American Jewry's Existential Threat

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jewishpartraitEarlier this week, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu delivered an impassioned speech to the United Nations and addressed what he describes as nothing short of an existential threat to the State of Israel: Iran.  The same day, the results of a Pew Research Center survey of American Jews were published, revealing nothing short of an existential threat facing American Jewry: assimilation.  While the solution to the threat posed by a nuclear Iran is neither simple nor easy, it is attainable, either preferably through diplomacy, or if not, through military action.

However, one can neither negotiate with, nor drop a bomb on, the devastating statistics and distressing portrait painted by the recent survey.  More creative, coordinated, and systemic solutions will be needed if we are going to reverse the clear trends that are emerging regarding the state of American Jewry and our future.


Alarmingly, the survey found that among the non-orthodox, the intermarriage rate is currently at seventy-one percent.  More than one in five American Jews describe themselves as having no religion, less than a third have Synagogue membership, and sixty-two percent said being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture.  More than a third of American Jews responded that believing in Jesus as Messiah is compatible with Judaism.  Forty-two percent said that they believe having a good sense of humor is part of what it means to be Jewish.


Much of the analysis and many of the articles covering the survey have addressed the revelations regarding the different Jewish denominations.  The survey found that “One third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. About three in ten American Jews say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.”


The survey points to the struggles of the liberal movements that are hemorrhaging members and perhaps relevance rapidly.  It is easy for the orthodox community to read the survey and react with a sense of triumphalism, but that would be a gross error and a horrible mistake, for several reasons.


Firstly, it is abundantly clear that the struggle of the other streams of Judaism is not an indication of a migration to orthodoxy.  The fact is that the reality is quite the opposite; those who have left those denominations are leaving Judaism altogether and, for the most part, they are not becoming more observant.


I cannot articulate it better than Rav Aharon Lichtenstein who, in the 1982 spring edition of Tradition, wrote:


“Nor do I share the glee some feel over the prospective demise of the competition.  Surely, we have many sharp differences with Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured.  Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects, but would unquestionably weaken us in others.  And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or Klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change?  Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or in Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether, rather than drive to his temple?”


Secondly, if the undeniable trend of American Jewry is a move towards secularism and assimilation, the burden on the traditional community to preserve and sustain authentic Judaism is perhaps greater than ever.  We cannot afford to feel triumphant or content when we have a sacred mission and a holy mandate to fulfill.


Lastly and most importantly, if you read the survey you will see that it provides much for the Orthodox community to reflect on ourselves.  It found that many who were raised orthodox no longer affiliate with Orthodoxy.  Frankly, we didn’t need the survey to notice that orthodox communities are struggling mightily to raise inspired Jewish teens and young people.  Many orthodox youth, including those currently enrolled in orthodox schools, unabashedly admit to eating out non-kosher, texting on Shabbos, not putting tefillin on, and more.  Their attitude is, “if doings these things doesn’t ‘do anything’ for me  – and they don’t – why should I observe them?”  We must articulate a compelling answer to that question and many of their others if we are going to inspire our young people to proudly carry the torch of Orthodox Judaism forward.


If nothing else, this survey indicates that the Jewish world is changing rapidly and not for the better.  America has been a better host and country to the Jewish people than any other in our history.  The freedoms it provides and the rights it grants us make this the most blessed land for a Jew to live (outside of Israel) ever.  But clearly freedom, liberty, and autonomy also come with great costs such as the seductive urge and possibility to assimilate into the greater culture and lifestyle around us.


In a few weeks we will read about Avraham Avinu, the founder of ethical monotheism and the father of our people, who, when purchasing a grave for his wife, described himself as “ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a stranger and a resident together with you.”


The Rav explains that in this introduction, Avraham captured the tension that every Jew is destined to live with forever.  On the one hand, we are toshavim, residents and inhabitants of the great countries in which we live.  We function as active citizens participating in the fullness of the society around us.  And yet, at the same time we must remain geirim, strangers: different, apart, distinct, and dissimilar.  Ger v’toshav - we are to simultaneously be part of, and apart from, the general world around us.  Striking the proper balance and equilibrium between our dual identities and roles is the mission of the Jew in every place and at every time that he or she has ever lived.


There have been periods in our history in which we didn’t need to work hard to remember that we were different.  Through their anti-Semitism, persecution and oppression, our hosts have often reminded us that we were geirim, we were not the same.  As badly as we tried to blend in, as hard as we tried to assimilate and much as we sought to merge with those around us, we were denied the opportunity to be toshavim, equal residents and citizens.  Indeed, the imbalance towards being geirim, towards being different, was our default status for the bulk of our history, particularly in exile.


And yet, in 2013, blessed to live in this great country, a truly exceptional place that has afforded us extraordinary opportunity, once again our balance is off, our equilibrium between ger v’toshav, stranger and resident is out of alignment, this time in the opposite direction.


This survey is a sobering wake up call, a harsh and stark reminder that if we succumb to the allure of finally being toshavim, finally being fully accepted and integrated residents, we stand to lose our identity as geirim, as Jews, and we will find ourselves fully assimilated, thinking that having a sense of humor is a meaningful part of what it means to be Jewish.


The truth is, the trend towards secularism and universalism is not uniquely Jewish.  While elsewhere in the world sectarian groups are at war to protect what makes them different and distinct, the movement in America seems to be to delete and erase boundaries and differences altogether.  The implicit message communicated in pop culture and often taught on college campuses across this country is that we are all the same and there are no differences between us.  Indeed, it would be a defect in our moral character to even think to make distinctions among people based on their race, religion, nationality, or culture.  The force of universalism is pervasive in this country, and the results of this survey make it clear that they have penetrated into all segments of the Jewish community including the Orthodox.   Exploring the topics of Jewish exceptionalism, what it means to be a Jew and why being a ger, being different matters is clearly a necessary component of the solution to this existential threat.


So, should we like Noach retreat to insular arks and protect ourselves and our families?  Should we create isolationist comminutes shielded from the foreign influences of the secular world?  Or, perhaps we should we spread our wings further and deeper into the general American culture and try to bring our ancient and timely wisdom to the world around us?


Remarkably, the survey has generated some diametrically opposed reactions.


Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University wrote regarding the Lakewood community and its flagship Yeshiva, Beis Midrash Govoha:


“Graduates of institutions such as BMG won’t solve the demographic challenges to American Jewry highlighted by the Pew study. Moreover, the American Jewish community will not be fundamentally transformed by an Orthodox population that hovers near 10 percent. But BMG matters. It matters for the future of Jews in America precisely because it matters for the future of Judaism in America. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly stakes out a position of genuine durability.”


In great contrast, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote:


“Stop creating a divide between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds…We need Jewish organizations that invite Jews in to classes, religious services, lectures, social events, and debates. But far more effective is not forcing the choice on them in the first place. Bring Judaism instead to where they are at. On campus, do colossal events that bring Jewish values, teachings, and wisdom to all students so that young men and women are not forced to choose.”


Profesor Jeffrey Woolf of Bar Ilan University drew a different conclusion:


“I am, at the same time, thunderstruck by the stark contrast between the Pew Study, and the most recent Guttman/IDI Study of Israeli Jewry. The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80%). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong.”


So is the answer to create more communities like Lakewood, to blur the divide between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, or for all American Jews to pick up and move to Israel?  I am not so presumptuous to assume I know for sure.  What I do know is that as members of the Orthodox community, our work is cut out for us and none of us is exempt.  We must focus our efforts on retention by revisiting how we interact with, educate and inspire our youth and teens.  We must re-focus our energies on outreach recognizing that it is up to us to plug the hole that has turned from a slow leak into a full-fledged flood of intermarriage and assimilation.


Let us pray that with our renewed efforts and siyata dishmaya, Divine assistance, the Pew results in a decade from now will indicate a thriving, flourishing Jewish people steeped in Jewish values and Torah.