An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.
First, a short review of Jewish troubles:
For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.
The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.
Most of the parents of those Jews don’t seem to be much wiser, just a lot more instinctively concerned with the Holocaust and Israel.
The main source of vitality in the population – the Orthodox – still make up less than 20 percent of the overall total and either deliberately cloister themselves in insular “black-hat” communities or are generally too preoccupied with paying hefty day-school tuition fees and too lacking in confidence or concern to engage the larger Jewish world (to say nothing of the larger non-Jewish world beyond that) on the pressing cultural and political questions of the day. (Yeshiva University’s Straus Center is a notable caveat.)
That preoccupation with tuition fees derives, in part, from the continuing avoidance of the most pressing domestic Jewish issue today by most of the organized Jewish community: the high cost of Jewish living.
It must be said: most of the problems that afflict American Jewry are less Jewish-specific problems than the Jewish symptoms of larger American social problems. Jews can certainly do a lot more for themselves than they seem to realize, but the denigration of established institutions and the communal bonds they form wasn’t caused by Jews, and won’t be solved by them, either.
Nevertheless, at that dinner on Thursday night, the welcome address was offered entirely in Hebrew out of respect for the Israeli guests and the expectation that the American Jews would be able to understand. As I was able to follow all of it, it is safe to assume the rest of the room could as well. And at my table at least a good portion of the subsequent dinner conversation was also conducted in Hebrew.
I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine that American Jewish gatherings of this kind where even a portion is conducted in Hebrew have much of a precedent, if any, no matter the presence of Israelis. (I know that all meetings I myself had previously attended had proceeded seemingly without a thought toward Hebrew, and that this has been the overwhelming historical norm. Among other points of evidence for the trend, Leon Wieseltier told a story in 2008 about the then-exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s failed attempt to address a meeting of Jewish leaders in Hebrew, a language he knew but they didn’t.)
It may not seem like much. But an American Jewry with even a small portion of its young people both deeply interested in public affairs and capable of hearing about them in its people’s language is one with at least some cause for pride. May there be many more similar signs of American Jewish hope in the future.