A Hard Look at the State of American Jewry

As we observe Chanukah, celebrating (among other things) our survival while our persecutors disappeared, we recall the infamous Look Magazine cover story in 1964. “The Vanishing American Jew” predicted that American Jewry might soon go extinct.

It didn’t; Look did.

Yet the issues that it raised have refused to go away: an intermarriage rate over 70% by the non-Orthodox, and a birth-rate below sustainability by those who did not marry out.

A few things were different back then. First, the threatened disappearance of American Jewry seemed, back then, to be the equivalent of the disappearance of Jewry itself. The US was the largest and most dynamic center of Jewish life. Israel was a third-world backwater – an interesting experiment (to be put to its most serious test three years later in the Six Day War) which had not yet demonstrated its long-term effects.

Second, people did not take seriously the response that if all other Jews walked away from Judaism, the Orthodox would assure its continuity.

Here we are, 55 years (and several Pew reports) later. With the ascendancy of Israel, the possible shrinkage of the American Jewish community does not have the same shock value. The US is not longer the largest, nor the most important, Jewish community. Orthodoxy, meanwhile, has made good on its threat of demonstrating viability and continuity. The claim that intermarriage is not so terrible – that it represents a larger pool of people who can identify Jewishly – is still supported by otherwise reasonable people, even as they ignore the data on second- and third-generation progeny of intermarrieds, and their disappeared Judaism.

Jack Wertheimer offers a penetrating and objective view of what is happening inside and outside of the American Jewish denominations in his The New American Judaism. He is a Professor of American Jewish History at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and its former Provost. In the past, he has written critically of his own movement, and praised the accomplishments of Orthodoxy. His book attempts to convey to the reader the here-and-now of the Jewish experience in the US, in whatever shapes and flavors they occur.

I review the book in the current issue of the OU’s Jewish Action. I try generally to let the book speak for itself, by simply assembling a large number of quotes from the text. Is there bias in the review? I suppose there is, as in the work of anyone identified strongly with a particular ideology. I don’t believe that the bias in this case is different from what Orthodoxy has been saying for decades: If you discard normative, robust halachic observance, you will be left with nothing. We said this when Reform was the largest denomination, and seemingly unstoppable. We said this even as Orthodox shuls were ripping out their mechitzos and joining the Conservative movement in the ‘60’s and the decades before. We said this when it looked like we were hopelessly out of touch with reality, and breathing the last breaths of an Old World theology that modernism had passed by.

We said it when it seemed absurd to say so, but we said it anyway, through faith and conviction. Now, decades later, Prof. Wertheimer’s book offers compelling anecdotal and statistical evidence that we were correct.

The value in having this evidence is not, chas v’shalom, to engage in triumphalism. That can’t be the takeaway, given the magnitude of the tragedy of watching the rapid unraveling of the connection of most American Jews to any meaningful Judaism. The takeaways can only be to 1) redouble our efforts at finding the individuals here and there who can still be thrown a spiritual life preserver, and 2) to understand the folly of other groups today who think they will save Torah by watering it down or otherwise distorting its authenticity.

And we should daven that just as Look was wrong, so will we – and that somehow, not all whom we think are lost will be lost. There could be no greater joy than to learn that our predictions are unwarranted.

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47 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    If, as is often the case, we don’t live near them or have any social or workplace contact with them, what steps will let us possibly gain their confidence?

    • The hard answer to that Dennis Prager told me decades ago: “If you Orthodox Jews would just live entirely according to the letter and spirit of Shulchan Aruch, you wouldn’t need any outreach. People would be beating down your doors to get it.” Unfortunately, the image we project is not always of people of absolute integrity, whose sole delight and raison d’etre is their relationship with Elokus. We’re paying the price

      • tzippi says:

        Wow. Pity that Prager isn’t using his platform more effectively I guess. And I wonder if he would be beating down any doors himself.

        But let me not digress.

        About 15 years ago I heard Warren Kozak, author of The Rabbi of 84th Street, speak. After embedding himself in one circle of the frum community to write Rabbi Chazkel Besser’s memoirs, he said that in his experience, the frum community is doing big things with outreach: the onus was on the not observant community to be receptive.

        But 15 years is a few generations ago in the kiruv world. I support efforts to study what works to most effectively target formal kiruv efforts, and also support not giving up on catering to any demographic. Our local Partners offers many classes and programs to seniors. They are gaining incredible general knowledge, modeling prioritizing their time to their grandchildren, and hopefully being ambassadors so fewer of those grandchildren will intermarry.

        And we need to do our parts. 2 parts: Learning with those who are seeking and reaching out and…whaddaya know, I actually agree with Prager…being our best selves. And lovingly keeping all our siblings, however estranged, upmost in our thoughts and prayers.

      • Shaya Karlinsky says:

        While written 7 years ago, it is probably worth revisiting R. Ilan Feldman’s analysis in Klal Perspectives of why kiruv circa 2012 (and probably still true today) was so much more difficult than 30 years earlier.

      • lacosta says:

        while mr prager is a great advocate for ethical monotheism and anti-antizionism , he is not a tinok shenishba , he probably fits better in the Saducee column, since he admits he is not bound by rabbinic judaism, so to speak .

        but bob miller [ and rabbi karlinsky ] below are probably the most relevant comments–you can’t sell a product to someone not looking to buy anything. and at this point , it’s hard to do kiruv when you first have to eliminate a large proportion of non-jewish Jews from the mix [ it’s assur to teach torah to a goy, no? ]

      • Mark says:

        With apologies to Dennis Prager, malfeasance on the part of anyone who identifies as Orthodox has nothing to do with his decision to marry a non-Jewish woman or to violate Shabbos in public.
        We certainly have much to improve and obviously our imperfections when made public are no help to the kiruv cause, but it is naive to believe that were we to be perfect, there’d be no need for kiruv rechokim any longer.
        As someone who worked in kiruv for many years, the problems are far greater than most on the outside can believe. Sadly, many Jews are not even aware of what they have discarded or how to get it back. Orthodox Jews are not even on their radar in many cases. The results of decades of assimilation are near total devastation and it’ll take nothing less than Moshiach to bring them back – and even he will not be able to salvage all of them. According to numerous opinions, many have been lost forever.

      • DF says:

        Prager is 100% wrong. 100% integrity is one thing, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as either the letter or even the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch. Religion is complicated, and Prager should know better than to equate Torah Judaism with nothing more than ethics and honesty. One might keep all of Shulchan Aruch to a T, and still suffer from anti-Semitism. And in fact there are plenty who will tell you to the direct contrary, that religious observance actually causes it. They’re wrong too, but not any more so than Prager.

        The reality is, we don’t know what life without the Reform will look like. They’ve done plenty to hinder orthodoxy, in ways that needs no detailing here. But in many other ways they’ve also been a blessing – not financially, but in fighting for liberal causes (I’m talking before it went off the rails) which have helped orthodox Jews in many ways, not least of all in Sabbath observance and acceptance of yarmulkes. Also the Reform were usually happy to be the Jewish representative at events, even decent ones, that orthodox Jews wouldn’t participate in. I’m not convinced our excuse of not attending out of principle would always be accepted graciously.

        As competition is good for business, its also healthy for religion. Only someone with a vested establishment interest would say otherwise, and only a fool would believe it. Whether its called Reform or Conservative or whatever other name such ideals have been called throughout history, they are useful towards keeping us honest and forcing us to reexamine and reinterpret (even if we wont admit or don’t even realize that we’re doing that.) That’s just the truth.

      • Avraham Yosef Follick says:

        Sukkah 45b
        You might say ‘Their hope is lost, there expectations are nullified’ therefore the Torah teaches us ‘Atzei Shittim Omdim’ They will stand for ever and ever

        If our only hope of helping our fellow Jews was our own actions then certainly there would be no hope for many, but it’s not our only hope.

      • dr. bill says:

        la costa, heresy takes many forms. The Sadducees, whose power emanated from the Second Temple, did not survive its destruction. What is known as Rabbinic Judaism was an extension of the Perushim who lived in the Second Temple period. Prager is a more modern creation. the differentiated positions are more important than attempts to conflate different generations of non-rabbinic jews.

      • rkz says:

        You wrote “As competition is good for business, its also healthy for religion. Only someone with a vested establishment interest would say otherwise, and only a fool would believe it. Whether its called Reform or Conservative or whatever other name such ideals have been called throughout history, they are useful towards keeping us honest and forcing us to reexamine and reinterpret (even if we wont admit or don’t even realize that we’re doing that.) That’s just the truth.”
        However, we must remember that so-called RJ and CJ are not part of Yahadut, but foreign religions, no different in this respect than Xianity and Islam.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    I bought the book when it was first published and fully share R Adlerstein’s excellent review. Anyone who thinks is that R J and CJ view themselves other than as social justice vehicles should read this book which tours all of American Jewry from Lakewood to San Francisco as well as the roles of Chabad Community Kollelim and NCSY as outreach and kiruv remain the only means of reaching the vast numbers of uneducated and illiterate Jews who have never seen Shabbos candles Kol Nidre or a Pesach Seder

    • mycroft says:

      Thanks for the link to Rabbi Ilan Feldman’s analysis. IMO it reflects reality. It is a worth a separate post and analysis. He raises many crucial issues

      • Steve Brizel says:

        R Feldman’s article does raise many issues but first snd foremost it challenges all of us to be better emulate and live better role models of Torah Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim than we are doing individually and communally

    • Mycroft says:

      I wasn’t even aware that Dennis Prager married a non Jew. Why is it that I would guess the vast majority of people reading this blog are aware that Noah Feldman was married to a non Jew, but I doubt most know about Pragers marriages?

      • The reason why they would not know is that it is simply not true! Two of his wives converted. I know that at least in the case of one of them, it was through an Orthodox beis din

      • Upsiditus says:

        It’s not clear to me that Mark was referring to Dennis Prager there, however it is true that is current wife is not [halachically] Jewish (words in brackets are superfluous). Also, a few months back, Prager appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher on Shabbat, which was disgraceful. His musings about being a “religious Jew” are largely nonsense.

    • Mycroft says:

      It is ludicrous to call RJ and CJ foreign religion similar to the two other Abrahamic religions. RJ and CJ may not follow Brit Sinai but they are still part of Brit Avot.

      • rkz says:

        Any religion which abandoned halakha is not Yahadut.
        Brit Avot is relevant to Am Yisrael, and therefore they are Jewish, those of them that are Jewish. However, their religion is a foreign religion, no different in this regard than Xianity

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Yes but as R Chaim Voloziner points out the means and definitions of anything performed as a Mitzvah before HarSinai changed radically . Both RYBS and voice the view that the Jewish philosophical view on any issue is and must be rooted in Halacha

  3. Mycroft says:

    See bottom of page 221 from The New American Judaism, as recently as 1990s estimates that double the amount were brought to Orthodoxy every year compared to today. Page 223 pressures from donors to show results of kiruv has resulted in creative bookkeeping or bottom page 223 ” kiruv has become a powerful vehicle for reengaging Jews with the non-Orthodox sectors of the community. Leading members of Conservative and Reform synagogues attend Chabad educational programs or community kollel study sessions and then return to their home congregations, probably as better informed Jews. Individuals who have had little contact with organized Jewish life are turned on to Judaism by kiruv workers and in many cases find their way Ito non-Orthodox synagogues or secular organizations.”

  4. Gary S Poretsky says:

    As a wise rov observed, Chanukah does not celebrate victory over a foreign military. It would be long after the events we commemorate that we were able to get rid of the Greeks, and that was only to have them replaced by the Romans. Chanukah celebrates a bittersweet victory over our fellow Jews who sought to eliminate traditional Judaism. Since then, whether it be the Hellenists, the Saducces, the early Christians, the Karaites, or today’s movements, we are able to prevent them from eliminating us, but not to conquer them. They have dissapeared or transmogrified into something other than Judaism. Perhaps our job is not to defeat them but to grab every straggling Jew possible and protect ourselves. This is not a conclusion but a postulate. Hopefully we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

  5. We are at a point in history where what we do now will determine the future of a great many of our people.

    If we don’t do something to bring more unaffiliated Jews back to Judaism, we on course to potentially losing many Jewish families and millions of people.

    We need to start putting more resources into outreach and Jewish education. We can turn the tide, however it will take a tremendous effort. An effort that is fully worth it .

    • Bob Miller says:

      Do you have the sense that many unaffiliated Jews sense a need for religious self-improvement? What might be the profile of such a person these days? Advertisers realize that precise targeting gives them the biggest bang for their buck.

      • These are all very good questions. To get a deeper understanding one would have to perform data analytics. There is data out there that can be mined and it’s possible that more studies should be done. Perhaps that would be the first step in the process.

        From what I have seen I think that we are dealing with a very diverse group.

        I think that there are some people who have had some Jewish education and/or are interested in religion, however are not inspired by the Judaism they have seen. There may even be those who have tried other religions, in a quest to find the spiritual meaning they don’t believe they can find in their own religion. For people within this category I think that they need to be exposed to a Judaism with more spiritual meaning. For instance Kabbalah, meditation, prophecy, more deeper meanings of Judaism etc.

        There are also those that have minimal or nonexistent exposure to Judaism. There was a recent study done by Brandeis University entitled “Beyond Welcoming”:


        This report dealt with how to engage intermarried couples. Which is very important if we are going to turn the tide. We need to engage the Jewish children of intermarried couples and get them more involved in Judaism. The hope being that at least some of them will not intermarry and continue the cycle. In order to do this we need to first engage the intermarried couples .

        The study found that due to the fact that many Jewish people in these relationships had minimal exposure to Judaism, the first step was to engage them with events that had more to do with identity than Judaism. One of the people that worked on the study was of the opinion that we must follow through with some religious content after the initial engagement, I fully agree it has been religion that has kept Jews in the fold for thousands of years.

      • Reb Yid says:

        The recent Pew studies of American Jews and of Americans in general point to the same basic trend. People are not as attracted to formal denominations or formal religious structures as much anymore.

        This should not be conflated, however, with lack of interest in spirituality or religion, or of self-improvement in these areas.

        There is no “one size fits all” formula. There will always be a somewhat narrow segment of the US Jewish population that will be receptive to “kiruv”, but don’t kid yourselves in thinking that this will directly affect most US Jews (especially not with the attitude that you are trying to “save” them).

        The other big change is that intermarried couples at an increasing rate are raising their children as Jews. Being Jewish is no longer seen as something to run away from (well, other than for segments of former Hasidim who have distanced themselves from their erstwhile communities).

      • Regretably, all this is wishful thinking.

        When Pew first was released, many speculated that perhaps millennials were just as spiritual as their elders, but fed up with brick and mortar institutions. Or that they were experimenting with their own hybrid forms of spirituality, rather than traditional ones. So Pew did the follow up studies of the “Nones” – the fastest growing religious affiliational category in the US. The results showed that, yes, there were some who fit those descriptions. But they were a minority. The larger number simply had no more use for the idea of G-d. Science explained things adequately.

        As far as intermarrieds “raising their children as Jews,” I’ll believe it when I see the evidence. We have decades worth of data to show that by two generations away from an intermarriage, there is very little, if anything, left of the original Jewishness. If it is true that things are changing, it won’t make any difference. If raising them Jewish means the same G-dless, vacuous set of non-binding expectations to be performed when it suits people – i.e., the general tenor of what Prof. Wertheimer describes outside of the Orthodox community – then it won’t keep people Jewish in any manner of form for very long.

    • Mycroft says:

      Rabbi Adlerstein
      If my perception was that the Daf Yomi has just added to preexisting learning I would have no problem with it, even if not the most efficient use of time, but sadly my impression is that many who do the daf don’t learn the weekly Parsha. Note the Sedra was the means throughout history to use as a link to learn ther things. See eg Chok Leisrael.Follows Parsha and one following it would certainly learn a lot of varied Halachik and Torah information

      • Your concerns are well-taken. The Daf does not get all the blame, however, for turning Tanach into an orphan. It was part of the pushback against the haskala. If (some of) the (early) maskilim celebrated and specialized in Mikra, we were going to give it a wide berth. We still have not recovered

      • Steve Brizel says:

        I know many who maximize their time and manage to learn Parsha with Rashi and Ramban as well as additional Mefarshim and also learn the Daf as well . If you prioritize your time you would be amazed and surprised at how much you can learn in the course of an average day and week

  6. emet le'amito says:

    Linear projections are unconvincing. Events, even relatively minor ones, can greatly alter future history. Numerically, both the growth of rarely acknowledged irrationality on the right and decreasing levels of meaningful connection and halakhic observance on the left, have dire consequences. Both trends can produce stark reactions whose consequences are not easily predicted. In the short term, the combined consequences do little to promote Kevod Shamayim.

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Take a look at West Rogers Park where shuls built by alumni of the local Kollelim and Chasidishe influenced shuls are attracting nit just the FFB but potential BTs to their shuls which offer individual and communal growth in both Torah Avodah and Gmilus as evidenced by Shabbos meals chavrusas and Oneg Shabbos evidenced by people in all shades of attire on Shabbos in a neighbors house . Such a community may offer a guide on how kiruv works

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Saw a beautiful article about s R Clergyman who was Msayem Shas and who was profoundly moved by it at Tablet . That IMO is a wonderful accomplishment which should be applauded here

    • tzippi says:

      Thanks for mentioning the article. It is indeed beautiful and itself moving. As I wouldn’t be surprised if the author is reading this, let me say, I hope your recovery is complete and lasting and that you get to do it again, and again, and beyond. As Rav Shmuel Kamentsky, shlita, said today, a siyum marks the new beginning. “The Torah expects us to come back and come back and come back.”

      And now I have a question, and I’ll address this to anyone reading this. It’s heartening to read about discussion the author of that article has had with his colleagues on how to share Talmud with the congregation. But if the congregation doesn’t have anywhere near the background and general knowledge the clergy have, will they be as enamored? What kind of Biblical textual classes, written and oral (i.e. Talmud), are available to the congregants, and will they come?

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Mitoch Shleo Lishma Bo Lishma May the author have a Refuah Shelemah and progress from Hirhurei Teshuvah to a Teshuvah Shelemah via Limud HaTorah

      • mycroft says:

        The spirit of chanoch leaner al pi darcho should apply to all shiurim. Issue is not only will congregation be enamored but what is the most efficient use of time for a layman in talmud torah.
        An unfortunate side affect of the daf yogi revolution is the reduction of non Daf shiurim which certainly for many are crucial. How many Halacha lemaaseh shiurim are there? How many Chumash shiurim. Remember the only learning specifically mandated in shnyim mikra veechad Targum. It was always assumed that Jews are studying the same thing and thus have background for shiurim-on the weekly parsha. Sadly, my impression is that there are people who treat doing the daf as more important than going over the sedra. Obviously, for the proper person daf yomi can be a very important learning vehicle but others it would not be appropriate for. It is an issue tzippi that you raise that should not be ignored. Proper learning for bale batim.

      • Already extant are a plethora of deeper learning opportunities that are keyed to the Daf. There are many iyun shiurim each day that focus on one particular point in the Daf. There are chavrusos which spend hours a day dealing with the Daf in depth. There are Daf enrichment materials and websites. The OU just entered the competition as a major provider with a host of different Daf tools to suit different backgrounds and needs. I do the Daf without a shiur, but always try to have a copy of Mesivta on hand; its availability has turned the Daf into a different experience for me.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Tzippi, your point is recognized by shul rabbis. Rabbi Wender at Young Israel of Houston emailed this to his mailing list:

        Celebrating the worldwide siyum is an important time and there is no doubt, that many people who have started the Daf over the years were originally inspired by watching the siyum. Nevertheless, the possibility of most of our kehilla starting to learn Daf Yomi is not realistic. Accordingly. we are offering an alternative for all those who will not be doing Daf Yomi.

        We are calling the entire program ‘Daf by Daf’, “page by page” and our goal is to get as many people as possible to tap into the power of daily learning. Here is a list of some of the possibilities, that you may find interesting.

        OU Daf Yomi https://alldaf.org/ and many other sources
        Mishna Yomi http://www.mishnaportal.co.za/ and many other sources
        Halacha yomi https://outorah.org/p/5591 and many other sources
        Halacha Yomit for sefardim http://halachayomit.co.il/en/default.aspx

        This website has multiple daily learning programs

        Whatever you choose, start today!

      • Shades of Gray says:

        In his speech at the Met Life Stadium Siyum Hashas, which one can listen to online, Rabbi Frand quoted a Midrash which distinguishes between the foolish person and the פִּקֵּחַ , smart person, the latter who takes one aspect of Torah at a time(“whereas the smart one, what does he do? – he studies one chapter each day, until he concludes the entire Torah”). R. Reuvein Feinstein read a letter from R. Chaim Kanivesky which concluded with a similar chazal in Shir Hashirm Rabbah 5:11(I found an article quoting various similar midrashim: Devarim Rabbah 8:4, Vayikra Rabbah 19:2, Tanchuma Pinchas 11).

        R. Frand continued that the reason why Chazal refer to the above person as being smart is because he knows the “old expression” that just as “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, so too, “finishing Shas begins with one blatt”(the “old expression” is a Chinese proverb ascribed to Lao Tzu).

        R. Frand exclaimed powerfully, ”don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! “, that the פִּקֵּחַ in the Midrash also knows the wisdom of the “perfect is the enemy of the good”, which is one of the “great truths of life” and applies in “all areas of life”(this saying is attributed to Voltaire, who himself quoted it from an Italian proverb).

      • Steve Brizel says:

        RHS frequently comments based on the SA HaRav that every male Jew is obligated to learn Kol HaTorsh Kyla’s which RHS says is one bookshelf consisting of Shas Bavli Tanach but not every Sefer in the world ArtScroll has made this goal a realistic possibility because it has opened up this possibility to beginners and those who haven’t looked at a sefer since their last exposure to serious Jewish learning Knowing what to do or Halacha LMaaseh is very important and there is no shortage of excellent sefarim books and shiurim but Shas is the sources of the covenant between HaShem and Klal Yisrael since the revelation of the Luchos Shniyos

  9. lacosta says:

    >I think that there are some people who have had some Jewish education and/or are interested in religion, however are not inspired by the Judaism they have seen

    —- isn’t a great difficulty the fact that most jews have 1] grown up in an egalitarian congregation and 2] believe in the merciful PC positions ? the first makes it difficult to convince women to surrender their position as rabbis,cantors, part of minyan etc the second makes issues like mishkav zachar unbroachable

    >rarely acknowledged irrationality on the right ….decreasing levels of meaningful connection and halakhic observance on the left
    —– while the latter can quickly end up like the non-orthodox tragedy , what imminent problem can the former generate?

    • lacosta says:

      i see a topic on twitter this morning are the various DL siyumim in the next few days , wherein either women are going to be speakers , or are the mesayemim . this goes to the egalitarian point— that there are communities where to the left of the aguda tent , where torah is important , and so is a women’s role that can’t align with a heimishe mehalech…..

      and in regards communities that are not in the aguda tent and relation to the daf , see e g this commentary from the wonderful rabbi paltiel https://collive.com/lubavitchers-daf-yomi/ trying to convince lubavitchers that there is more to torah than just sichos harebbe, and a chosid learning daf shouldn’t be scolded….

      • Steve Brizel says:

        The upper deck at Metlife was reserved for women who attended to express support and solidarity for their sons sons in law husbands and other men who learn the Daf no matter what and clearly have no interest or desire in imitating a mans responsibility to learn in the same manner as men.

    • emet le'amito says:

      la costa, you missed both my points: 1) the left refers to the Jewish (not just the traditional) population. 2) I never said imminent. The plea for irrationality improperly justified by an appeal to emunah peshutah, drives some insignificant number away today; what it might result in longer-term in unknowable although frightening. As a thoroughgoing rationalist, I value emunah peshutah, properly embraced

      • Steve Brizel says:

        You may be a thoroughgoing rationalist but there is far more Emunah pshutah among core elements of Jewish belief such as Matan Torah and many
        Minhagim that reflect the influence of the Ari and his disciples that one should not despair about or dismiss so easily

  10. 2) to understand the folly of other groups today who think they will save Torah by watering it down or otherwise distorting its authenticity.

    Unfortunately, some of these “other groups” trying to same Torah this way are Orthodox.
    Talk about not believing in your own product.

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