The story is familiar. The benefits of America’s open society have led to increasing intermarriage and declining religious observance, leading to a dilution of Jewish identity and a threat to Jewish continuity. Communal remedies in recent years, outside the Orthodox Jewish community, have focused on day schools, Jewish summer camps, extensive synagogue and JCC outreach programs and Birthright-type trips to Israel.
That’s fine as far as it goes, said Richard L. Rubin, a political professor, but he argues that there’s another way to look at the American Jewish experience.
While there’s much handwringing over temple membership drops and interfaith marriages, Rubin argues that this distinctive fusion of American and Jewish culture has created a different, but still very Jewish, identity that he says suggests a bright future for American Jewry.
Rubin will discuss this theory in his lecture “Are American Jews Losing Their Jewish Identity?” at the JCC of Mid-Westchester on Monday. The lecture, which delves into the distinctive ways that Jews vote, raise their children and support social causes, will be followed by a book signing of his new work, “Jewish In America: Living George Washington’s Promise” (Park International Publishing).
While it’s true that “half the Jewish people don’t belong to a temple,” said Rubin, a Purchase resident who, during his 27-year tenure at Swarthmore College, taught classes on American Jewish political culture. “With all the assimilation, Jewish people still have a distinctive voice and identity.”
That “distinctive voice and identity” goes beyond a strong commitment to progressive social issues, like views on abortion and homosexuality, to encompass more liberal child-rearing practices. Rubin also explores how American Jews are different from Jews elsewhere in the world, as well as the complicated relationship some American Jews have with Zionism and Israel.
As Rubin sees it, the distinctive secular Jewish voice derives from America’s founding by Protestants, and specifically Protestants who believed strongly in pluralism.
“The United States at its founding was the only country that did not treat Jews as a political class,” said Rubin. “They had all rights of citizenship.” While he doesn’t ignore the issues of quotas and anti-Semitism that have been part of American history, Rubin argues that America has given Jews more opportunities to attain professional achievement and personal freedom than anywhere else.
“Jews are more politically liberal and more tolerant of other groups,” said Rubin. “It’s clear in the last election that Jews are marching to a different drummer.”
So where does Jewish identity come from? For Rubin, who has five children and 10 grandchildren, the purpose of his book was to “give reasons and roots that people should remain Jewish.”
Richard Rubin will be speaking and signing books at the JCC of Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, Scarsdale, (914) 472-3300, jccmw.org, Monday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m., free.