A dozen years ago, a demographer concluded that by the middle of the next century, there would be only 10,000 Jews in America.
He based his conclusion on the sharply lowered birthrates, intermarriage and disaffection among young people so dominant among American Jews.
His prediction excited a flurry of attention. But this quickly subsided when sociologists found flaws in his arithmetic and possibly with his reasoning.
The issue he raised, however, has been revived with the publication last year of the National Jewish Population Survey commissioned by the Council of Jewish Federations. A front-page article on intermarriage in the New York Times on Oct. 18 highlighted the issues in this report further.
Together, they indicate that while many Jews have enriched their lives by turning to Judaism, erosion and assimilation has been marching forward with even deeper strides. The most disturbing finding was that the overwhelming majority of mixed-marrieds fail to raise their children in the Jewish faith.
So now the issue of Jewish continuity is once again the hot topic in the Jewish community. Various Jewish bodies are rushing to build programs around this theme and next week, the CJF General Assembly meeting in New York has scheduled an unprecedented number of panels dealing with it.
Will the concern now being demonstrated pass, as Jews, borne on a wave of material success and broader acceptance, quietly fade away, or are we prepared to take the necessary steps to meet what is perhaps the most serious crisis we have ever faced in our history in this country?
The fact is if we are to meet it we desperately need to reorder our priorities. While Jewish leadership has taken some measures, these have been halting and limited. It is not at all clear we have internalized the nature of the danger and risen to meet it.
What exactly does reordering priorities mean?
Firstly, it requires finding additional and creative ways to strengthen institutions like the synagogues and Jewish educational institutions that have always carried the major responsibility of Jewish continuity.
We have seen some moves here in recent years including an increase in communal funding for Jewish education and the establishment of chavuras and other alternative forms of education and prayer in and outside of synagogues. Clearly, these have not been enough.
We shall have to be far more daring in conducting the life of the Jewish community.
Is the mostly affluent leadership that directs the Jewish community sensitive enough to the needs and concerns of middle-income and poorer Jews?
Lester Levin, one of the authors of a 1985 report to the CJF on the cost of affiliation posed this question. He concluded that communal funds should be used to subsidize the involvement of such Jews but he doubted this would happen because communal professionals “are the gatekeepers and advocates for their lay leadership.”
Recognizing that young people just starting out find it more difficult to meet the expense of synagogue membership, Keneseth Israel, a suburban Philadelphia Reform congregation recently offered free memberships to those under 30. Some 123 units – singles and couples totaling this number – have taken advantage of the offer so far, according to Rabbi Simeon Maslin.
Secondly, we shall have to create a stronger climate in which Jews will take greater pride in their faith and history. The mushrooming of Jewish studies programs on campuses since the 1960s and experimental work by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee in creating a Jewish Free University, a Jewish Archive Center and Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, illustrate some of the work that has been done here.
We shall also have to study closely the efficacy of programs and have the courage to set aside those that do not work, even if they are favorites of some. Work and study programs of varying lengths of time in Israel appear to hold some promise. They will require, however, sharply increased communal funding.
A number of congregations, especially in the Reform movement, while reluctant to further the growth of intermarriage, are developing significant outreach programs to the unaffiliated and to mixed-marrieds.
Other ideas recently proposed are built around the fact that Jews have been increasingly moving away from the cities in which they were raised. Recognizing this, it has been suggested that synagogue memberships, including contributions to building funds, be made portable. In other words, synagogue, Jewish community center and other memberships would automatically be reinstated in the new community at least for a transition period, thereby facilitating the newcomers’ entry into the community.
Jewish organizations, including Jewish defense organizations, must begin to recast their priorities so that issues of identity and continuity are elevated to new and even primary levels of importance. Although for the American Jewish Committee, of which I am an official, was created 86 years ago to combat anti- Semitism, the organization has begun to focus on continuity as a top priority.
And why not? Having come into existence to meet external threats to Jews following a pogrom in Kishinev, are we not now faced by more benign, but no less serious threats to Jewish survival?
It can be argued that such measures may be nibbling around the edge of the problem. This only means we shall have to work harder as a community and make really tough decisions. Although funding for Jewish education has increased, communal funds still provide only a small percentage of that funding. Much of the support of Jewish day schools comes from parents who are often hard-pressed to meet these costs and undertake other efforts valuable in shaping Jewish identity.
Should we begin to consider making available Jewish education to all families who cannot afford yet seek it, much in the manner that public school education is open to all? As things stand now, Jewish education can only be afforded by the more affluent or those willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to obtain it.
Probably the toughest decision we need to face involves the amount of the communal dollar that goes to Israel and the portion that remains here at home. This may be a good time to bring this issue forward now that Arab countries have come to the peace table and are considering recognition of the Jewish state.
The interaction of the two main centers of world Jewry, of course, will continue to play a significant role in the strengthening each other and that’s all to the good. But have we reached a point when we must turn away from this reliance on Israel for our own sense of identity and give more thought and energy to building a viable and indigenous Jewish life in this country?
The generation of Jews that grew up worried about Hitler, nurtured by World War II and the Holocaust, as well as the miracle of the establishment of the Jewish state, has been succeeded by a new generation of young people shaped by entirely different forces. The destiny of the American Jewish community in the final analysis lies in what we do here in the United States.
I do not want to be glib in dealing with the question of reordering Jewish priorities. Many of the traditional issues we have faced such as threats to Israel’s safety and security and combating anti-Semitism continue to have powerful claims on us. Witness, for example, the task of bringing out the large number of Soviet Jews and resettling them as well as Ethiopian Jews in Israel and the recent tendency to be critical of Jews and Israel in the society. The choices before us are not between good and bad but among various forms of good.
Clearly, the decisions we face in the next 10 to 15 years are exquisitely painful. There is no way, however, of avoiding them if we are to be responsive to the challenge of shaping the kind of Jewish community that we and our children will live in during the coming years.