Commentary Magazine

The Future of American Jewry

To the Editor:

America’s Jewish community is waning. It is neither growing, nor is it static; it is becoming measurably smaller and less Jewish. The results of the UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York 2011, the topic of Jack Wertheimer’s most recent contribution to Commentary [“First New York’s Jews, Then America’s?” September], provide empirical support for this unhappy assessment. 

A likely shock for most readers is the disclosure that Orthodox parents are raising more than 60 percent of the greater New York area’s Jewish children under the age of 18. This is a far cry from the late sociologist Marshall Sklare’s 1955 description of American Orthodoxy as “a case study of institutional decay.” Instead, it is the Conservative and Reform movements, both of which were in ascendancy at the time of Sklare’s observation, whose numbers continue to decline.

So what has gone awry with the non-Orthodox denominations? Conservative and Reform Judaism (as well as Reconstructionist Judaism) are ostensibly ideological movements that are run as top-down organizations. They operate within a matrix of institutions whose mission is to serve as the fountainhead for everything related to their respective movements. While their actual influence over constituents is debatable, the few and highly centralized non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries, rabbinic associations, congregational umbrella organizations, youth movements, and summer camps embody the ethos that is supposed to shape each denomination’s separate identity.

These institutions and their programs depend on financial support from their movements’ members. But dwindling membership means less financial support. This, in turn, weakens the influence of these movements, which inevitably contributes to a further decline in membership.

As the New York study reveals, Jews whose identity is tepid at best generally prefer to support non-Jewish charitable causes. Nominal affiliation in a Conservative synagogue or Reform temple is no guarantee of financial support beyond basic membership dues.

If this trend continues, the demise of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in America will come when, due to lack of identity and interest, there simply isn’t enough money being contributed to sustain their central institutions.

Throughout the last century, as part of the all too successful effort to promote the acceptance of Jews into American society, non-Orthodox Judaism lent both dignity and legitimacy to non-observance. The Reform Movement did this with conviction; Conservative Judaism did so while looking the other way. Their rabbis gave a hechsher to anything from eating non-kosher meat and seafood to violating the Sabbath and prohibited relations.

Given the findings on New York’s non-Orthodox Jews, Judaism was never meant to be recast into denominations. Judaism circumscribes the theological worldview and organized practices of the Jewish people as our culture has developed throughout history and in communities across the world. Judaism is an irreducible civilization. Orthodoxy has emerged as a denomination in the United States only by default; it is neither Conservative nor Reform. While “modern Orthodoxy” does represent certain compromises made in the face of contemporary American life, centrist Orthodox Judaism in America remains, as Dr. Wertheimer notes, “a marker for highly distinctive patterns of living.”

Even as the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in America decline, efforts continue for the transplanting of the Conservative and Reform movements to Israel where they have been rebranded as Masorti (traditional) and Mitkadem (progressive), respectively. No doubt such efforts have been hampered by the active opposition of Israel’s Orthodox political parties. But even at the grassroots level, Israelis just can’t warm to the non-Orthodox modalities of Jewish observance.

Dr. Wertheimer states clearly his doubt about the long-term sustainability of America’s non-Orthodox Jewish denominations even in the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel. What does this say for smaller Jewish communities throughout the United States? In many smaller Jewish communities synagogue mergers have long been the strategy employed to preserve non-Orthodox congregations when their memberships dwindled, even between Conservative and Reform institutions. Will this process continue until there is no longer anything to merge?

What will replace these congregations when nation-wide affiliation becomes too small and too uncommitted to sustain central offices? Indie-minyans, small, local, independent Jewish prayer and community groups, the contemporary embodiment of the 1970s and 80s havurah minyan, have grown precipitously over the last two decades.

Still, it is too early to say Kaddish for America’s non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. Moreover, the findings of the New York Federation study are certainly no cause for Orthodox triumphalism. The rampant acculturation leading to Jewish disengagement and assimilation it discloses constitute a loss for Jews worldwide, including and especially the state of Israel. If the implications that emerge from this study and Dr. Wertheimer’s forecast are realized, a significantly smaller, less united, and less influential American Jewish community is what will be left.

Arden Geldman
Efrat, Israel


To the Editor:

What a well-written and impressively researched article by Jack Wertheimer. I am a Haredi woman who has family in both the United States and Israel. The differences between the Haredi communities in both countries are not as stark as one would think. 

My daughter in Jerusalem is married to a brilliant man who learns in a yeshiva. Regardless of the problems within the community of this yeshiva, there are always hands reaching out to help. Sometimes it’s help with meals for a family with a newborn. Other times, it’s help for a couple who couldn’t meet their monthly expenses. Nobody is wealthy by any standard, but no one ever says no. My other Israeli daughter also lives in a small, Haredi community just outside of Jerusalem, where the love and caring is also amazing.

So when I read about the statistics in America, I have to feel sad. I know of enclaves and communities where people are generous beyond what would seem sensible.

I cannot blame those who know little or nothing about the Haredi to understand why we live the way we do. But articles such as Dr. Wertheimer’s are always a welcome bit of exposure to our way of life.

Rivky Serwatien
Jerusalem, Israel


Jack Wertheimer writes:

Arden Geldman uses my article as a pretext to heap scorn on the failings of the various American Jewish denominations, a subject barely touched upon in my analysis of the New York Jewish population study. His letter is somewhat undermined by its internal inconsistencies. At times, he faults non-Orthodox religious movements for much that ails American Jewish life, but then he acknowledges that “their actual influence over constituents is debatable.” Several times he alludes to the impending “demise” of those movements but in his concluding paragraph he pronounces it “too early to say Kaddish for America’s non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.” I find his last paragraph far more persuasive—and reasonable—than much of his earlier analysis. Triumphalism of any kind, we know from past experience, is not helpful, and often is replaced by despondency when the wheel of good fortune turns. We certainly need hard-headed analysis to understand what has gone wrong. But ultimately, the real question is: What can we do to strengthen and deepen American Jewish life?

One small but important step is to develop an understanding of different sub-populations of Jews, rather than fall back upon stereotypes. In my article, I tried to shed some light on the actual lives and sacrifices of Haredi and Hasidic Jews. I am in great sympathy with Rivky Serwatien’s plea for a more widespread acknowledgment of all that is good in the Haredi sector in Israel and the United States. In turn, I hope she will bring a measure of empathic enlightenment to her community about those of us who are not Haredi Jews, but are worthy of its concern, even as we ought to care deeply about the condition of all our fellow Jews.

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