Friday, September 30, 2005

Should We Give Up On American Jewry?

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a terrific, must-read article for the latest issue of Commentary. "Jews and the Jewish Birthrate" is chock full of ideas and data that add up to a pessimistic view of the American Jewish prospect. While intermarriage inescapably contributes to this pessimism, Jack's primary focus is on fertility and related demographic factors. He notes that our median age is "seven years older than other Americans" and that "among Americans of all kinds ... Jews have the fewest number of siblings, the smallest household size, and the second lowest number of children under eighteen at home."

Furthermore, too many of us do not marry. Those who do, as often as not, marry non-Jews. We also marry later and have fewer children than other white Gentiles. In short, as Jews have become more appreciated by their fellow Americans and have made distinctive contributions, we also are moving in the direction of becoming extinct. Since we are certainly among the most avid readers of the New York Times and, I suspect, pay inordinate attention to obituary notices, we should have a good sense of what is happening at that end of the life-cycle. Many more of us are exiting than are entering and with the exception of the Orthodox, the new arrivals are far less likely to be Jewishly connected than those who have departed.

The "cumulative effect" of these developments, Jack writes, "is now being felt and will only become amplified as time goes by. In a community that has long since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young." He quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips that soon "there will be fewer practitioners of Judaism in the U.S.," a development that "will at some point become evident in the number and/or size of synagogues and other Jewish institutions."

The article explores the socio-psychological, behavioral and ideological factors that contribute to the disturbing fertility pattern which is in contrast to the high fertility of the Orthodox. Although separately Reform and Conservative affiliation outnumbers by huge margins the number of Orthodox Jews, "among synagogue-affiliated Jews, the Orthodox sector contains more children than either of the other two."

Apart from the Orthodox whose ranks will continue to grow, although aliyah and abandonment by some of a religious life will limit the gains, is it time to face reality and say that there is little to be done to avoid the inevitable loss of nearly all non-Orthodox Jews? Is it time to throw in the towel, perhaps by deciding that our resources should be directed toward helping Israel?

This isn't a new question. It was asked of me about a dozen years ago by Zalman Bernstein, the great philanthropist, after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey left many of us shaking our heads about the future of American Jewry. Subsequent bad news has resulted in the question being asked again and again. The answer a dozen years ago and now is that while our losses are severe, there are lots of Jews who can be reached and the effort must be made. They number in the high tens of thousands and it is possible to strengthen their Jewish commitment, provided that we make substantial and meaningful investments in Jewish education - something that we have not done sufficiently - and provided that we recognize that continuity is not a term but a way of life that accepts our past, our heritage and our traditions. What American Jewry has called continuity since NJPS 1990 is largely discontinuity.

In any case, organized American Jewry is not prepared to call it quits, no matter what the bad news, nor is the Israeli government. We have contrived a self-deluding and generally delusionary picture purporting to show that while we have changed radically, we are doing rather well. Working with statisticians aka demographers and others who have a stake in putting a stamp of Jewish approval on our losses, we have convinced ourselves that severely watered down Judaism is a legitimate product. Because we have invested so heavily in false versions of Jewish life, we are impelled to keep the shell game going.

We need to continue to promote the notion that the emperor is fully clothed. What would our federation and organization worlds be like if we acknowledged that 80% or more of what we refer to as American Jewry is under water?

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency know the score. The data they are looking at is based on research by Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University and it is bleaker than what Jack Wertheimer presents. Their strategy is not to indulge in self-delusion but to try to retard the frightening consequences of what we have wrought on these shores. They believe that Israel's welfare depends to an extent on a strong American Jewish community. They are scared out of their wits by what is transpiring.

Their plan is to build on Birthright Israel through a new program called MASA that will provide extended educational, work and other experiences in Israel for up to a year for Jews of college age. Israel and the Jewish Agency are committing huge sums for this purpose and they are also soliciting outside philanthropic support.

While Birthright has been oversold in some quarters, it has achieved promising results under difficult circumstances. Birthright remains a valuable approach to the predicament of American Jewry. It is a disappointment that the new initiative will be independent of Birthright, the reason perhaps being that we must never forego the opportunity to establish another Jewish organization. However MASA is constructed, we must pray for its success because we desperately need to reach out to Jews who are at the edge of being lost entirely.