Pew Jews: The Future of American Judaism
Oh, dear. American Jewish poobahs are all upset by a Pew Foundation survey that “discovered” that the intermarriage rate in the USA is at 58 percent, up from 46 percent in 1990, and 17 percent before 1970. Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.
Amusingly, 42 percent of respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity, whereas observing Jewish law mattered only to 19 percent. On the flipside, more than 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish or partially Jewish. By comparison, approximately one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religious affiliation are raising their kids as Jewish in any way – and the figure is much less if the mother is non-Jewish.
Everyone knows American Jewry is reaping the whirlwind of declining religious affiliation. We may well lose a generation of donors, machers, and politicos. But “ease and salvation will come from somewhere else,” as Mordechai once said.
My late father gave a speech on a visit to Johannesburg in 1952 in support of Jewish education, in which he said that although the Jewish people can never disappear, millions of individual Jews had done so and continue to do so. The biggest threat is ignorance. The Am Haaretz (the ignoramus) simply do not have the resources to stand against the weight of secular society. Only Torah gives Jews the tools to survive.
The fact is that cultural changes play out over a century, if not more. From the time of The Enlightenment, European Jews have been assailed on all sides and have been either willingly or by compulsion abandoning Judaism in the hundreds of thousands. The Orthodox synagogue I was rabbi of in Central London – The Western, founded in the eighteenth century, discovered that by the end of the nineteenth century, not one of the descendants of the original two hundred founding families was still Jewish.
The Jewish community in the USA today is predominantly descended from the millions who left Europe in the face of poverty and persecution. Many had already rejected religion and intended to cast off all vestiges of their Jewish past. The Jews who came to America were notorious for the way religion disappeared in their desperate struggle to rebuild a life in America. (Just re-watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to get a sense of how far being “American Jewish” was, a generation ago, from being “committed Jewish”.)
This was, tragically, precisely why so many Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe were opposed to emigration. Generations were given no Jewish education of any substance. Jews who still wanted to hold on to a vestige of tradition often turned to a variation of Judaism, which tried to stem the tide of assimilation by accommodation and compromise. But in the latitude of its overindulgence, a generation grew up with insufficient knowledge of Jewish texts or passion for religious life.
We know the cycle of assimilation has been running its course. What has surprised us is the countertrend: the return towards ritual practice and the explosion of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which was once written off as a relic. Its academies are now full to the gills. Its prayer houses packed. Its centers of intensive study are overflowing. Its birthrate is staggering, and its political power frightening.
In New York, both candidates for mayor are scared to impose minimal safeguards on circumcision for fear of overwhelmingly Chasidic opposition. Who’d have thought 50 years ago that New York Chasidim would have the New York Democrats in their pockets!
As old communal institutions are withering, other very different forms are mushrooming. Look how a handful of survivors of Eastern Europe have completely rebuilt a lost world.
As one cycle of decline is running its course, another cycle is starting again. Judaism has always been a difficult option, an elite, intense way of life that most Jews simply could not cope with.
Besides, the USA is not the only story. Zionism in all its varieties posits that Jewish survival depends on the Jewish state. I doubt that, because we have survived in exile for longer than we have in a land of our own.
Anyone worried about the future is merely showing a lack of faith and an ignorance of Jewish affairs. Of course, one must not write off our non-observant brothers and sisters. Throughout our history many of the alienated or disaffected have stepped up to the plate at a time of crisis. I am delighted that so many Jews of whatever persuasion or identity contribute so much to Jewish life in all its varieties. But those Jews who are unable or unwilling to live an even nominally Jewish way of life are the last people I would look to to help Judaism survive. Pew surveys are the last indicators I would rely on for predicting the Jewish future.
I am sad that we are losing so many. By all means, let people donate money wherever they wish and wring their hands about the state of Jewish affairs. I never thought I’d agree with Satmar, but they have a point. Someone needs to stay at home to take care of the store. It’s the individual Jew that lives a Jewish life, often under the radar and not answering phone surveys, who has always determined the future of the Jewish people. The rest are a bonus.