Interview: American Jewry's challenges

Dr. Steven Bayme, Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC: “The resurgence of Orthodoxy is one of the great success stories of American Jewry."

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , | updated: 07:03

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“There are more than six million Jews in the United States. The numbers would be considerably higher, but over two million adults with one Jewish parent no longer self-define as Jews.

To the extent one can speak of American Jewry collectively, it remains a strong, prosperous Jewish community that in many ways elicits the envy of other American ethnic and religious groupings.

“No society in Diaspora Jewish history has been as welcoming of Jewish participation as the United States. The Clinton Administration years marked the collapse of any remaining barriers to Jewish participation in virtually all sectors of American society. The Administration stopped counting how many Jews it employed.”

Dr. Steven Bayme serves as the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Contemporary Jewish Life. He currently holds the rank of Visiting Professor at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. His published volumes include Understanding Jewish History: Texts and Commentary; Jewish Arguments and Counter-Arguments; and American Jewry’s Comfort Level.

“Mixed marriage is the key barometer of assimilation. It is by no means the primary cause, which includes weak Jewish education and the overwhelming attractiveness of American cultural values and norms. Constructing a distinctive Jewish identity of necessity will entail considerable dissonance with otherwise attractive American norms

“Non-affiliation and mixed marriage rates are at all-time highs. Within Reform Judaism, over 80% of those who have married since 2000 have chosen non-Jewish spouses. While conversion to Judaism constitutes the single best outcome of mixed marriage, it has leveled off. The challenge of mixed marriage primarily affects the second and third generations. Mixed marrieds themselves rarely cease identifying as Jews. But successful transmission of Jewish identity to children and grandchildren remains a questionable proposition at best.

“The second challenge is maintaining and sustaining the US-Israel relationship. The cause of Israel remains broadly popular within America. However, support for Israel has been slipping among elites – academia, the media, and key ethnic and religious groupings. Most importantly, the cause of Israel has in the past been successful on a bipartisan basis. That bipartisanship today is at risk. If pro-Israel advocacy becomes identified primarily with Republicans, US-Israel relations are likely to suffer when Democrats return to power.

“A third challenge: American Jews had experienced a decline in anti-Semitism for decades. Recent years, however, have witnessed a spike in anti-Semitic activity. On the right, extremist groupings feel at greater liberty to express anti-Semitic views and even actions. On the left, anti-Zionism all too frequently morphs into anti-Semitism.

“American Jews are vigilant concerning anti-Semitism. If anything, the danger becomes one of crying wolf too frequently. We must distinguish between legitimate criticism and expressions of prejudice and bigotry. Much of what passes for vigorous criticism of Israel, especially in academia, is articulated by people who feel completely at ease and at home among Jews. For them, the State of Israel, tragically, has become Goliath rather than David.

“The BDS movement is the source of much noise on campus even if it attains no tangible victories. Pro-Israel students may often feel intimidated by loud and vocal demonstrations equating Israel with apartheid South Africa. Others may simply opt for silence. College education was meant to challenge one’s thinking. The debate regarding Israel on campus, however, has become much too shrill and divisive, in turn causing considerable discomfort among the most committed American Jewish students.

“The number of Jews who have bought into BDS and other anti-Israeli arguments is relatively small. These provide a convenient cover for Israel’s far more numerous gentile detractors. For most Jews on campus, the critical challenge with respect to Israel is one of indifference rather than hostility.

“As far as Jewish political behavior is concerned, since 1928 the general rule has been that Jews will vote for the more liberal candidate, provided he or she is not considered hostile to Israel. The unpopularity of President Donald Trump partly emanates from his more conservative politics and policies and partly from the self-image he projects. Jews will vote for the candidate who is considered more urbane, patrician, liberal, intellectual, and broad-minded. Trump often projects the very antithesis of these characteristics.

“Notwithstanding continued debate among social scientists, the distancing from Israel is quite tangible in parts of American Jewry. One perceives it among the millennial generation due to assimilation. Distancing from matters of a Jewish nature generally connotes distancing from Israel. However, even among highly committed and active sectors of Jewish life, one may detect distancing. These Jews are working out positive Jewish identities. However, Israel remains a highly explosive, almost toxic topic of discussion for them.

“Reform Judaism remains the single largest denomination and claims the allegiances of over a third of adult American Jews. Conservative Judaism claims 18%, and Orthodoxy 10%. Those numbers represent denominational self-identification rather than formal affiliation with institutions and synagogues. Orthodoxy and the “nones” sectors are growing while the “middles” are shrinking. Yet it is those middles, active Conservative and Reform Jews, who serve as the architectural backbone of Jewish communal institutions.

“To date, the Reform movement has held its own numerically because it has proven itself most hospitable to mixed marrieds. Whether that can be sustained for the next generation is very much an open question as children and grandchildren of mixed marrieds marry out at even higher rates.

“Within Conservative Jewry, the shrinkage has become evident institutionally, with the closings of some synagogues and Solomon Schechter schools. To date, the network of institutions built over the course of the 20th century have made American Jewry the single best organized and most resourceful community in Jewish history. Whether that will continue as numbers shrink and institutions forfeit some of their distinctiveness is very much a future challenge.     

“The resurgence of Orthodoxy is one of the great success stories of American Jewry. Rather than submit to the tides of history, Orthodox leaders committed themselves to rebuilding their communities. They succeeded beyond expectations and will transform the face of American Jewry in the future. While Orthodoxy constitutes but 10% of adult Jews, 35% of children under five are raised Orthodox. But if Israel advocacy becomes an Orthodox cause alone, the danger is that it will be far easier to dismiss pro-Israel voices as unrepresentative of the American Jewish community.

“Distinctions between Modern Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy are nuanced and often blurred. The Ultra-Orthodox are becoming more modern in the sense that economic needs necessitate acquisition of secular education. Conversely, mainstream Modern Orthodoxy has drifted to the right in terms of greater religious observance, conservative politics, and limiting secular education primarily to utilitarian purposes. There are sectors within Modern Orthodoxy that have resisted this drift. Most have coalesced around new institutions and rabbinical seminaries; others have settled into a “Social Orthodoxy”, which maintains high levels of observance without subscribing to all Orthodox beliefs and norms.

“The 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Studies and the 2013 Pew Report demonstrated that the story of Jewish renewal coexists alongside the story of assimilation. Our challenge for the future is strengthening the forces for renewal -- and they occur within every sector of American Jewish life -- while minimizing the forces of erosion and dissolution.”


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