Wertheimer Hits the Nail Again

An article in the June issue of Commentary Magazine entitled “Whatever Happened to the Jewish people?” details the plummeting ethnic identity of American Jews. The findings of sociologist Stephen Cohen and historian Jack Wertheimer have important implications for Israeli-Diaspora relations, as well has the future of non-Orthodox Jewry worldwide.

Only 47% of Jewish adults under 35 respond affirmatively to questions asking whether Jews worldwide have some special responsibility for one another, as opposed to 75% of those over 65. Jewish membership organizations experienced a 20% drop in membership in the ‘90s alone. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of households contributing to Jewish federations dropped by one-third.

The reasons for this precipitious decline in ethnic identity are not hard to discern. While two-thirds of Jewish post-World War II baby boomers have mostly Jewish friends, that is true of only one-third of their children. Most Jews today marry non-Jews. Even in the best case scenario, the non-Jewish spouses’ identification with Judaism is likely to center on particular religious practices, not an emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and history.

The modern globalist perspective downplays boundaries between people. Young Jews are susceptible to the charge that giving to specifically Jewish causes reflects a “narrow tribalism.” Even the Jewish Federations have dropped the “One People” rhetoric, based on an idea of mutual responsibility of Jews for one another, in favor of appeals to generosity for individuals in need.

Thus a large portion of Federation spending goes to hospitals with few Jewish patients, even as Jewish day schools, the only proven bulwark against assimilation and intermarriage, go begging.

Not surprisingly, identification of American Jews with Israel and giving to Israel (among the non-Orthodox) has declined rapidly. Adjusting for inflation, Federation allocations to Israel dropped 2/3 from 1985-2005. Since 1989, the number of Jews who say that support for Israel is an important aspect of being a Jew has dropped from 73% to 57%.

Young Jews in Israel and America mirror one another in the slight significance they give to their Jewishness, among multiple sources of identity. But the result is that they will have ever less to do with one another.

Cohen and Wertheimer note, ironically, that American Jewish ritual observance has not shown a parallel decline. But that ignores how low that level is to begin with, as well has how little the “religion” of American Jews has to do with traditional Judaism. The former views religion primarily as an individual affair for spiritual elevation. The latter conceives Jews as a “chosen people,” with a distinct historical mission, not just as individuals sharing some common rituals. Such talk of “chosenness” is anathema to most American Jews.

Cohen and Wertheimer lament that a people that has lost pride in itself will no longer be able to move the world with its message. The real tragedy is that most Jews do not know that Judaism has a message — and they are its bearers.

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4 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    When we lived in Nassau County (Long Island, NY) around 1980, someone told me that the Jewish Federation already had a problem locating potential donors to contact. They were used to combining lists of Jews affiliated with various Jewish organizations, but this was no longer enough because large numbers of Jews in their area no longer belonged to any Jewish organization at all. Their plan at the time (I don’t know if it did them any good) was to start combing phonebooks for Jewish-looking names.

    About a decade later, we were living in Metro Detroit, and their Federation had commissioned a study to count all Jews in that area. This “census” was done very thoroughly, and its results surprised everybody. There were about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews beyond the predicted total. These were the unaffiliated.

    So now, from Jonathan’s account of the latest study, we see that assimilation is still intensifying, which most of us probably suspected anyway based on our own experiences.

    Jonathan, what initiatives can you propose to attempt to deal with this?

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Lots and lots of kiruv is the answer. Day schools must recruit on the basis of superior education and values. They must go all out to raise money for scholarship funds. Promote programs in Israel with Jewish content on the entry level such as Discovery and Livnot. And daven. Eventually this will bottom out as the Jewish community that is left becomes thoroughly Orthodox by default.As the heterodox institutions decline in membership the Orthodox families and institutions should adopt them and do strong kiruv of their remaining members. One remarkable story occurred in Santa Fe, NM, where Torah Bamidbar was established a number of years ago, a congregation of baalei teshuva established with the active support of the local reform rabbi. And make aliya. As people move out, paradoxically the remaining active Jews are challenged to replace the work of those who leave. Have no fear, Hashem is here.

  3. Eliot says:

    > Not surprisingly, identification of American Jews with Israel and
    > giving to Israel (among the non-Orthodox) has declined rapidly.

    Here is another factor. For generations support of The Jewish State has been a major binding force for American Jews. During the pre-state era until fairly recently there was a strong need to help our brethren in need, most of whom were refugees from oppression in their native lands or only a generation removed from same and struggling to survive. It was this friends-of-the-Jewish-State-ism that became the convenient replacement for the Judaism of the Torah for over half a century.

    Today’s Israel, with its $120 billion GDP and a national identity streak that draws stark contrast with the Jewish diaspora, no longer seems to need us. Accordingly, that emunah surrogate no longer carries the weight it once did.

  4. ak says:

    I agree with #2 Yehoshua Friedman. Another venue for kiruv is Partners in Torah. It works !!! Volunteer. They need mentors.

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