Scenario 1. The year is 2050. Jews have left Europe. So dangerous did it become to wear signs of Jewishness or express support for Israel in public that Jews quietly decided to leave. A hundred years after the Holocaust, Europe became Judenrein after all. In the United States the only significant group of Jews are the ultra-Orthodox. Outside Orthodoxy, outmarriage and disaffiliation rates became so high that the rest of Jewry became the new lost 10 tribes. In Israel, a beleaguered population clings grimly to life. Iran, having won its confrontation with the West, used its newfound wealth and legitimacy to surround Israel with proxy powers armed to the teeth, its nuclear arsenal the ultimate threat against any decisive response. Many Israelis left, knowing that you can find oranges and sunshine in Florida and California. You cannot bring up children under the shadow of fear.
Scenario 2. The year is 2050. Jews in Europe are flourishing. Europeans finally realized that the threat of radical Islam was not just to Jews and Israel but to freedom itself. They took action, and now Jews feel safe. In the United States, Jewish life is on the rise, leaders having decided to subsidize Jewish education and invest seriously in Jewish continuity. Israel, meanwhile, having made strategic alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the face of a nuclear Iran and apocalyptic Islamism, has finally found in the Middle East de facto acceptance if not de jure legitimacy.
Either scenario is possible. Jews make prophecies, not predictions. The difference is that if a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy has come true, it has failed. We don’t predict the future; we make the future. Ours is the world’s most compelling faith in free will.
What is unique about the present moment is that Jews currently enjoy a situation they have never experienced in 4,000 years of history. We have independence and sovereignty in Israel, alongside freedom and equality in the Diaspora. There were brief periods in the past when Jews had one or the other, but never both at the same time.
Today Jews have overachieved in every field except Judaism. The most striking findings of the Pew study from 2013 were that 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jews, while 48 percent of American Jews cannot read an aleph-bet.
Meanwhile in Israel many find the public face of Judaism deeply alienating. Israel itself, a nation of almost miraculous achievements, has lost much of the support it once enjoyed. Jews were once the world’s great storytellers. Today our enemies are better at telling their story than we are at telling ours.
Our ancestors had a dream that sustained them through 20 centuries of exile. One day they would create in the holy land a society of justice and compassion, maintaining the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life, where love of God translated into love of the neighbor and the stranger and religion itself was the prime driver of social justice and inclusion. They dreamed of inspiring the world by the simplicity and grace of Judaism as a way of life. It was a utopian vision, but the mere act of aspiring to it lifted our ancestors to spiritual, intellectual, and moral heights. Bounded in a nutshell, they counted themselves kings of infinite space.
That is the future that beckons us now. Yes, there is anti-Semitism, yes, there is Iran, and yes, we have enemies. But we outlived them all in the past and we will do so again in the future. In the meantime, every dream our ancestors once had is today within our grasp. What we need is the courage to be unashamedly ourselves, to educate our children in Judaic literacy, and to create in Israel a society of such moral force and spiritual generosity that it speaks to all those whose minds are still open. The time has come to honor the trust our ancestors had in us, that when we had the chance we would light the dark places of the world with the radiance of the faith for which they risked life itself. The sooner we begin, the better.
Jonathan D. Sarna
Nobody in 1945 would have predicted that, 70 years hence, the State of Israel would become a significant economic and military power home to more than 6.2 million Jews; that well over 90 percent of the world’s Jews would live in just five First World countries; that the Jewish population of Eastern Europe would drop significantly below 400,000; and that the fastest-growing Jewish religious movement in the world would be Chabad. Prophecies about Jews, 70 years ago and throughout history, have been notoriously prone to failure. In looking ahead, there is therefore every reason to be prudent. “Prophecy,” an old adage wisely warns, “is very difficult, especially about the future.”
With that in mind, what do I think will be the condition of the Jewish community 50 years from now?
First, the Jewish community will continue to consolidate at an unprecedented rate, so that instead of being a worldwide people, an am olam, spread “from one end of the world even unto the other,” Jews will become an overwhelmingly First World people, living primarily in Israel and North America. Already, some 93 percent of world Jewry lives in First World countries—those with advanced economies, worldwide influence, high standards of living, and abundant technology. Half of world Jewry actually lives in just five metropolitan areas: Tel Aviv, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and Haifa. By 2065, I expect that almost all Jews will live in the First World, and as many as three-quarters of them will live close to one another, in a few sprawling metropolises.
The upside of consolidation is that Jews will be physically safer (there is security in numbers), and that it will be easier than ever for them to interact, learn from one another, and help one another. First World people, in addition, tend to share both common values and elements of a common culture. The downside is that Judaism will no longer be a world religion on par with Christianity and Islam. It will, at best, be a regional or First World religion. Those in the rest of the world—especially in Third World or so-called majority-world countries—will have no direct knowledge of Jews and Judaism at all. They will conjure up instead a mythical Judaism, and there will be no “Jews next-door” to set them aright.
Second, in 50 years, Judaism may well be experiencing a totally unexpected religious awakening. Every religious downturn since the 18th century, at least in America, has been followed by a “great awakening.” These cycles, historian William G. McLoughlin has explained, reflect the ebb and flow of culture: Periods of disruption (“crises of beliefs and values”) are followed by periods of reorientation and renewal. In our day, disruptive forces—new technologies, incendiary ideas, changing social mores, and the like—have plunged religion into a period of recession. Fifty years from now, if not sooner, the descendants of those who have intermarried and drifted off may be seeking to rediscover the spiritual heritage that their parents cast away. They will look to a renewed Judaism to provide them with meaning, order, and direction.
Jews in 2065, whatever their condition, will not likely be sanguine concerning the future of the Jewish community. Like so many before them, they will worry that theirs will be the last generation of Jews, that the Jewish community will disappear unless it changes. Paradoxically, the fear that Judaism might not survive will help ensure that it does.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His most recent book, with Benjamin Shapell, is Lincoln and the Jews: A History.
Jacob J. Schacter
The prominent Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said (or was it Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel?), “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But, having been honored to receive an invitation to share my views about the Jewish future, I will proceed to do so, albeit with due diffidence and humility.
First, we should not under-appreciate the fact that there will be a Jewish community in 50 years. In spite of the fact that, throughout history, we have repeatedly faced demographic dispersion, political disintegration, economic dislocation, social alienation, psychological oppression, subtle as well as crude discrimination, and, at worst, brute physical annihilation, we have survived, and even flourished. This almost incomprehensible fact has confounded many throughout the centuries, some of whom have sought explanations for it. In the words of the 20th-century Russian political and religious writer Nikolai Berdyaev: “Indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished. Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination.” Exactly what that is was made clear by Maimonides, who wrote: “We are in possession of the divine assurance that Israel is indestructible and imperishable, and will always continue to be a preeminent community.” And, in a most striking assertion, he continues: “As it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so is Israel’s destruction and disappearance from the world unthinkable.” We cannot take the survival of the Jewish people for granted. It defies logic. It is, simply, a gift from God.
But it is not for Klal Yisrael, the nation of Israel, that I am concerned. It is for “Reb Yisrael,” the individual Jew, that I am concerned, very concerned. What will that individual Jew who will still identify as a Jew in 50 years look like? I believe that only those for whom Jewishness is a central—if not the central—defining value of their lives will withstand the challenges of the most welcome and blessed freedom that Jews experience in America. Only those who are prepared to sacrifice for their Jewish identity—to pay (a lot) for day school and yeshiva education, to pay (a lot) to support schools, synagogues, mikvahs, and to live by the values they represent—will constitute the majority of Jews at the end of the next half-century.
The Torah (Exodus 34:29–30) informs us that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai carrying the second set of tablets, he was endowed with a special radiance. In seeking the source for Moses’s radiance—and in providing for us a source for our own personal and national “radiance”—the Midrash (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Ki Tisa #406, end) writes that the tablets were six cubits long, roughly 21 inches. God, it continues, grasped on to the top two cubits and Moses grasped on to the bottom two cubits, and the radiance that emanated from Moses came from the middle two cubits. I understand this as follows: “Radiance,” or fulfillment, or optimism, for Moses—and for us—cannot come from the top two cubits held by God. They are too holy, too transcendent, too suffused with pure divinity, too otherworldly. It will also not come from the bottom two cubits; they are too earthly, too physical, and too mundane. Radiance and meaning for our lives will come from the middle two cubits only, the cubits that are neither heaven nor earth, that are, in fact, both heaven and earth. It will come from a sincere and serious effort to bring earth a bit closer to heaven and heaven a bit closer to earth, to extract ourselves from our physicality and strive to elevate ourselves to reach meaningful levels of spirituality and to grasp on to a piece of the divine and bring it a bit closer to us. For me this means living meaningful, serious Jewish lives, in practice and in spirit; this means deep and robust engagement with Torah and mitzvoth and hesed. Judaism will not survive for those who consider it a vague ethnic identity; it will survive for those who embrace it fully and passionately.
In the second half of his poem “Tourists,” the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
Once I sat on the stairs at the gate of David’s Tower and put two heavy baskets next to me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide and I served as their orientation point. “You see that man with the baskets? A bit to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit to the right of his head.” But he moves, he moves!! I said to myself: redemption will come only when they are told: You see over there the arch from the Roman period? Never mind: but next to it, a bit to the left and lower, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home.
There is much wisdom here, of course, but I suggest that Amichai is wrong. At the end of the day, those who will constitute the Jewish people in 2065 will be those who recognize that both the “arch from the Roman period” (the tradition) and the “man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home” (the contemporary) need to be celebrated and affirmed.
Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, where he is also a senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future.
The Jewish community is indeed experiencing the best of times and worst of times.
On one hand, the 2013 Pew study paints a picture of an American Jewish community in the throes of transformation: Jewish religious observance is on the decline, young Jews’ interest in traditional institutions is waning, and Israel’s standing within the Jewish community and on the world stage continues to face mounting challenges.
On the other, “Jewish” as a descriptor is on the upswing. Young Jews continue to identify as Jewish, even if “in name only,” and families of mixed faith are embracing their Jewish roots. A rapidly growing number of Jews, moreover, consider themselves to be a part of the Jewish people without devoting themselves to religious practices.
So what does this portend for the future? Challenges will remain, to be sure, but I believe the positive trends we see today will give way to a stronger, more vibrant, and sustainable community.
Even in a saturated marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought has demonstrated its extraordinary potential to speak to an increasing number of people. Many Jews—by birth, marriage, and, especially, choice—are weaving “Jewish” into their daily lives and drawing on their Jewish identities to inform who they are as global citizens.
The onset of this trend is spurred by the transcendence of Jewish values. Distilled from Jewish text and tradition, Jewish values are more relevant than ever. They call us to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to love and cherish Israel as a centerpiece of the Jewish experience, to defend justice, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn and treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care, and respect. They call us to play our part in making a positive difference in the world. Many of these are universal values, but it is their connection to Jewish thought and their call to action that serve as the strongest ties binding the global Jewish people together.
These values also create the basis of “conscious Judaism,” what I see as a rising form of Jewish expression. Conscious Judaism stems from the desire to live with Jewish intention. From Buenos Aires to Warsaw, young Jews are thinking critically, taking action, exploring their spirituality and finding solutions to complex problems through a Jewish lens. Their involvement in Jewish life is not cultural or habitual, but rather borne of an impetus to live with meaning in a community of others doing the same.
Fifty years from now, I believe the number of conscious Jews will vastly outnumber strict adherents of religious Judaism, redefining our concept of who is a Jew from one based solely on descent to one more broadly defined by connection and choice. In turn, there will be more opportunities for people to make Jewish thought and values part of how they live and love and engage with the world.
Admittedly, many questions remain. Just as the number of conscious Jews rise, the number of religious Jews outside of the ultra-Orthodox community will probably decline. If today is any indicator, there will continue to be tension between religious and secular counterparts, both of whom constitute the sum of the Jewish people. How will the two groups interact? How do we remain at once united and truly inclusive? And as a people who have been defined by our religion for millennia, how will we shape our role in the world moving forward?
We are headed for a new era of Jewish life, one in which individuals can express who they are and what they stand for in a way that is directly supported by their Jewish identities and a diverse global Jewish people.
This shift, however, is not inevitable. Our challenge over the coming years will be to ensure that all those interested have the opportunity to engage with Jewish tradition and peoplehood in meaningful ways.
It will take hard work to get there. It will require creativity, risk, and unprecedented partnership among emerging and existing institutions. It will require broad acceptance that there is no singular way to be or define Jewish.
But I also know that we have a choice. We can give in to the negative forces at play or we can use every opportunity to bring the positive forces to the fore. By choosing the latter, we can help more and more people embrace Jewish life and values and, in doing so, shape a brighter future for the Jewish people. Consciously.
To have the power of prophecy today, states the Talmud, is to be a fool or a child. So while I make no claim to prophetic powers, I’m confident regarding the future of the Jewish world.
On January 1, 2000, the New York Times printed a Millennium Edition featuring its front cover from January 1, 1900, the actual cover of that day’s paper, and a fictional one dated January 1, 2100.
For some time, the Times had been running a weekly ad each Friday on its front page. The little box—sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch—noted that week’s Shabbat candle-lighting time and encouraged Jewish women and girls to take part. With the Times’s fictional cover a century hence falling out on a Friday, its editors included the same little box in the corner calling on Jewish women and girls to light the Shabbat candles.
Urban legend has it that it was an Irish-Catholic editor at the paper who pushed for its inclusion. “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100,” he reportedly said. “But of one thing you can be certain . . . in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbat candles.”
This story illustrates why I’m optimistic about the Jewish future. Despite gloomy studies and predictions, I believe we will be strong as a people precisely because of the Shabbat candles and tefillin and the many other mitzvoth of the Torah. For the key to Jewish survival and continuity has been, is today, and will remain, our study of Torah and practice of mitzvoth. Quality Jewish education, Shabbat candles, kashrut, tefillin, these are the practices that connect us to G-d Almighty and sustain us as a nation. They always have, and always will.
A quick look at our history will prove as much. Movements within Judaism that parted with traditional practice did not survive the test of time; they are simply gone. Today, seeing their participation rates declining as members either drop everything or turn to more traditional options, liberal denominations have chosen to move closer to the traditional Jewish practices they wrote off as outdated and shunned for decades.
Jewish continuity has never been very far removed from practice, a few generations at most.
Torah and mitzvoth are the tools that we have to make the mundane around us sacred, to fulfill our missions as individuals and as a nation, and ultimately the only authentic way for us as Jews to connect to the Divine.
While the story of our survival is ultimately miraculous, we have always been an optimistic people. Centuries ago, Maimonides included the belief in the arrival of Moshiach and the messianic era in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, practically mandating optimism according to Jewish law. More recently, following the devastation of the Holocaust and a general malaise within the Jewish world, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, insisted that a bright future lay ahead for the Jewish people, and he worked incessantly to make it a reality.
It remains in our own hands to shape the Jewish future. We need to take responsibility for our future by acting now to increase our own Jewish practice, because if as individuals we are not growing as Jews, then we are receding. It doesn’t need to start big; it can begin with a single mitzvah. Take ownership of that mitzvah in a way that it becomes one with us and then share that mitzvah’s beauty with others. Inspire others to find their mitzvah. Then find another mitzvah and repeat.
It’s this small, step-by-step approach that has allowed the Jewish people to survive and ultimately thrive. Hand-wringing about the future and pouring millions of dollars into studies and committees—as well-intentioned as these efforts might be—will not find a new, shiny answer to the problems of continuity. We have the answer. Doing a mitzvah ourselves, encouraging our friends and families to do so as well, that’s what works.
Fifteen years have passed since the Times Millennium Edition, and the state of Jewish observance is strong and growing. The same can’t be said about the ad revenue for the New York Times print edition. The millions who once saw the candle-lighting notice in print in the paper of record have been replaced by millions more who find candle-lighting times on Chabad.org via their tablets, smartphone apps, and social media.
The condition of the Jewish people will only get stronger in 50 years, but it is up to us to accept the responsibility to make that the reality.
Motti Seligson is a rabbi and the director of media relations at Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center.
Throughout history the Jewish people have had a disproportionate impact on the intellectual, moral, and economic development of civilization.
As a people, our greatest impact has often been through unpopular ideas. For example, in the ancient, pagan world, we stood against idolatry and child sacrifice. When we went into exile, we did not disappear like most defeated peoples but managed to preserve our identity over two millennia.
Can Jewish contributions to the world be sustained over the course of the next half-century?
They certainly can, but the key to sustaining Jewish exceptionalism is in sustaining Jewish continuity, particularly in the face of growing trends of assimilation. Outsized contribution to the world is not a sufficient condition for Jewish strength, but it is a necessary one. This means it’s impossible to imagine a great future for the Jewish people without the central place of Israel in Jewish life. Roughly half of our people live in the Jewish state, and the fate of Jews cannot be separated from the fate of Israel. Israel’s contributions to the modern world are countless, but perhaps the underappreciated story is its radiating effects on technological modernization and Israel’s penchant for solving complex global problems, such as water droughts, cyber insecurity, and widespread medical challenges. Israel may be shamefully vilified by other nations on security matters, but it is increasingly admired and sought after as a partner in innovation.
Fifty years from now, the developing and developed worlds will be unrecognizable. Health care, energy, education, employment, transportation, agriculture, and life-sciences sectors will be dramatically altered. And Israel and the Jewish people are perfectly positioned to lead this global transformation. The power of Israel’s innovation revolution, in turn, will strengthen Israel’s position in the world. We can already see how the early phase of this revolution directly affects the Jewish state.
Imagine you were told of a Western country whose population had the highest percentage in the West of those in the 20–40-year-old age bracket, among the highest fertility rates in the world, and skyrocketing rates of immigration, with most of the immigrants young and skilled, and entrepreneurial workers relocating from Europe. And imagine if this same country had one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, the only Western economy with both falling debt levels and a rising labor-participation rate, and a growth trajectory immune to regional security threats and global economic crises.
These trends are exactly what Israel has been experiencing for some time—and it can be the future of the Jewish state for the next half-century. For Israel, economic success is a strategic—indeed, an existential—issue. Economic stagnation would make it impossible to sustain the national power necessary to deter and confront Israel’s enemies while exacerbating social tensions. Economic growth and widespread prosperity can cover a multitude of deficiencies.
The Israeli economy will continue to be largely immune to worldwide slowdowns because of the flexibility of its thousands of technology start-ups that export and are dispersed across many industries. Israel’s percentage of GDP that comes from exports is one of the highest in the world (more than 30 percent) and is not based on commodities exports, which can be volatile in times of global crisis.
Will Israel continue to attract talented and entrepreneurial immigrants? Absolutely. In addition to the spiritual, cultural, and Zionist attractiveness of building a life in Israel—which has always been a draw for Israeli immigrants—now and going forward there is also an economic pull. Israel’s economy is growing while most other Western economies are flat on their back. Indeed, Israel has overcome the 2008 crisis better than, and its population is younger than that of, any other major economy in the developed world. Israel’s GDP growth gap with the rest of the world—especially with aging populations in the West—will help Israel offer Jews around the planet work and prosperity that other economies are failing to offer.
Israel also offers a unique combination of technological and intellectual-cultural contributions. Silicon Valley has the former; many European capitals have the latter. But nowhere outside of Israel do technology, entrepreneurialism, history, and culture all thrive in one place. The Jewish state is home to both the highest density of start-ups in the world and the highest number of museums and world-class universities. All these aspects of Israeli life reinforce one another and turbocharge Israeli society. It is a nation distinguished by its dynamism.
The future belongs to nations that combine creative energy, talent, knowledge, and ability to get things done. This is Israel’s sweet spot. It’s what so many countries are trying to emulate.
If Israel is increasingly seen as a “light unto the nations” in innovation terms, Israel will be strengthened economically, diplomatically, in the quality of life it offers to its people and the example it offers to the world. As the basis for Diaspora engagement with the Jewish state becomes less about survival, less about Israel as a charity project and more about a bracing place to live and to build and to dream, the Jewish state will not only be a light unto the nations but to the Jewish people themselves, strengthening their attachment to and identification with their homeland.
Dan Senor is co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. A former adviser to the administration of George W. Bush, he is currently an executive at Elliott Management.
What will the situation of Israel and the Jewish people be in 50 years, when Commentary celebrates its 120th birthday? I can envision three possible scenarios, one utopian, one pessimistic, and one realistic.
Fifty years from now, the free world will have completed its first post-national, postmodern century. During this period, the liberal states of Europe, seeking to move beyond parochial nationalism, first deliberately weakened their religious and cultural attachments and opened their borders to throngs of outsiders, many of whom did not share their core beliefs. Having thus abandoned identity for the thin freedom of moral relativism, these societies will ultimately find that they lack a sense of purpose and the determination to survive as liberal states. Under threat of collapse from the weight of millions upon millions of new citizens and refugees, they will come to look admiringly or enviously at one nation—Israel—that took a very different path, proudly preserving its historical identity alongside its liberal commitments and thereby remaining a vibrant, modern democracy.
Meanwhile, the other nations of the Middle East will have undergone a catastrophe of even greater proportions, a result of their choice to eschew freedom for security and identity. For decades, secular dictatorships in the region sustained a form of stability by denying their citizens the most basic rights. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism, operating in an ideological vacuum, grew by speaking to those citizens’ unfulfilled need for belonging and meaning. As the old dictatorships crumble and fall, the fundamentalism they helped stoke will completely destroy any chance of freedom. The desperate struggle between secular tyranny and religious extremism will erase borders and destroy entire countries, and will force those who desire liberty to flee or look wistfully at the one country in the region—again, Israel—that managed to support it.
It might seem, looking at this projected state of world affairs 50 years hence, that the two most basic human needs—to be free and to belong, to have a sustaining identity—are irreconcilable. Yet I believe that one nation will continue to successfully combine them despite innumerable challenges. The tiny Jewish state will not only continue to be a beacon of liberty, preserving fundamental rights for all its citizens, but will also stay true to its historical purpose as a home for the Jewish people and a guardian of its civilization. The increasingly acute failures of other nations to strike such a balance will, I believe, confirm to more and more Jews the distinct merit of Zionism and help strengthen their commitment to it.
The remaining question is whether other nations will recognize this merit as well. The ideal scenario, the first of three, is that the world will come to see Israel as a model for the successful union of freedom and identity, and regard the Jewish state with corresponding warmth and admiration. Alternatively, it is possible that our success will only grate, generating resentment and familiar arguments about the Jewish role in causing other people’s problems, from the loss of self-confidence in Europe (“Postmodernism was a Jewish-Marxist innovation!”) to the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East (“The result of Zionist occupation!”). The third and most realistic scenario is that Israel’s steadfast commitment to its historical path will generate a mixture of respect and scorn, deep support and virulent criticism. And Israel, as it has already learned to do, will have to live with both of its roles: light unto the nations and global scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Zionism will continue to provide a bulwark against Jewish assimilation, as the unfolding of world affairs confirms time and again its necessity and virtue. The Diaspora will become smaller in absolute numerical terms, while the Orthodox sector within it grows proportionally larger. Those in the Diaspora who chose not to move to Israel yet whose commitment to the Jewish people is not defined solely by faith will become more closely connected to the Jewish state, finding new ways to be a part of life here or even splitting their time between Israel and homes abroad. Meanwhile, we will see the development of more streamlined institutions to allow cooperation between the two communities, including, I hope, a second chamber in the Knesset giving Diaspora Jews a voice and even a vote on certain issues, along with a more direct stake in the relationship.
In short, we have much to look forward to.
Natan Sharansky is Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. He was a human-rights activist and former political prisoner in the former Soviet Union and minister and deputy prime minister in four Israeli governments.
American Jewry feels like a community in decline. Lower birthrates, later marriage, and high rates of intermarriage are the norm among most American Jews. In the next generation, not only will there be many fewer Jews, but there will be fewer committed, educated, philanthropic, and politically engaged Jews. We are witness to a steady erosion in both the quantity and quality of Jewish life in the United States. Of course the exception to the grim demographic picture is the explosion of life in the Orthodox community. There, higher birthrates, earlier marriage, and negligible intermarriage are the norm. But Orthodoxy, no matter how robust its growth or how great its confidence, remains too parochial to take on the mantle of leadership for the whole of the American Jewish community. Reading today’s evidence, the question of the hour becomes: Can there be a viable non-Orthodoxy to serve future generations? If there can be, what would it look like and how can it be fortified and nourished to change this rather bleak future?
This year, I glimpsed such a Judaism, and I would like to offer a distillation of its essential elements. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the local Jewish Community Center hosts an annual gathering for the holiday of Shavuot. Traditionally, Shavuot is spent all night in the study of Torah, eagerly reenacting the anticipation the Jews felt before the revelation. At the JCC, there are such traditional classes, but there are also lectures, book readings, discussions, and all manner of dance, music, and poetry. The environment allows for a more traditional observance but is clearly pitched to a knowledgeable but more cosmopolitan milieu. All night, these thousands of people share time and space, experiencing a Jewish holiday, studying Torah (broadly construed) together.
These people seem to represent a Jewish life that transcends denomination but has a seriousness and depth of substance at its core. What brings such a huge, variegated swath of people together? Not politics or social causes. There is far too great a range of opinion on these matters. Nor are they unified by belief, philanthropic commitments, or ritual practice. There is no one common language spoken—I had conversations in Hebrew, English, and Spanish over the holiday. Here is what these people seem to have in common:
Jewish social networks. All the participants have Jewish friends. This is not to be underestimated. Young Jews are among the most hyper-social human beings to ever live on earth. And yet most young Jews today have one Jewish parent, not two, and two Jewish grandparents, not four. Most do not live in a Jewish neighborhood or go to a Jewish school. It is difficult to imagine how one builds a serious Jewish life without having a rich social network.
Jewish community. The Shavuot gathering is not a small subset of friends, but the interlocking of many, many groups of friends. These people chose to be in community together.
Jewish calendar. These people chose to celebrate a Jewish holiday on the traditional calendar rather than give Jewish flavor to more global, American values. This gathering was unabashedly Shavuot, on the correct day with its proper name and observances.
Love of Torah. This gathering demonstrated a voracious love of Torah study. An infinite variety of classes, lectures, study sessions—some traditional and some radical—nonetheless testified to a commitment to content. This was not Judaism-lite.
Rich diversity. The Shavuot gathering featured Hasidim and secularists, straight and queer, Israeli and American, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. It allowed for deep, rich encounters between Jews of different stripes.
I am arguing that these features constitute not only a description of the vibrant Jewish life of Manhattan, but that they can be a prescription for building a viable non-Orthodox Judaism in the future. What if we were to take seriously the priorities of social networks, communities, living the calendar, love of Torah, and rich diversity as the sine qua non of a flourishing non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States? A few policy implications might emerge. First, we would take seriously the idea of building rich Jewish social networks. Much of the Jewish community is animated by the idea that Jews will participate in community if it is meaningful. This is only half true. Judaism must be meaningful, but it needs social support. Second, we would internalize the idea that people want more content not less. Jews seek a serious, deep Judaism, not just a Jewish patina—a biblical verse here, a Talmudic quotation there—to plaster on their more worldly values. Third, we would recognize that living according to the traditional calendar provides a common framework that can be deepened or repurposed but should not be supplanted.
These principles could guide both the far left and moderate right. They could create a shared basis that could provide for both the continuity and cultural vitality of the Jewish people in North America. They could point to a future beyond the dark horizon before us.
Dan Smokler is a rabbi and the chief innovation officer of Hillel International.
December 1, 2065
Moab, Utah—Amid the natural arches, desert landscapes, and mountain views of the American west, Yoav Ascher is re-creating his homeland as a sprawling 105-acre resort, complete with its own River Jordan, Masada fortress, and Tel Aviv, the former name of the city known today as Tal Al-Rabia.
“I want to give Americans the full Israeli experience as I remember it,” says the Jerusalem (Al Quds)-born Ascher, 72, who came to Utah 14 years ago, shortly after the former Jewish state voted to nullify its own independence. “It had positive elements, too, you know.”
To that end, guests of the Holy Land Experience and Adventure, or HLEA, are greeted at his art deco–style village and hotel by a staff dressed in the olive-green fatigues of the old Israeli army. A large courtyard wall is designed to resemble a scaled-down version of historic Jerusalem’s Western Wall, complete with little cracks in which to stick scribbled prayers. Kosher wines from California are served at all three of the resort’s restaurants, each named after a former Israeli city: The Jerusalem (serving traditional Middle Eastern cuisine), The Herzliya (high-end European), and The Eilat (casual seafood).
Built on the banks of the Colorado River, the resort also seeks to capture the varied landscapes of Palestine. A specially designed high-salinity pool allows bathers to float in the water as if they were in the Dead Sea. A copse of trees by the river shades a natural baptismal pool, into which Ascher has built stone steps for religious occasions. The Masada complex, built on a flat hilltop across the river, “minutely reproduces the archeological site before its complete destruction in 2051,” Ascher claims. He is also planning a high-end shopping arcade that he says will capture the spirit of old Tel Aviv. “It’s hard to believe today, but it really was this modern, cosmopolitan, easy-going place.”
For more outgoing guests, Ascher offers the Negev Tour, which whisks them by zodiac boat up the river for two days of Bedouin-style luxury camping near Arches National Park. Camel-riding is a popular activity for clients of all ages.
Ascher was not always as enthusiastic about his native land as he is today.
“When I was young I thought that Israel was the source of the problem in our neighborhood, and therefore we held the keys to the solution,” he says. “I thought that if we could share the land, our problems would end, not begin.”
Ascher’s idealism was put to the test as a young diplomat when he served in the Israeli Embassy in Palestine—located in East Jerusalem, just a few miles from his childhood home on the western side of the city. Ascher was one of six diplomats rescued from the embassy massacre in July 2021, in which 43 Jews were killed.
Ascher later served as a diplomat in Stockholm, but left government service after the Scandinavian states severed relations with Tel Aviv at the outset of the second Israeli–Iranian war. The war, a pyrrhic victory for Israel, led to the first mass exodus of Jewish Israelis after a nuclear weapon destroyed the coastal city of Ashdod (known today as Azdud).
“Constantly having to fight our enemies in our neighborhood, constantly having to argue with our friends in the West, constantly wrestling with our own consciences, our doubts, our guilt—it just became psychologically exhausting,” Ascher explains. “After Ashdod, anyone who could find a way to get out took it. Anyway, the demography wasn’t on the Jewish side, even in our downsized state.”
In 2051, the Israeli parliament, by then evenly split between Arab members, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a dwindling Zionist minority, voted to dissolve the state in favor of a union with its Palestinian neighbor. In a signature act, the U.S. Congress agreed to extend U.S. citizenship to any former Jewish-Israeli requesting it. Seven million Jews have now settled in the United States; another million went to Canada and approximately 500,000 to Australia.
As for historic Palestine, all that remains of the Jewish population is a small religious community in the historic town of Safed, under the formal protection of the Shiite Alliance of Galilee and the Beqaa.
Though Ascher misses his homeland, he is philosophical about its fate. “The Crusader kingdoms lasted for about a century, and we lasted about the same,” he says. “History has its logic. The small cannot survive the big. Smart people can’t outrun dumb facts. Could we have changed our destiny? Only by a little. At least most of us survived.”
Even today, the controversies of the past have not faded from the present. Hannah Levin, a graduate student in international relations at the University of Utah, led a small protest last Wednesday in Moab against HLEA. “Mr. Ascher’s fantasy hotel glorifies colonialism, it glorifies racism, it glorifies an aspect of Jewish identity which shames me and which I reject,” says Ms. Levin.
Most Moabians, however, seem pleased with Ascher’s resort and look forward to its expansion. “It’s a cool hotel, I love the food,” says local resident Brigham Johnson, 27. “And Utah is the promised land anyway.”
Bret Stephens, the foreign-affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, now just out in paperback.
Jonathan S. Tobin
The challenges facing world Jewry always make pessimism seem smart. Yet a sober look at Israel’s progress against the odds compels us to believe optimism is warranted. The same cannot be said about Jewish communities elsewhere.
As a nation that has been perpetually at war, Israel’s future has always been a function of crisis management. These crises will continue as the rise of ISIS and a nuclear deal that strengthens Iran are altering the strategic equation in the Middle East for the worse. When one considers the nonexistent prospects for real peace with the Palestinians, it becomes clear that Israel will have to be as heavily armed and on guard against external threats in 2065 as it is today.
Yet contrary to the laments from the Jewish left and the hopes of those who wish for Israel’s demise, that is no cause for pessimism. Israel has thrived under such circumstances throughout its history, and there is no reason to believe that this will cease to be the case. The 2014 war with Hamas proved again the cohesiveness of Israeli society and the willingness of its people to defend their country. The prospect of a continued stalemate with the Palestinians is a dismal one, but, as in the past, the coming years will show that Israelis have the ability to continue to wait until their foes give up the dream of their elimination and prosper as they do so.
From a historical perspective, Israel is an experiment that is still in its infancy. Its problems, though serious, will not sink it. It has gone from being an economic backwater burdened by socialist myths to a First World economic power. The exploitation of natural-gas and shale-oil reserves will, if properly managed, accelerate that transformation. And though the secular-religious conflict poses an existential threat, the assumption that Haredim are monolithic and will always resist modernity may prove mistaken.
The Israel of 2065 will be different from the one we know today, just as contemporary Israel is unrecognizable from the perspective of 1985, let alone 1948. But it is the future of the Jewish people, and the recent past compels us to have faith in it. Though new trials await Zionism in the next half-century, no one should doubt that Israelis will continue to meet those challenges.
But such optimism about the Diaspora is unfounded.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the world gives the lie to the idea that Jewish life can thrive in Europe. If even in the capitals of enlightened Western Europe, Jews are forced to give up identifying themselves in public, and to renounce support for Israel in order to retain their standing in elite circles, there is little hope that the reconstitution of Jewish existence there is viable.
As for the United States, I believe we can count on the persistence of American exceptionalism to ensure that the virus of anti-Semitism doesn’t take root here as it has elsewhere. But the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry that was documented by the 2013 Pew survey means that by 2065 the community here will be much smaller, less imbued with a sense of Jewish peoplehood, and no longer able to sustain its infrastructure or political influence. It might have been possible to halt or even to reverse the toll of assimilation and intermarriage had drastic measures been undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Pew report. But the shameful failure of the organized Jewish world to respond to this crisis with even a tone of alarm, let alone the necessary action, means this process will continue to its unfortunate yet logical conclusion.
A thriving Orthodox sector and the persistence of core groups of other denominations ensures Jewish life won’t disappear in America. But in 50 years a critical mass of those with Jewish ties will not be affiliated with the community or even be, in any meaningful sense, Jewish. In the past century American Jewry was an engine of Jewish revival. Its decline will have a negative impact on Jewish civilization as well as the security of the international community, making Israel and Zionism even more important to the Jewish future.
Although I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, as a rabbi for almost 50 years I have often reflected not only on contemporary Jewish life, but on what Jewish life could look like years from now. With this forward-looking attitude, I have always tried to be a step ahead, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
In short, I predict a reconfiguration of affiliated Jewry into three new camps.
On the right side of the religious spectrum, the various Haredi communities—Hasidim, Mitnagdim, Sephardim, as well as the more extreme wing of Chabad—will recognize that they have more in common than not. The “neo-Haredi” Roshei Yeshiva from RIETS (Yeshiva University) will find more common ground with this faction. United, their power will increase.
But with the world increasingly becoming a global village through the Internet and social media, we will witness a drop-off rate in these communities. Young Yeshiva students exposed to outside ideas and influences will in larger numbers abandon their insular worlds. The up-till-now astronomical growth rate of the Haredi community, moreover, will slow down as the Haredim will find it more difficult to sustain larger families in this economic climate. Finally, Haredi women employed in higher-powered jobs will be inspired to be more assertive and vocal in their respective communities.
On the other end of the spectrum, we will witness an amalgamation of the liberal communities. The Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal denominations will overcome their differences and unite. Among their followers we will encounter two strands: those in the Diaspora and those in Israel. Liberal Jews in the Diaspora will place a greater emphasis on ritual as the religious anchor of their community.
Despite the present ambivalence of many in the liberal community toward Israel, in the coming decades a dramatic shift will occur as thousands of liberal Jews who identify more nationally than religiously will move to Israel. This boon in non-Orthodox aliyah will occur because many liberal Jews will realize that Israel—whose very rhythm is Jewish—is a more conducive place to express their Jewish identity.
A third camp, in the middle of the spectrum, will be made up of a growing community of halakhically committed Jews. From this camp—one with which I identify—there will emerge an inclusionary Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish spectrum; welcomes people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.
We are seeing the fruits of this growing camp already in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and JOFA in America. There are parallels in Beit Hillel, Yeshivat Ma’alei Gilboa, and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah in Israel. I predict that we will also witness the more conservative wing of Hadar and the more progressive graduates of Chabad, Yeshiva University, and Yeshivat Har Etzion (the “Gush”) joining this community. Indeed, in my travels I have found that young Jews are searching for a Judaism that is rooted but not stagnant, open but with boundaries.
Among what may be the largest group of Diaspora Jews, the unaffiliated, I believe that, contrary to the pundits and the Pew-type reports of the death of the search for God among young Jews, in the next 50 years we will see a renewed search for God. In a world where technology has brought people closer together yet further apart, there will be a backlash as people will yearn to find meaning in their lives. Many more young Jewish men and women will be attracted to spiritual leadership to meet this desperate need.
In Israel, too, the emerging search for greater religious meaning beyond the Orthodox community will continue to spiral. This will be enabled by the dramatic dissipation of the centralized power of the Chief Rabbinate. Each community will be given the right to choose its own spiritual leaders.
The Jewish population in Israel will increase dramatically. In the short run, Israel will continue to face serious physical challenges, but in the long run, threats against Israel will recede. Jews worldwide will not be coming to Israel out of fear, but to live more meaningful Jewish lives. A significant number of these olim will come from the inclusionary modern and open Orthodox, cutting into the vibrancy of this community in America. In addition, third and fourth generations of Israeli yordim (émigrés from Israel) will return home. Finally, with the likelihood of shorter travel time between Israel and the United States, many more people will commute to work between the two countries. As this upsurge evolves, Israel will become more open to embracing converts, especially those born to Jewish fathers.
Whether there will be one or two states between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, Israel will continue to be a Jewish state, with Diaspora communities—much smaller in number than today, all over the world. Israel will be the place where the national destiny of Am Yisrael will be realized. It will be the only place where we, as a people, will have the sovereignty and autonomy to drive our own course, carve our unique path, and join others in bringing light to the world.
If someone would have asked me 50 years ago, after the Holocaust, when we stood with signs that read Never Again, whether Jews would face the challenges we face today, specifically a virulent anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Israelism, I would have said “never.” And yet, here we are.
Despite our physical threats and spiritual challenges, I continue to remain optimistic.
I know I will not be around to see whether any of these predictions come true, but I offer the following blessing: God created a beautiful world, a world that too many are trying to make ugly. And we have been blessed with a Torah and a land of promise and hope.
And so, whether my predictions here come true or not, it’s our sacred responsibility to do all we can to light the darkness, for our people and the larger world.
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
The contours of American Jewish life 50 years hence are not difficult to imagine if we project current trends forward. A much smaller population than today will engage actively with Judaism and the needs of the Jewish people. Within this group, the Orthodox will play an outsize role. Owing to their strong pro-natal norms and commitments to perpetuating Jewish life, they will bear children well above replacement level and retain enough of their offspring to maintain strong communities. Alongside them will live the descendants of Conservative and Reform Jews, who will fashion eclectic Jewish identities from cultural, Hebraic, Israel-centric, and religious/spiritual elements. Whether most will identify with a particular religious denomination is an open question. But in any event, local cultures, not national movements and organizations, will prevail. Innovative and energetic communities will attract enough of the shrunken Jewish middle to sustain a vibrant non-Orthodox life in perhaps as many as a dozen urban centers.
There also will be millions of Americans of partial Jewish ancestry with no sustained connection to Jewish life. Like their counterparts in today’s Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, these descendants of intermarried Jews may attempt to reconnect with some aspect of Jewishness episodically, but only a minority will rejoin the Jewish people. A legion of outreach workers will strive to draw more of these people into Jewish engagement, probably with only limited success. At best, the descendants of most intermarried Jews might contribute to a philo-Semitic climate in American society, but they will not reverse the dramatic loss of Jewish political and economic influence once active Jews constitute less than half of 1 percent of the American populace.
Such would seem to be the future, assuming a straight-line evolution of current trends. Judging from the past, though, it is highly unlikely that anything of the sort will occur. We need only think of how even the most farsighted person living a century ago and projecting trends in Jewish life 50 years into the future could not have anticipated what remade the world between 1915 and 1965—the two world wars, the Communist oppression of Eastern Europe and much of Asia, the remarkable technological and scientific advances, the generally constructive leadership role of America on the world stage, and the attendant rise of its Jewish community as a force in international Jewish affairs, coupled with the miraculous establishment of a Jewish state for the first time in nearly two millennia.
Instead of imagining what American Jewish life will be like in 50 years, we might ask more productively: What is necessary to ensure that, come what may, Jews will have the means to persevere? Here the past may serve as a guide. Our ancestors prepared for the future by putting in place a number of essential building blocks. First, they regarded Judaic literacy among males as a fundamental birthright. We need to expand the range of thoroughly literate Jews to include females and males, older and younger people. Grounded in a deep understanding of Jewish civilization, these literate populations will develop creative and Judaically resonant responses to new circumstances. Second, Jewish life thrives when Jews inhabit communities infused with a “thick” culture. Socializing in extensive Jewish networks, engaging passionately in matters of concern, and contributing to Jewish conversations—these are all vital for sustaining Jews in good times and bad. And third, in order to bring meaning to the lives of Jews, Judaic culture must be understood as a counterculture, not merely a pale imitation of prevailing ways of thinking. To be Jewish means to view the world through a distinctive set of spectacles. And that requires Jews to ground themselves in the formative texts of their tradition and to find meaning in alternative ways of being and thinking offered by Judaism. Engaged Jews will not shrink from addressing the wider society unapologetically, even as they assert their special responsibility to one another.
American Jews can forecast their collective future no more than each of us can know the trajectory of our own lives. History will continue to unfold unpredictably, giving rise to both destructive upheaval and extraordinary human ingenuity. Our task is to ensure that 50 years hence, the engaged population of American Jews will have the tools to respond with confidence, common purpose, and Jewish understanding.
Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Ruth R. Wisse
When the 2065 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Israel Defense Forces, it merely confirmed what Israel had learned and tried to teach others for a half century: Democratic societies encourage peace by protecting whatever they achieve. Unless they invest in defense the same resources they do in self-improvement, they incite meaner cultures to target them for conquest.
The Jewish people had learned this lesson the hard way. As a self-defined minority, its need for acceptance by surrounding nations made it eager to compromise and reluctant to go to war. This reputation for acquiescence originally helped to foment Arab and Muslim ambitions against a country that had been under foreign occupation for 2,000 years and against a people that had not been able to recover its sovereignty, much less protect its members, for the greater part of its history. With such images of frailty in mind, the more Israel prospered, the more fanatically some of its neighbors determined to destroy it.
Indeed, in its early decades Israel fell back into familiar Jewish patterns of political accommodation. Forced into wars that won it sustainable borders, its leaders were lured into phony deals with catastrophic consequences. In 1993, when Israel conceded authority to Yasir Arafat, it became the first country in history to arm its enemy with the expectation of gaining security. Subsequent retreats from hard-won territory inspired the explosion rather than promised termination of Arab attacks. Sobered finally by the expansion of anti-Jewish hate propaganda, terrorism, and cyberwarfare, and Iran’s intention of making Israel a “one-bomb state,” Jews realized that God protects only those who do it themselves. The disciplined power of the IDF gradually damped down at least some of the region’s carnage, and only thus did hostilities begin to subside.
The 10 million Jews of Israel now living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River do not yet equal and perhaps may never equal the almost 17 million of 1939, but they are far more secure in body and spirit than those of 2015. Although economic advantages were not enough to persuade local Arabs to accept the eternity of Israel, many Arabs were heartened by the establishment of the Jordan-Palestine Confederation that offered citizenship to those who preferred it to living in the Jewish State. There have been joint ventures between the two polities on water, transportation, tourism, trade, and industry. Educational collaboration, cultural interchange, and reciprocal diplomatic and security measures have been transforming the once suicidal-homicidal Palestinian-Arab population into a competitive-cooperative society.
None of this could have begun until Israel’s security was attained and acknowledged. It therefore augurs well for the international community to have the Nobel Peace Prize Jury recognize the merits of a soldiering democracy. Citing the high standards of Israel’s military code of ethics, the conduct of its soldiers in battle, and the crucial role of the IDF in protecting its citizenry, the testimonial affirms, “Discouraging aggression paves the road to peace.” Would that America had followed Israel’s example.
The pincers of medievalism and defensiveness will continue to narrow the mentality of part of the Jewish people who mistake rigidness for faithfulness, copying the worldwide fundamentalist wave. Another coterie of Jews, prideful in their universalism that tosses aside the hard-hewn beauty of our ancestor’s legacy, will vanish.
God will bless those who hold the center. They are the future of the Jewish people. Neither Karaites nor Hellenizers, they represent the rabbinic tradition in its truest sense; firm but flexible, faithful but skeptical, genuinely modern Jews who disdain neither the insights of science nor the wisdom of Torah. Some will have been trained in old-style institutions (the faithful of Lakewood, New Jersey, are educating the next generation’s conservative Jews, after all), and others will come from nothing, the shofar having struck a deep and surprising note in the once secular soul. No matter their initial training—the desire to embrace an unblinkered but passionate Judaism will prevail. The rabbinic spirit will reinvigorate an ossified, over-institutionalized remnant, bringing new sparkle to the blank stare reproduced in a thousand religious-school classrooms.
Does that seem improbable? Modern yavnehs, pods cast from the mother ship, are incubating just such tough-minded Jews. The social movement is systolic and diastolic: The center is shrinking and then will expand. So long as Israel and the United States stay strong, Jews can revivify their inexhaustible texts, practices, theologies, and communal ties. It is unfashionable to be an optimist. But then, it is unfashionable to be a Jew.
Much of the Jewish world slips gently away, it is true. But faith in our tradition is not only faith in God, but in the self-renewing powers of our people. I may not live to see it, but “many that sleep in the dust shall awake” (Daniel, Chapter 12). Remember, as Rebbe Nachman teaches, the greatest sin is despair.
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.
It is 2065, and the Jewish people are doing just fine.
The Jewish world is radically different from what it was a half-century before. America and Israel are the only Jewish communities of any consequence. About 100,000 Jews live in France, and nearly as many in both Great Britain and Germany, but Jewish populations elsewhere have dwindled into insignificance. The great Jewish Diaspora, outside of America, is no more, having given way to assimilation and aliyah to Israel.
But Jewish life in America flourishes. The Jewish community of 7 million souls is contentious and wildly diverse, but also Jewishly vibrant. Jews continue to do what they have always done in America: create a Judaism that works for them.
Orthodox Jews have more than doubled to 34 percent of the Jewish population. Almost two-thirds of these are Haredim, who live in enclaves apart from the American mainstream, mostly in the New York area. Their families are large and their devotion to Torah admirable, but the majority are quite poor and want mostly to be left alone.
Non-Haredi Orthodox Jews, modest in number, are split into two major factions and several minor ones. One major group ordains female rabbis, encourages conversion, finds a way to free agunot, and participates in theological dialogue with non-Jews. The other major group is uncomfortable with, but does not always oppose, each of these positions. Each faction has its own halakhic institutions, which disagree about almost everything, including about who can be called Orthodox.
Reform Jews are no less divided than the Orthodox. The “re-ritualization” of Reform, begun in the late 1900s, has continued unabated. In that sense, Reform Judaism is more “traditional” than it has ever been. Mikveh, kashrut, and tefillin have a place on the Reform spectrum, and serious Shabbat observance, liberally understood, is a central pillar of Reform life.
But Reform has also continued on a path of theological radicalism. Hostile to theological norms of any sort, it takes pride in its radical inclusivity. It is reluctant to define its borders and red lines, and who is in and who is out. Some Reform Jews are distressed by this absence of definition, while most are proud of the creativity and openness it engenders. Nearly 40 percent of American Jews still call themselves Reform, without agreeing on the meaning of the term.
American Jewry’s political clout has shrunk as its percentage of the general population has declined. It is no longer the political powerhouse it once was. But Jews are secure in America, and while their numerical growth is quite slow, the passionate pluralism of their religious life allows them to thrive.
American Jewish ties with Israel remain strong, due in some measure to Israel’s “Religious Revolution of 2025.” Prior to that time, religious turmoil was at its height; a third of Israelis left the country to have their marriages performed, and conversion to Judaism was essentially impossible. Finally, fed-up voters had had enough, a government was formed without the religious parties, and a far-reaching bill was passed that de-established synagogue and state. It called for each municipality to elect its religious leader and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.
Over the next 40 years, this law changed the face of Israel. Orthodox and non-Orthodox children came to understand one another, and hotly contested rabbinical elections pushed all candidates to moderate, centrist positions. When a Conservative rabbi was elected chief rabbi of Beersheba in 2031, it made headlines, but such developments soon became commonplace.
Orthodoxy, and especially the national religious camp, benefited most from the newly created “free market” in religion. Settler influence faded after the Saudis and the Arab league pushed the Palestinians into a two-state solution. But no longer held hostage by a coercive religious monopoly, national religious institutions flourished, contributing greatly to the spiritual vitality of Israeli life.
And the Reform and Conservative movements, while relatively small, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements.
Israel today is not a religious utopia. But it is a country in which an end to Orthodox hegemony has produced a revived Orthodoxy, a growing progressive Judaism, broad pockets of religious commitment, serious Jewish education, and a major challenge to the spiritual emptiness that had so long characterized Israeli society.
Judaism is strong in 2065 in both Israel and America, and Jews in both countries look to each other for inspiration and spiritual sustenance.
Eric Yoffie, a lecturer and writer, was president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
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The Jewish Future, Part 5
Must-Reads from Magazine
An idea whose time will come.
When President Donald Trump first floated the idea of creating an entirely new branch of the United States armed forces dedicated to space-based operations in March, the response from lay political observers was limited to bemused snickering. That mockery and amusement have not abated in the intervening months. Thursday’s announcement by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that the administration plans to establish a sixth armed forces branch by 2020, occasioned only more displays of cynicism, but it shouldn’t have. This is deadly serious stuff. The expansion and consolidation of America’s capacities to defend its interests outside the atmosphere is inevitable and desirable.
Though you would not know it from those who spent the day chuckling to themselves over the prospect of an American space command, the militarization of this strategically vital region is decades old. Thousands of both civilian and military communications and navigations satellites operate in earth orbit, to say nothing of the occasional human. It’s impossible to say how many weapons are already stationed in orbit because many of these platforms are “dual use,” meaning that they could be transformed into kill vehicles at a moment’s notice.
American military planners have been preoccupied with the preservation of critical U.S. communications infrastructure in space since at least 2007, when China stunned observers by launching a missile that intercepted and destroyed a satellite, creating thousands of pieces of debris hurtling around the earth at speeds faster than any bullet.
America’s chief strategic competitors—Russia and China—and rogue actors like Iran and North Korea are all committed to developing the capability to target America’s command-and-control infrastructure, a lot of which is space-based. Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified in 2017 that both Moscow and Beijing are “considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine” and are developing the requisite anti-satellite technology—despite their false public commitments to the “nonweaponization of space and ‘no first placement’ of weapons in space.”
Those who oppose the creation of a space branch object on a variety of grounds, some of them merit more attention than others. The contention that a sixth military branch is a redundant waste of taxpayer money, for example, is a more salient than cynical claims that Trump is interested only in a glory project.
“I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions,” Sec. Mattis wrote in October of last year. That’s a perfectly sound argument against excessive bureaucratization and profligacy, but it is silent on the necessity of a space command. Both the Pentagon and the National Security Council are behind the creation of a “U.S. Space Command” in lieu of the congressional action required to establish a new branch of the armed forces dedicated to space-based operations.
As for bureaucratic sprawl, in 2015, the diffusion of space-related experts and capabilities across the armed services led the Air Force to create a single space advisor to coordinate those capabilities for the Defense Department. But that patch did not resolve the problems and, in 2017, Congress’s General Accountability Office recommended investigating the creation of a single branch dedicated to space for the purposes of consolidation.
It is true that the existing branches maintain capabilities that extend into space, which would superficially make a Space Force seem redundant. But American air power was once the province of the U.S. Army and Navy, and bureaucratic elements within these two branches opposed the creation of a U.S. Air Force in 1947. The importance of air power in World War II and the likelihood that aircraft would be a critical feature of future warfighting convinced policymakers that a unified command of operations was critical to effective warfighting. Moreover, both Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman believed that creating a separate branch for airpower ensured that Congress would be less likely to underfund the vital enterprise.
The final argument against the militarization of space is a rehash of themes from the Cold War. Low earth orbit, like the seafloor and the Antarctic, is part of the “global commons,” and should not be militarized on principle. This was the Soviet position, and Moscow’s fellow travelers in the West regularly echoed it. But the argument is simply not compelling.
The Soviets insisted that the militarization of space was provocative and undesirable, but mostly because they lacked the capability to weaponize space. The Soviets regularly argued that any technology it could not match was a first-strike weapon. That’s why they argued vigorously against deploying missile interceptors but voiced fewer objections to ground-based laser technology. As for the “global commons,” that’s just what we call the places where humans do not operate for extended periods of time and where resource extraction is cost prohibitive. The more viable the exploration of these hostile environments becomes, the less “common” we will eventually consider them.
Just as navies police sea lanes, the inevitable commercialization of space ensures that its militarization will follow. That isn’t something to fear or lament. It’s not only unavoidable; it’s a civilizational advance. Space Force may not be an idea whose time has come, but deterrence is based on supremacy and supremacy is the product of proactivity. God forbid there comes a day on which we need an integrated response to a state actor with capabilities in space, we will be glad that we didn’t wait for the crisis before resolving to do what is necessary.
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Victim of success.
Chicken Little has always been the press secretary of the environmental movement.
In the 1960’s there was good reason to think the sky was actually falling. The New Yorker published a cartoon showing a wife standing by a table set for lunch in the backyard of a brownstone. “Hurry darling,” she calls to her husband, “Your soup’s getting dirty.” In 1969, the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire, not for the first time.
But in 1970, Earth Day was established. It was one of the most remarkable examples of grassroots activism in American history, involving fully 10 percent of the population. Late that year, Congress, at the behest of the Nixon Administration, established the Environmental Protection Agency. A series of acts requiring pollution controls and abatement followed, and the great American clean up began.
How has it worked out? As Investor’s Business Daily reports, the clean up has been a howling success. From 1990 to 2017, the six major air pollutants monitored by the EPA plunged by 73 percent from levels that were already well below 1970 levels. By comparison, during that time, the U.S. economy grew 262 percent and its population expanded by 60 percent. And by 1990, much progress had already been made. Banning lead in gasoline, where it was used as an antiknock agent, beginning in the 1980’s had already greatly reduced the level of atmospheric lead, reducing, in turn, the level found in blood. It is down 98 percent from 1980.
Water pollution has plunged as well, as sewage treatment plants came online. In 1970, Manhattan discharged the sewage of 1.5 million people into the surrounding waterways. Today, there is an annual swimming race around Manhattan. There is even talk of a beach for Manhattan Island, the only borough of New York City without one. This sort of improvement has been duplicated across the country. The Connecticut River, once a 400-mile sewer, is now safe for fishing and swimming along its entire length. Even the Cuyahoga is in much better shape, with riverside cafés looking out over blue water instead of rafts of sludge.
And yet this good news can be hard to find. Government agencies usually are not shy about tooting their own horns when they have success to report. But the pollution history on the EPA’s website is hard to find. And the websites of such organizations as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, are still in full the-sky-is-falling mode. I suspect the reason for that has more to do with fundraising strategy than the actual state of the environment.
And even that bugbear of the environmentalist movement, the country’s output of CO2, has fallen 29 percent since it peaked in 2007. That’s thanks largely to the switchover from coal to natural gas as fracking has greatly increased the supply and, thus, lowered the price. Trumpeting that statistic, of course, would not advance the cause of what used to be called “global warming,” and is now called “climate change.”
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Podcast: Blood in the streets?
We decided to do our version of The Handmaid’s Tale and try to imagine the world in 2019 from two perspectives: One in which Democrats fail to win the House of Representatives in November and the other in which Democrats win handily. What will they do in each case? What will Republicans do? Give a listen.
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Declinism never changes.
In November 1995, COMMENTARY published a symposium called “The National Prospect” in which dozens of writers offered their view of America’s possible future. I just went and looked at my entry in that symposium, which I had not thought of in years, because of Laura Ingraham’s statement on TV last night that “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like … this is related to both illegal and legal immigration.”
What my symposium entry indicates is that views like hers have been percolating on the Right for decades. I thought you might find it interesting to read:
“This is not the country my father fought for,” a one-time colleague who grew up as an Army brat was telling me over lunch five years ago. He sang a threnody of national faults, and I could only hang my head in mute agreement—crime, multiculturalism, educational collapse, everything conservatives have worried over and fought against for twenty years or more.
He grew more and more excited. From multiculturalism, he began talking about the threat posed by immigrants, and from that threat to the threat posed by native-born blacks. As he was taken over by his passion and imagined me an ally in it, he began dropping words into his monologue that in his calmer moments he never would have used with me, words like “nigger” and “wetback” I had heard used only in rages and then only maybe twice before outside of a movie or TV show. And then, forgetting himself entirely, he allowed as how Jews were blocking the true story of our national decline.
It is not only inconvenient to hear words you might have spoken coming out of the mouth of a racist, nativist anti-Semite. It is also a reminder that ideas you hold dear may be used as weapons in a war you never intended to fight—a war in which those weapons may be turned against you just as my one-time colleague turned his assault on multiculturalism into an assault on Jews.
This is my warning as we consider the national prospect. Those who believe America is in a period of cultural decline are obviously correct; I am not at all sure how anyone of good will could argue otherwise.
And yet, and yet, and yet. It is one thing to worry over and battle against the dumbing-down of our schools; the assault on taste, standards, and truth posed by multiculturalism; the rise of repellent sexual egalitarianism; even the dangers of advanced consumerism are becoming increasingly worrisome.
But it is quite another thing to make the leap from that point to the notion that the nation itself is in parlous and irreversible decline. After all, nations are always in parlous moral health; nations are gatherings of people, and people are sinners. When the United States was putatively healthier, back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, 12 percent of its population was living in de-facto or de-jure immiseration and the Wasp majority protected its position in the elite by means of explicit quotas and exclusions.
The declinists are both wrong and spiritually noxious. After all, the purpose of declaring the nation in decline is to root out the causes of the decline, extirpate them, and put the nation on the road to health. But, for some of them, the search for causes always leads to blacks, immigrants, and Jews. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harvard’s own Quentin Compson finds himself suicidal over America’s conversion into the “land of the kike home of the wop.”
Blacks and Jews are ever the inevitable, juicy target—so inevitable that they still find a link in the fevered minds of the paleo-Right, even though all blacks and Jews have in common now is the way the paleo-Right links them.
What blacks, Jews, and immigrants always seem to lack in the eyes of declinists is some version of the American character—that which my one-time colleague believed his father to have fought for. The dark underbelly of the American political experiment is the very idea of an American character itself. It is, fundamentally, an un-American idea. It is the nature of America that there is no one American character. Demography is not destiny in America as it is everywhere else; where you come from is not who you are.
I can find no quarrel with the brief of particulars offered by the declinists. But their central idea gives heart and strength to people whose threnodies can sound like the song of the siren—and must, like the siren’s song, be resisted by all strong men.
–Nov. 1, 1995