The vanishing American traditional Jew

The reason for the waning of the Conservative Movement.

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Rabbi Berel Wein,

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
pr

The Jewish community in the United States has changed dramatically over the last sixty years.  A trip down nostalgia lane will reveal that the backbone of the Jewish community in the United States then was the traditional Jew. That Jew did not attend synagogue services often but was somehow vaguely familiar with the prayer service itself. He or she was not strictly observant of the laws of Judaism by any measure of observance but retained a connection to that observance by eating matzo on Pesach, lighting Sabbath candles on Friday night and eating food that had some relationship to being kosher. 

That Jew was fiercely loyal to and proud of the fledgling State of Israel and voted on the narrow issue of “is it good for the Jews?” That Jew was still scarred by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. He was determined to give his children a college education, a degree that would guarantee them a profession and a haven of economic security. 

That Jew was not wealthy by today’s standards but strove to be part of the emerging middle class, to own a home and an automobile. That Jew was a strong supporter of the then American public school system and hoped that their children would be able to integrate themselves fully into the general American society, without having to intermarry and assimilate completely. 

Their children were given a minimalist Jewish education in afternoon or Sunday Hebrew schools that, at most, led to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. It was better than nothing but only barely so

Most of these were second or third generation Americans, descended from Orthodox Eastern European parents and grandparents. Though they may have loved and cherished their ancestors, they were determined not to be like them in appearance, language and way of life. These traditional Jews became the constituency of the Conservative movement of twentieth century American Jewish life. 

Unwilling to commit to the radicalism of Reform but equally unwilling or unable to adjust to a fully observant Jewish lifestyle, the Conservative movement became their logical and confortable home. Though it made few actual ritual demands upon its members, the Conservative movement still retained the flavor of traditional Jewish life and values. 

Israel and the Holocaust were the main tenets of its approach to traditional Jewish life and its mission. But as the decades passed these issues receded and faded. In the eyes of many, especially on the Left, Israel was too strong and Germany was no longer considered to be a pariah state. 

The children and grandchildren of the old traditional American Jew fought for universal causes and slowly but surely drifted away from any meaningful connection to the Jewish people or to the value system and lifestyle of Judaism itself.

Intermarriage became rampant and complete alienation from Jewish causes and the State of Israel became the norm of the new generation of American Jews. This new American Jew was completely ignorant of his faith and heritage, knew not the history of his or her people and began to internalize the narratives of the enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. This type of Jew became the subtle enemy of his or her own people and self.

All of this was recognized on the ground by the slow but steady erosion of the Conservative movement in American Jewish society. In many respects, it lost its traditional moorings and became only a pale shadow of Reform. The influence of the increasingly hedonistic and loosened bonds of general American culture wreaked havoc among the children of its base constituency. 

They were no longer interested in any form of Jewish worship services, no matter how many guitars now accompanied the prayer services. The universal had conquered the particular and the fuzzy ideas of utopianism replaced the hard-core concepts of basic morality that lie at the heart of Jewish thought and social life. 

In this atmosphere of blissful ignorance and befuddled goals, support for all Jewish causes declined and loyalty to the State of Israel, as the great accomplishment of the previous century, weakened dramatically. The traditional American Jew of the twentieth century had no descendants and hence no future as well. 

It is most unlikely that this tragedy can be averted and reversed in our lifetimes though as a nation we are well accustomed to unforeseen events and miraculous deliverances. The prediction of the past, that in Judaism it is either all or nothing at all, appears to be ominously accurate as far as today's American Jewry is concerned. 


 








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