Commentary Magazine

American Judaism's Future

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin’s report of the demise of American Judaism based on the Pew study, though understandable, is greatly exaggerated [“Loving Us to Death,” November 2013]. There are two positive aspects of the study: First, the Reform movement is holding its own; and second, the Orthodox movement is growing, both through ba’alei teshuvah (of whom two of my children are examples) and through high birth rates. As my congregational rabbi likes to say, the Reform movement is the safety net of American Judaism, catching many of those who would otherwise become unaffiliated. The challenge for Reform Judaism is to provide compelling Jewish content to those saved in the net.

My personal observation, however, as a member of the movement from childhood is that the Reform movement has moved dramatically from the cold, distant style of classical reform toward more substantive religious content, which should give members more reason to remain affiliated. This change is bolstered by programs that raise consciousness in Jewish youth, such as Taglit and Masa, offered by the Jewish Federations. The rise of the Orthodox movement has not been adequately studied or documented, which is not surprising given the incomprehensible (at least to me) liberal bent of the media. I have seen through two of my children (one modern Orthodox and one Haredi, who learns at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem) and their friends that many Jewish children who were raised Reform or Conservative are turning to some version of the Orthodox movement for more religious content in their Judaism.

There are great Orthodox institutions in America, including Yeshiva University and traditional yeshivot such as Lakewood and Ner Yisroel. Somehow Pew didn’t pick up these phenomena and institutions, and therefore Mr. Tobin understandably does not discuss them in his essay. But they are real and must be included in any comprehensive understanding of the condition of Judaism in America.

Gary Walk
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

To the Editor:

Why does Jonathan S. Tobin attach the label “triumphalist” to Orthodox Jews? We share his dismay at the attrition of Jews of any stripe. Apart from that, we just keep doing, b’ezrat Hashem (with G-d’s help), what we have always done. We also seek new methods to keep our children inspired. We, too, reach out to the unaffiliated, with marked success, because Jewish souls recognize truth.

Don’t shrug us off as triumphalist; find out what is working, and why. As Hillel, a pragmatic Jewish educator said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if not now, when?”

C.M. Fletcher
Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin’s article is a bit alarmist, and therefore inaccurate. On page 35 of the Pew report, I read that the intermarriage rate is around 58 percent, and it hasn’t increased in 15 years. If you read the study carefully, you’ll see it’s probably decreasing. The 70 percent Mr. Tobin cites is specifically among Jews of no denomination.

In general, why must we always have this knee-jerk attitude that assumes “if it’s about us, it must be bad news”? There’s an awful lot of good news in that study. We’re growing, and we’re proud—against all odds and predictions.

Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario, Canada

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin highlights several important trends of declining Jewish affiliation in America documented by the recent Pew survey, but he confuses one issue and neglects to explore another. He suggests that religious freedom and the absence of anti-Semitism lead to assimilation. This may be true for some Jews, but, for the most part, these are probably just coincident trends. America, because of religious protections such as the Establishment Clause, has created space for diverse religious communities to flourish.  The marked lack of anti-Semitism in America, moreover, has enabled Jewish communities here to thrive without being significantly concerned about prejudice or discrimination.

The real culprit for the decline in American Jewry is secularism, which Mr. Tobin correctly identifies as a “potent tradition in American Jewry.” It’s a potent force in American Christianity, as well. Mr. Tobin, however, neglects to explore its roots and how best to address it. The reasons for the growing secularism and declining religiosity are many—the advent of the social sciences, the breakdown of the traditional family, to name a couple of important factors. In the process, many religions, not just Judaism, have become for many people seemingly antiquated, irrelevant, and heretical traditions.

In looking at my own Jewish journey, secularism held me back from engaging with Judaism for most of my life. In fact, I can point to specific secular ideas that got in the way—that Judaism entails some archaic theology, that it’s dogmatic, that it inevitably gravitates toward theocracy, that the Bible is anachronistic, that revealed truths are unreasonable, and that total assimilation represents a more enlightened path. It took several years for me to think these myths through and to overcome them in order to embrace the Jewish religion. Overcoming these secular myths is what it may take for many unaffiliated Jews to find their way back to Judaism and the Jewish tradition.

Curt Biren
Santa Monica, California

To the Editor:

Is Israel so very likely to provide a setting for the continuity Jonathan S. Tobin seeks? Quite apart from the obvious cultural and religious divisions within Israel’s Jewish citizenry, some 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jews at all. Whatever solution is found to the question of Palestinian statehood, Israel’s Jews will be living in a situation of close proximity to a non-Jewish population. Many Jews may prefer to move elsewhere. The Israeli state as presently constituted, its boundaries and inclusiveness, may change—perhaps profoundly. And Mr. Tobin’s emphasis on continuity contrasts with the severe warnings about Israel’s future uttered by many Israeli leaders.

Norman Birnbaum
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin’s essay is excellent, but his solution, Zionism (at least as he explains it), seems profoundly unbiblical. What is needed, he writes, is for Jews to move to Israel and “live with Jews, marry Jews, and bear Jewish children.” How such withdrawal accomplishes the goal of being a “light unto the world” escapes me. The loss of religious Judaism as a cultural force in American life specifically and in human culture generally would be a terrible thing.

Michael Peterson
Sammamish, Washington

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin does not deal with what I think is one of the principal causes of Jews’ disaffection with religion: the failure of the rabbinate to make services meaningful and to have them kindle in the congregants a real and personal relationship with God. Boring, monotonous, week-in and week-out, repetitive praying of prayers, only some of which engage the mind and touch the heart, is enough to drive many believing Jews out of synagogue.

Elliot J. Stamler
New York City

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin draws an unwarranted conclusion that is central to his thesis. He assumes that support for the government of Israel is identical to support for Israel. That is simply not true. One can fervently support Israel yet oppose the Netanyahu government. One should not conflate support for the Israeli government with “caring” about Israel.

Steve Goldberg
New York City

To the Editor:

There are two forms of anti-Semitism, its goal being to eliminate Jews. The first is violent: pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. The second is “pacific,” leading painlessly to the absorption and disappearance of Jews, for which Jews are responsible. The United States, as Jonathan S. Tobin makes clear, is the prototypical example of the painless absorption of Jews. The majority of American Jews, being on the left, are slowly being absorbed into the American masses.

Stephane Lubicz
New York City

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin’s essay expresses a distaste for Jews who do not follow the formal dictates of the organized religion—for instance Jews who don’t go to shul or who marry Gentiles. This self-righteousness and exclusiveness among Conservative and Orthodox Jews is unbecoming among those who try to maintain deep Jewish values. It excludes—and drives away—many Jews who would be loyal and supportive if they were accepted. This attitude is as responsible for the diminishing Jewish demographic, and increasing Jewish anti-Zionism, as are intermarriage and liberal politics.

Dana Gordon
New York City

To the Editor:

It may very well be that American Jewry today is the first Jewish community in history to find itself in a truly open society where there is no fee for entrance and full participation. However, had anything like this happened in any earlier period, the results would have been the same, on condition that the material and cultural level of the host society be higher than that of the prevailing Jewish one.

The temptations of assimilation have always been powerful, since they try the strength of one’s very sense of identity. This is why the Israelites spent their formative period in the hostile environment of Egypt. Had the sons of Jacob remained in Canaan, they would have intermarried and disappeared. Once the brilliant culture of Hellenism reached the Middle East, it did not take long before influential circles in Jerusalem adopted Greek ways in spite of their pagan character. What preserved Jewish identity during most of the Middle Ages was not the forbiddingly high fee for entrance to the host society but that the level of medieval culture was quite primitive compared with their own.

The “startling” increase of Jews in the United States who regard themselves as “having no religion” may not reflect any real change but only a more honest and realistic self-appraisal. Secularism’s increased acceptability combined with a more refined understanding of the distinction between ethnicity and religion makes young Jews more comfortable characterizing themselves as “having no religion.”

While Jonathan S. Tobin agrees that programs such as Birthright, day schools, and summer camps “point to a formula for ameliorating the impact of assimilation,” he doubts whether most Jews would avail themselves of these opportunities even if they were free of charge. And yet, one reason “83 percent of young Jews brought up in Orthodox homes remain in the fold” is that beginning in the late 1940s, some Orthodox leaders started to build a network of advanced yeshivot, elementary, and high school day schools, summer camps, youth groups, and English translations of the Talmud and Bible commentaries. In order for a choice to be free, rational, and responsible, the alternatives and their consequences must be made clearly visible. The Pew survey’s figures for the Orthodox community do just that.

Shubert Spero
Irving Stone Professor Emeritus
of Jewish Studies,
Bar Ilan University

To the Editor:

In response to Jonathan S. Tobin’s November cover story, this Christian has two things to say: I am surprised that you are surprised; and you are not alone. Rejection of the norms of Christianity by Christians is also increasingly mainstream. I read in Mr. Tobin’s essay that only a third of Jews are certain of the existence of God. Isn’t the absence of belief in the existence of God the antithesis of what has made Jews, well, Jews? Mr. Tobin says it well when he acknowledges the self-inflicted wound, as it is “the Jews themselves who are choosing this path.” People lose their identities when they choose to lose their identities.

The decline of ethnicity is a familiar phenomenon in America. Consider my case: I was raised an Irish Catholic. I have kept the character of my ancestors and continue to hold their faith. But among Catholics, only about one-half of children raised in the faith will retain it, and only a third of those adults who do retain it will actually participate in Sunday Mass. Among practicing Catholics, a small set, just 7 percent of the worshippers, provide 93 percent of the time, talent, and treasure to support the Church. When both Jews and Catholics were marginalized groups in America, both endured by stressing their distinctiveness as a unifying element and as a safeguard against a hostile environment. As Irish Catholics and Jews became increasingly accepted into the mainstream, both lost their own distinctiveness and the associated self-identification.

Patrick Rhoads
Alexandria, Virginia

To the Editor:

I agree with almost everything written in this article by Jonathan S. Tobin, especially the last paragraph. I made aliya to Israel in 1970. All of our children and grandchildren live here in Israel. It may be that for those who care, as Mr. Tobin says, the only option for really remaining Jewish is Israel. This is something that organized Jewry is not yet ready to accept. But it would be good for those Jews and good for the future of the State of Israel.

Yitzhak Irving Kalet
Haifa, Israel

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin writes in commenting on the Pew report’s unfavorable assessment of Jewish demography in the United States: “The vital necessity of the State of Israel is more evident than ever.” Mr. Tobin’s observation is especially striking for those of us who grew up in America in the shadow of the Holocaust and Israel’s rebirth. America dominated the planet, while victims of anti-Semitism enjoyed an uncommon global respite.

The common perception in those years was that Israel needed to be there for Jews who had no place to go. In Israel’s early years, its new Jewish citizens were packed into austere quarters, had long stints of military service, and every few years found themselves in shooting wars.  But it was better than where they came from. The new State of Israel was to be a lifeboat. Not all that comfortable, but better than drowning or again falling victim to exclusion.

My parents first took me to Israel when I was 10. That was before the miracle of the June 1967 Six-Day War, when barbed wire still ripped Jerusalem in half, creating indelible memories of checkpoints that I could not pass. But in the 50s and 60s, North American Jews moved there in limited numbers. Like Moses, they would see the Promised Land, but it was not their destiny to live there.

So it is a remarkable irony that after years of hearing widely accepted but poorly supported demographic threats to Israel, the demographic danger lies elsewhere. Rather than American Jews saving Israel, Mr. Tobin proposes Israel is saving Judaism, as committed young Jewish adults are attracted to move or remain there, while those staying in America slip away, as the Pew results suggest, in increasing numbers.

John R. Cohn
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin presented Commentary readers with a most insightful analysis. I would, however, as a sociologist of religion, like to turn something that was described as “simple” by Mr. Tobin into something much more complex. Mr. Tobin tells us that many of the Pew subjects responded that belief in Jesus should not be a disqualifier for being Jewish. He then asks, “How can this be?”

His answer is that this is a manifestation of the inclusion doctrine: “The very idea that Jewish identity requires drawing lines is itself the problem for many Jews.” There may also be other factors to consider.

First, as in any sociological survey, how a question is worded is critical in order to get a response that actually reflects what you are trying to measure. What kind of belief in Jesus—Jesus as the Messiah, a messiah, a prophet, the Son of God, God Incarnate, a Jewish teacher, or some part of a triune Godhead? What the respondents had in mind could be significant in this case.

Second, it may be possible that a renewed interest in Jesus among Jews, as evidenced by the growth of “Messianic Jewish Congregations,” is due, at least among Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic Jews, to the failure of these streams of Judaism to provide meaningful and satisfying answers to the existential questions of individual Jews. Here I refer to eschatology—heaven, death, resurrection, eternal life, the messianic age, the end of days, evil, and suffering. If a surprisingly high percentage of American Jews are shopping elsewhere for existential meaning, it would be beneficial to look at not only what others are offering but also what we have failed to provide.

Martin Laskin
Hamden, Connecticut

To the Editor:

So I wish I could disagree with Jonathan S. Tobin’s plaintive post-Pew survey assessment of American Jewry. But the numbers are disheartening and devastating. There is one tiny sliver of possibility, however, for the future that Mr. Tobin ignores. The focus for that future has to be on religious Jews because they are the ones who are most likely to marry within the faith, raise their children exclusively as Jewish, and in other ways provide for an American Jewish future. Leaving aside the Orthodox, as Tobin himself does because of their small size, there is one non-Orthodox group with behavior comparable to the Orthodox. These are converts to Judaism. They go to synagogue. They give to Jewish charities. They educate their children Jewishly. Perhaps this is because they entered Judaism exclusively through a religious gateway and so understand American Jewish life primarily as a religious enterprise. I endorse Mr. Tobin’s call to recognize Zionism’s triumphant vision. But before we abandon American Judaism, let us try another approach. We should undertake a vigorous effort to welcome converts to Judaism.

Lawrence J. Epstein
Stony Brook, New York

Jonathan S. Tobin writes:

Some of the reader responses to my essay on the Pew study provide a microcosm of those of many in the Jewish community toward the study, which made clear the impact of assimilation in a free society on the Jewish future.

Gary Walk’s selective reading of Pew is misleading. While there were some bright spots in the survey, they do not add up to a case for optimism. He asserts Reform Judaism is “holding its own” and claims it is the “safety net” that is catching Jews who would otherwise become unaffiliated. But a movement that is basing its future on the intermarried—a population that regards Judaism and Jewish identity as optional at best—is not likely to grow. Indeed, as I pointed out, the demographic trends make clear that the movement is bleeding members at a rate that can’t be matched in the long run by the influx of those looking for rabbis who will perform intermarriages.

In that context, the shift to “warm Reform” from the “classical Reform” that was largely abandoned by the movement a generation or two ago is not having much of an impact on the decisions of those growing up in the movement to marry Jews or to give their children a Jewish education or a sense of Jewish peoplehood. While the programs he cites are positive examples of how the problem can be addressed, they are offset by the desire to emphasize inclusion rather than the need to reinforce the beleaguered core of the community. Mr. Walk is right to note that the Orthodox movement is growing and provides some good examples of outreach based on something more than inclusiveness for its own sake. But it remains a small minority of the American Jewish population and thus cannot hope to make up for the losses felt elsewhere, even if it maintains its current birth and retention rates.

Along those same lines, C.M. Fletcher complains about my use of the term “triumphalist” regarding some (but by no means all) Orthodox Jews. He is right that American Jews need to “find out what is working, and why.” But the problem with citing the various Orthodox models as the formulas for success is that the divide between them and the liberal denominations may be too great; their example is not having much impact on the growing number of Jews who do not share the values or beliefs of the observant. Not all of the responsibility for that division belongs to the non-Orthodox. The sense of satisfaction, moreover, or occasional amused indifference expressed about the problems encountered by other denominations by some in the Orthodox community is not helpful, nor does it show recognition of how much a potential collapse of liberal Jewish institutions will negatively affect the Orthodox world.

Tzvi Freeman goes so far as to say my conclusions are “alarmist.” His letter reflects the desire of many Jews to ignore the statistics and to simply assume that “knee-jerk” pessimism is unfounded because Jews will continue as they are “against all odds and predictions.” The anti-alarmism he demonstrates reflects the attitude that has predominated among North American Jews over the last two decades after the 1990 National Jewish Population Study first brought rising intermarriage rates to light. It is in no small measure because of the decision of some in the organized community, and much of the Jewish population, to ignore “alarmists” in the past that the Pew survey’s numbers reflect a situation that is not likely to be altered by even the most determined effort to combat assimilation today.

Mr. Freeman is right that the overall rate of intermarriage is 58 percent. My citation of the 70 percent intermarriage rate, however, followed a sentence in which I brought up the growth of Jews of no religion, and should have been understood as referring to that group. But that is a slender reed on which to base any optimism. If one removes the approximate 10 percent of American Jewry who are Orthodox, current intermarriage rates for the rest of the community are at the 70 percent mark.

But even if one ignored that, can Mr. Freeman really be reassured by the 58 percent rate or the notion that Jewry is growing when that result is only derived by growing numbers of people with little or no connection to Judaism or Jewish peoplehood? It is a good thing that North American Jews are proud of being Jewish. But when that is accompanied by statistics that show that many of them are not interested in giving their children a Jewish education or being part of a Jewish community, it is not alarmist to note that such a population is likely to undergo a dramatic decline.

Curt Biren questions whether the combination of freedom and the absence of serious anti-Semitism in the United States leads inevitably to assimilation, or whether that is just a coincidence. While secularism has had a deleterious impact on other ethnic or faith communities, it is a mistake to see it as somehow unrelated to the formula I discussed. The confluence of these factors is anything but a coincidence. Secular myths about faith or Judaism are a problem and deserve to be debunked. But they are of a piece with a culture that regards parochial identity as a negative. When combined with the collapse—at least in the United States—of traditional negative attitudes toward Jews, the inevitable result shouldn’t be regarded as a surprise. Though secularism is integral to our understanding of this situation, it must also be understood that its impact on Jewish life is more severe than it is on other groups since the symbols and holidays of Christianity are integral to American culture.

Both Norman Birnbaum and Michael Peterson question my conclusion that the State of Israel is an ideal setting for Jewish continuity. Mr. Birnbaum is correct to note that 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish. He’s also right that even if a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians could be achieved, it would still put Israelis in close proximity to a non-Jewish population, and he takes warnings about threats to its survival as evidence that its citizens would prefer to move elsewhere. Mr. Peterson goes even further and asserts that Zionism is “profoundly unbiblical” because the creation of a nation where Jews will be able to perpetuate their population, their faith, and their culture will prevent them from being “a light unto the nations.” Both conclusions are incorrect, if not specious.

The challenges to Israel’s security are real. And yet, despite 65 years of Arab siege, Israel has thrived and become the focal point of Jewish life in the world as well as a military and economic success story. While Israel cannot unilaterally end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab world, Zionism has given Jews the ability to determine their own fate, and it has provided a place where Jewish identity can thrive. Though it is not without problems, including a troubling conflict of its own between secular and religious Jews, the notion that the presence of a minority population or the surrounding Arab states, even in the event of peace, will cause a mass exodus of Israeli Jews is absurd.

As for Mr. Peterson’s assertion that endogamy or Jewish statehood will prevent Jews from setting a good example for the world, it must be understood that a Jewish community increasingly made up of people that, as the Pew study shows, don’t consider Judaism or Jewish peoplehood as integral to their identity isn’t likely to perform that function either. If Jews do serve as such a light, it can only be in the context of a faith tradition that the assimilated are largely rejecting.

In Elliot J. Stamler’s view, American Jewry’s problems can be laid at the feet of the rabbis who have failed to make services meaningful or give them a personal connection with God. Yes, the negative experiences of congregants with regard to boring sermons, poor synagogue schools, and a lack of spirituality have contributed to the Pew study’s shocking numbers. But the forces that have produced the falling away of significant numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are probably more the result of the collapse of barriers to assimilation and the rise of secularism than the arid experience in the synagogue. It is no small irony that those who stick to what Mr. Stamler pejoratively describes as “monotonous, week-in and week-out, repetitive praying of prayers” are the members of Orthodox minyans that are growing while the places where one is most likely to encounter the sort of New Age or more spiritual approach to faith are liberal congregations that are bleeding members.

Steve Goldberg is incorrect; my central thesis is not that support for the government of Israel is identical to support for the State of Israel. It is entirely possible to dislike the current government, or any left-wing ruling coalition of the past, while still caring about the fate of the Jewish state. I have never said otherwise. But there is little doubt that those who express negative opinions about Israeli governments or about Israel itself are more likely to come from those who are unaffiliated or are part of the growing “no religion” sector at the heart of the Pew results. The lack of empathy for challenges to Israel’s security or for Zionism is a key indicator of assimilation, no matter what you think of Netanyahu.

To speak of assimilation as merely a “pacific version” of anti-Semitism, as Stephane Lubicz does, is to diminish the dangers that the rising tide of Jew-hatred outside of North America represents to the Jewish people and to speak unfairly of the United States and its kindnesses to the Jewish people.

Dana Gordon misinterprets my analysis of the factors that produced the Pew study’s results as “distaste” for non-religious Jews or those who intermarry. Those who fit into those categories should never be described as being “bad” people or as enemies of the Jews. But the choices they have made and are making reflect trends that are inevitably leading to demographic decline. The idea that a spirit of “exclusiveness” is driving away Jews is a myth. In fact, the great cause of Jewish communal policy over the last two decades, as Jack Wertheimer has written, has been its almost relentless focus on outreach to the margins. The intermarried should be welcomed into the community if they demonstrate interest. But rather than being “shunned,” what Pew demonstrates is that the distance from normative Jewish values and beliefs is what has led to the growth of assimilation. Far from leading us to castigate those who intermarry or assimilate, as Mr. Gordon fears, what is needed is exactly the kind of clear-headed thinking demonstrated by Professor Shubert Spero in his letter.

Patrick Rhoads is right to assert that the Pew study should come as a surprise to no one. As I wrote, this is not the first wake-up call given to the Jewish community. He’s also correct to put this discussion into the context of the experiences of other groups in the American melting pot. But since, unlike the Irish, Jewish identity is the product of both faith and ethnicity, the rise of secularism poses problems for Jews that go far deeper than those of other American tribes.

I thank Yitzhak Irving Kalet, John R. Cohn, Martin Laskin, and Lawrence J. Epstein for their generous comments as well as for their own insights into aspects of this topic. It is to be hoped that this exchange and others taking place in the aftermath of the publication of the survey are the beginning of a new realism about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage rather than merely an excuse for more attempts to deny the seriousness of the problem or its implication for the future of American Jewry.

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