home to a viable Jewish community other than that identified as Orthodox (and probably not including what we recognize today as “modern Orthodoxy”) or such selfstyled “New Age” syncretic groups that retain the name Jewish but have no substantive historical connection to the Jewish past.
The goals of the new programs will be the same as those developed in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that launched the “Jewish continuity campaign.”
These were conceived to provide young Jews with a respectable level of Jewish education and to instill Jewish meaning in their lives; to give them a reason to be Jewish and to marry other Jews. Many millions of Jewish community dollars were invested in the development and execution of these programs. Their achievements were minimal.
What is the proof for this? The Pew data. Pew and the fact that American Jewish leaders again feel impelled to create and spend millions of more dollars on the implementation of a new round of assimilation-fighting programs.
A future viable Jewish community in America will not be acquired through programs. Until the European Enlightenment some 300 years ago, every Jew took for granted that he or she was a member by birth of a distinct people, a separate community and scion to a unique historic civilization.
Today identification with these membership circles is optional. In contemporary Western society individuality rules; group distinctiveness is anathema to American Jews.
Personal identity for Jews in the United States over the past century, and looking ahead only a couple generations, will have traversed the following trajectory: Jew – American Jew – Jewish American – American of (partial) Jewish descent. This is the path the juggernaut of assimilation is taking among American Jews.
Birthright and Jewish camping are positive forces. However, the key shortcoming of both Birthright and Jewish camping is that these experiences occur outside the real lives of participants; they are but a brief respite from the highly attractive non-Jewish worlds to which they return.
Decades of survey data demonstrate that Jewish day school or yeshiva graduates, especially those who complete both Jewish elementary and high school, retain a deep Jewish commitment and are much less likely to intermarry than respondents whose Jewish education was acquired at a part-time s u p p l e m e n t a r y Hebrew or Sunday school. The Catch-22 here is that more intensive, and thus more effective, elementary and secondary school Jewish education is only an option for Jewish families already committed to it.
In addition to the onerous private school tuition and fees, enrolling one’s children in a full-time Jewish school separates them from the public education mainstream; this still strikes many Jews as un-American or overtly tribal behavior.
Quality Jewish education has never been a priority of most American Jewish parents. As principal of an independent non-denominational Jewish Sunday school many years ago, I asked the members of the board of directors, all parents of children enrolled in the school, how much Jewish education they want their children to receive. The answer that found consensus was “a smattering.”
The American experience has allowed for the deracination of Judaism over time to the point where many Jews truly believe that Judaism is “whatever I want it to be.”
As a longtime observer of American Jewish life I have come to associate two popular cultural references with what I sadly believe to be the destiny of the American Jewish community. The first is no more than the title to the theme song from the 1970s TV sitcom M.A.S.H.: “Suicide is Painless.”
The second reference is more classic: “[Alice] was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off. ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’ “‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone” (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6).
Rawidowic was certain that, contrary to all doubt and despair, Jewish life would not be extinguished. However, his optimism did not disallow the natural ebb and flow of Jewish life over time and place. The American Jewish community will continue to grow smaller, its institutions collapsing, eventually to a point of functional extinction.
What will remain are pockets of haredi Jewish life in those large, socially separate, urban enclaves where such communities thrive today. Over the coming decades the great majority of other Jews for whom having Jewish grandchildren is a priority will move to Israel. The 20th century will be known as the “Golden Age of American Jewry.” Tragically, even in the wake of the Pew survey, as their numbers continue to dwindle many American Jews deny that their community is facing an existential crisis.
Their grin, like that of the Cheshire Cat, will be the legacy of the 42% of American Jews who, according to the survey, think a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish.The author lives in Efrat and is the founder and director of www.italkisrael.com.