Commentary Magazine


Topic: assimilation

The Problem with American Jewry

When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

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When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

Beinart writes principally about the contrast between the well-attended Jewish schools in Australia and the situation in the United States where middle-class parents are often forced to choose between day school tuition and paying their mortgages. Day schools remain the best form of Jewish education and a chance to at least provide kids with an informed choice about their decisions about embracing Jewish life. They are not a magic bullet against assimilation and intermarriage. Given the ingrained secularism of the majority of American Jews, many, if not most wouldn’t send their kids to a day school if it were free. But along with improved synagogue schools, Jewish camps, and trips to Israel, they all provide a comprehensive alternative to a population that is Jewishly illiterate.

As Beinart points out, there is certainly enough Jewish wealth in America to fund all of these programs in a manner that could actually make a dent in the Pew statistics if not completely change the future of a community that is rapidly shrinking. But instead of funding schools adequately, American Jews have funded vanity projects like museums while not doing what’s necessary so that, “American Jewish six-year-olds [can] read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance.”

Beinart is wrong to lump Israel advocacy—which often struggles for support in much the same manner as education—with the money lavished by American Jews on secular universities and museums as examples of misallocated funds. That is a function of his feud with AIPAC, which he despises for its loyalty to the principle of backing Israel’s democratically elected government.

But I find myself sympathizing with Beinart’s joke about being a “self-hating American Jew” when he regards the complacent manner with which most of the community has reacted to Pew. The struggle to change our priorities in order to preserve non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is an uphill slog and it’s easy to be discouraged about the foolish manner in which the Reform and Conservative movements as well as many federations have opted out of the fight. But at least this is one battle that needn’t divide us along the familiar lines of left and right.

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American Jews: Laughing But Shrinking

The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

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The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

To acknowledge the dismal future that this charts for the community should not be confused with exaggerated claims about American Jewry disappearing. There are still an estimated 5.3 million people who claim Jewish identity and a critical mass of them are still raising Jewish children, many of whom will affiliate with religious denominations and have an affinity for Israel. But the breakdown of the data shows that among the non-Orthodox majority in the United States—a group that composes approximately 90 percent of the community—most are not marrying Jews or giving their kids a Jewish education. Indeed, the two elements of American Jewry that seem to be growing at the most rapid rates are the Orthodox and those who consider themselves to be Jewish in some way but have no religion, a group that makes up 22 percent of those polled. While, as Pew points out, secularism has always been part of American Jewish culture, most of those with no religion are not raising Jewish children or participating in or supporting Jewish institutions. Moreover, more than half of non-Orthodox Jews are also marrying non-Jews with the overwhelming majority of these families also giving their children no Jewish education.

The problem here is not just the absolute numbers of those Jews drifting away. It is the survey results that make it clear that an increasingly large number of Jews have notions of Jewish identity that are based on values not likely to promote future generations of Jewish life on these shores.

For example, “leading an ethical or moral life” or “working for justice or equality”—elements that 69 percent and 56 percent of Jews say is what it means to be Jewish—are integral to Judaism. But they are beliefs that are also integral to other faiths and even compatible with being non-religious. Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew. Remembering the Holocaust—a point embraced by 73 percent of those surveyed—is also important. But as vital a lesson as the Holocaust is, it is not a positive vision of Jewish life that can serve as a paradigm for the future. Ideas such as being part of a community or observing Jewish law have far less support, but it is those notions upon which a community is built. For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future.

The only theological point upon which the majority of those polled agree is that believing in the divinity of Jesus means you are not a Jew. That’s understandable given that this is still an overwhelmingly Christian nation. But again, this is hardly a factor that can serve as a building block for Jewish identity. If Jewish denominations are all suffering record levels of dropouts, it can be traced to the fact that a community in a free society that is based on such loose notions rather than the strong bonds of faith cannot hope to retain much of its membership.

Israel remains important to most Jews and that is a hopeful sign since it remains the vital center of Jewish life in our time. But here again those numbers are skewed since the rates of interest in Israel are far higher among the Orthodox and lower among the growing numbers with no religion and affiliation. Critics of Israel will point to the fact that pluralities disapprove of settlements and think the government of the Jewish state isn’t doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians. Those are debatable notions, but the far smaller number of American Jews who think the Palestinians are sincere about wanting peace shows that the majority is not completely detached from the reality of the Middle East.

As for domestic political considerations, like other polls of American Jewry, the survey shows the overwhelming majority are liberals and loyal to the Democrats. Since those numbers are reversed among the Orthodox, one should expect a gradual rise in the total of those who vote for the Republicans. Yet even with the Orthodox population growing far more rapidly than the rest of the community, it may take several decades for the GOP to make up that ground if at all.

Overall, the survey tells us that the falloff of Jewish affiliation among the young and the non-Orthodox is already considerable and will only grow in the future. If Jewish organizations want to have any sort of impact on these numbers, it will require them to cast off their illusions about the value of outreach, which has clearly failed. A community that is primarily defined by being inclusive or by values that are not specific to Judaism is dooming itself to irrelevance. Instead of accepting assimilation, Jewish groups must resist it whenever possible and concentrate their efforts on encouragement and investment in those elements that produce Jews rather than people with only a dim grasp of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Only with major investments in those institutions that build Jewish identity such as schools, synagogues, and camps as well as trips to Israel can American Jewry stop or even lessen this demographic slide. The numbers show us that a largely secular, non-religious American Jewish community is well on its way to assimilating itself into a marginal group with only a vestigial memory of Jewish life as well as notions about food and humor that should not be mistaken for communal values.

If these trends continue or worsen, Jewish life and Judaism will not die in America. But it will be smaller, less diverse, and be increasingly unable to support the institutions that have been built here. That is not the same thing as disappearing, but for the majority of those who are not committed to a community of faith however they choose to define it Jewishly, it will be a distinction without a difference.

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