Two great problems face American Jewry today. From a certain perspective, they amount to an existential crisis.
The first one is called “assimilation,” or “continuity,” or “identity,” and it relates to the failure of Jewish organizations, philanthropists, religious movements, and parents to successfully transmit the Jewish collective commitment from one generation to the next. It is measured in intermarriage rates, synagogue membership, household rituals, fertility, and other metrics.
It has been going on for a long time, widely discussed since at least 1990, though still quite unsolved. Meanwhile, the numbers are getting worse, and some of the ominous predictions we have heard for decades now are coming true before our eyes. A new generation has risen that wears its identity lightly, and sees “peoplehood” as more a relic than a need.
The second one may be called the “Israel problem,” and it is rapidly becoming a major concern. Young Jews who have grown up on the ideal of tikun olam, “repairing the world,” do not understand how their parents’ commitment to an armed ethnic nation-state, born of last century’s fears, led by “right-wing” leaders, fits into their Jewish identity. For some, the things they have heard about the occupation, religious issues, and the treatment of minorities—some true, some false—suggest to them that Israel should be criticized rather than championed. For others, the complexity of the issues and the discomfort of being a Jew in public leads them to “tune out,” not just about Israel but about Jewish commitment more broadly.
Parents, too, are disconcerted by Israel. Having built much of their sense of Jewish fulfillment on public support for Israel, they now see Israel’s problems, no less than its enemies, as a cause for angst. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The New York Jewish Week, put it this way in a famous 2011 column entitled “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment”:
Most American Jews want to feel proud of the Jewish State, not frustrated or ashamed. It doesn’t help when they read of continued settlement growth, the flotilla debacle, Foreign Minister Lieberman’s hard-line comments about Israeli Arabs and other issues, or that the Knesset conducted inquiries into the funding sources of NGOs, or that the Chief Rabbinate is increasingly rigid on matters of marriage, divorce and conversion.
Since then, we’ve seen the rise of groups like J Street, which describe themselves as “pro-Israel” but make their support contingent on Israel’s behaving a certain way, and consequently spend far greater energies criticizing than praising. In a 2015 statement, the group’s leader Jeremy Ben-Ami said his group stood for “an Israel that is committed to its core democratic principles and Jewish values”—a phrasing he and others have used repeatedly as a veiled threat against any Israel they see as potentially violating these principles and values.
It is important to recognize that this tension or crisis exists not on some objective plane, but principally within the minds and culture of non-Orthodox American Jewry. Outside the confines of that conversation—say, inside Israel, or among the Orthodox, or among America’s evangelical community—the question of whether Israel’s political decision-making has crossed a line that merits the withdrawal of support is not only a non-question, it’s even a bit baffling. For all but a fringe element inside these communities, support for Israel is not a conditional love. Inside non-Orthodox American Jewry, however, it is a burning issue—possibly the central issue of identity in our time.
These two factors—assimilation and Israel-angst—are the real sources of crisis. These and not others, like anti-Semitism or terrorism, because they are problems of the spirit: a collective Jewish spirit that is no longer sure of its future or even its present, an insecurity that both expresses and exacerbates the problem. These issues have, simply, made “being Jewish” into something problematic for the next generation of non-Orthodox Jews.
This next generation is no longer moored to Jewish peoplehood through guilt, or habit, or peer pressure. Jewish identity, if it is to reside in them at all, will have to compete for their allegiance in a brutally efficient market of identification. So far, “Jewish” is failing to compete.
Not long ago I was traveling through a midwestern American city, together with a young colleague. A talented development professional in his mid-twenties whose mother is president of a Reform congregation on the West Coast. Together we attended a “Night to Honor Israel,” a Christian event. He had never been to one of these. The choreography, the power of the commitment, the love and song, the enchanting spectacle, the production values—it all moved him. Though he was not inclined to bring Christ into his heart, he nonetheless felt something that could be called acute jealousy. That Judaism in America was producing nothing remotely parallel in its power to inspire.
“We are really in trouble,” he mused.
Some of the data should strike panic. According to a major study conducted by the Pew Institute in 2013, merely 16 percent of Reform Jews in America see religion as “very important” to them, compared with 56 percent of Americans as a whole. Reform Jews make up 35 percent of American Jewry. For the second biggest group, “Jews of no denomination,” who constitute another 30 percent of American Jewry, the number who say religion is “very important” is just 8 percent. Not unrelated, fully 30 percent of Reform Jews, and 51 percent of non-denominational Jews, had Christmas trees in their homes that year—a classic marker for a clearly differentiated Jewish identity in America.
Commitment to religion is not the only indicator of Jewish identity, of course. Perhaps more alarming are the numbers that point to swift and widespread assimilation. Fifty-eight percent of Jews who married since 2000 have married non-Jews. Of children raised in intermarried families, fully 41 percent do not identify as Jews at all, and another 30 percent are “Jews of no religion”—a category that carries a rate of synagogue membership of about 4 percent, and leads to raising children who themselves do not identify as Jews at a pace of 67 percent.
Some readers may bristle at talking about such matters as indicative of a regressive or vaguely racist approach. But for those of us who still see the preservation of an unalloyed Jewish identity across generations as a vital mission, for those of us who really do not want to be the last link in the chain—for us, the effects of the machinery of assimilation, alongside low fertility, are difficult to deny. For generations, the Jewish part of America has dwindled. In 1948, more than 3.5 percent of the American population were Jews. Today the number is around 1.7 percent. It has been dropping consistently across the decades. The portion of children in America being raised as Jews today is about 1.2 percent.
A generation from now, this community will be much smaller than it is now.
Oblivion knocks. The two obvious alternatives—aliya and Orthodoxy—require so radical a change in one’s lifestyle that they’re non-starters for most American Jews. If those were the only options, most would choose oblivion.
So what can be done? Though part of the problem may be alleviated through increased investment in education and convincing non-Orthodox parents to have more kids, such noble efforts today feel like putting oil on a hinge that has already rusted through. In other words, it’s time to ask whether the problem is not in the marketing, but in the product itself. Perhaps Jewish identity, as understood in non-Orthodox America in the past century, is inherently incapable of winning adherents among its own children in sustainable numbers today.
If true, this would suggest only one path forward: A dramatic rethinking of what Jewish identity is. To use a cliché, a disruption.
It will require that Jewish identity itself be reconceived in a way that will make it competitive and inspiring, but which has the resources behind it—financial, spiritual, creative, technical—to offer a sustainable way of life. One that is uniquely Jewish, tapping into the ancient wellspring without demanding an abdication of modern life in America. One that is adaptive to change, because the rapidity of change has become the Achilles’ heel of institutional Judaism. One that will not become, as so many Jewish movements have, obsolete before it has a chance to catch fire.
Increasingly, one such alternative form of Jewish identity is taking shape. It is, for lack of a better term, “Israeliness.” Israel, which has for generations occupied the place in the American Jewish mind of a political cause, has suddenly emerged as something very different: A civilizational force. It has just begun to unleash itself on the world.
To read the rest of this essay at The Tower Magazine, click here.