"Vanishing American Jews
" retold the more or less familiar and unhappy story of the slowly vanishing American Jewish Diaspora
. Studies have shown that a large and increasing proportion of US Jews are not Jewish, not in the religious sense, they do not consider the Jews to be a nation and they don't belong to any synagogue or Jewish center. These are Jews who do identify as Jewish, but neither they nor the people who designed the studies can tell us what that might mean by "Jewish." We aren't going to save the Jewish Diaspora and recruit people for Judaism until we understand what it is that we are recruiting for.
Why be Jewish?
- Outside of a religious framework, it is very difficult to justify or explain the maintenance of a Jewish identity in the Gola
) or even to define what that identity might be. In the A large percentage of Jews in the AJIS
survey identified themselves as "secular" or "somewhat secular." Only about 44% of the respondents in the NJPS
study identified "Judaism" as a nationality. If it isn't a religion, and it isn't a nationality, what could Judaism be? Even if it is defined as a nationality or cultural framework, it is absurd to expect that non-religious Americans of the Jewish nationality or culture will be any different from Americans of the Greek or Irish or Italian hyphenated nationalities, will intermarry in lower proportions, and will perpetuate the culture of their ancestors. In the old country
- Jewish identification with roots is more problematic than that of other American immigrants. Irish, Italians, British, French, Germans, Poles, Hungarians Japanese and Chinese tried to bring their culture and their past with them. Jew
s tried very hard to leave the culture of their physical old countries, and their nightmarish histories in those countries, behind. The spiritual "old country" of the Jews as a nation and our "old country culture" were not actual parts of their family histories. After all, we are not interested in preserving, among Jews, the language and habits of Poland or the Ukraine or Persia, but those of ancient Israel as transmitted by the Jewish religion and as reconstructed by Zionism
. Orthodox Jews do not dress like ancient biblical heroes, but like Eastern Europeans of the 17th century. What would have been the point in preserving that? While Puritan British and Americans chose biblical Jewish names
like David, Isaac, Miriam, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and even Jerusha, Jedediah and Jehosaphat, Jews were naming their children Sheldon, Sean (or Shawn) and Erin. "Why would I want this?"
- For many Jews it is already too late. No amount of philanthropy or organization will make them part of the essential cultural revival that, as Achad Ha'am
understood over a century ago, is essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Those who are "actively apathetic" will probably not accept a trip to Israel or a Jewish education even if they are offered gratis.Community
- The answer to "why be Jewish?" lies in personal ties and a sense of community that is vanishing. Identity and belonging do not depend on abstract definitions. They depend on belonging to a community as well as pride in a common past. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries still functioned as communities and Jewish identity remained fairly strong. Despite the gaps and differences between atheist Jews, Communist Jews and Orthodox Jews, almost all could recognize themselves and acknowledge each other as Jews. Albert Einstein
and Rabbi Mohilever and the anti-Zionist of Agudath Yisrael
all shared a common Jewish identity and did not seek to deny it. The members of the Jewish Bund
declared that they are not religious, and they are not members of a Jewish nation, but they still insisted that they are Jews. The remarkable fact of Jewish cohesiveness despite vast differences in definitions of Judaism was celebrated by many, including Theodor Herzl
. Whatever "Jewish" might be, all those people gathered for the first Zionist congress understood that they are Jewish. The Jewish communities at the street level were cemented together by personal relationships, common institutions, language and culture and by the enmity of the outside world. In America and modern Western Europe, the real Jewish communities, at the personal level, are vanishing.Disorganized Religion
- By tradition, Judaism is a disorganized and decentralized religion and culture. Parts of Christianity have a tradition of organized and established religion in the literal sense. Judaism has not been a really "organized" religion with central institutions for nearly 2,000 years. Judaism in Europe was composed of organic physical communities, built from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, not on the basis of religion, but on the basis of family and community ties. There was no Jewish Pope. Jews were organized more like Quakers than Catholics. This has a profound effect both on the attitude of the individual to his or her religion and religious and community obligations, and on the practical ability of the community to deliver services and benefits to individuals. It is no wonder then, that there are so many "secular" and unaffiliated Jews. And it is no wonder that when the physical communities have been dispersed, the larger abstract community that they supported is endangered. Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft
- In the past, the larger Jewish organizational framework, which we now call the "community," was built of a network of small, face to face communities (gemeinschaft) that functioned as going concerns. At the street level, these groups no longer exist outside orthodox and ultraorthodox Judaism. Only the hierarchy that they once created and supported continues to exist. This process was aided by the disintegration of the extended family (and the nuclear family to some extent!). In many places in the US, there is no local Synagogue or Jewish center or even corner Jewish delicatessen. Jewish "belongingness" is now increasingly a relation only with an abstract set of corporate entities or bodies that provide services if people ask for them - a network of secondary impersonal relationships or a gesellschaft, that is represented and maintained by several different national boards. But the Jewish "community of the faithful" cannot exist indefinitely as a pyramid with no base. The present arrangement in America seems to be that the individual must come to the Jewish "establishment," or rather to one of several such establishments, and pay a small fortune to be included in an abstract community. For Jews who live in a small town, there may be no Jewish establishment or community services at all. Dispersion of the Diaspora
- Part of the problem is mundanely mechanical. The Jews of Eastern Europe existed in physical communities, where they lived in close proximity, even when they did not live in ghettos. This pattern was replicated in the early years of massive Jewish immigration to the United States. But studies show that increasingly Jews are moving away from the large cities of Northeastern United States, to places where there is no Jewish community. "Not bad enough I'm Jewish, you want me to pay for it too!"
- At one time, church membership was more or less compulsory in Western societies. Being a member of a Christian congregation in the United States still confers social benefits and is often perceived as a social obligation. Being a Jew confers negligible social benefits if any, especially if there is no actual Jewish community for hundreds of miles, and being a member of a synagogue and a practicing Jew can be a liability as well as an expense. Jews and Israel
- For Zionists, one of the most devastating findings of the AJIS
survey is that Jewish identification with Israel is directly related to religious affiliation. Only 14% of religious Jews described themselves as "not attached" to Israel, but this proportion climbed to 40% among those who were "somewhat secular" and 55% among those who said they are "secular." Zionism
was supposed to be the secular ideology that would unite the Jewish people, and cultural Zionism
, with Israel at the center, was supposed to be the instrument for maintaining and revitalizing Jewish cultural life abroad. This finding signals that the labor Zionist movement and Israel have failed in a major part of their mission.
Community and identification rather than abstract beliefs or religious rituals are the real meaning of Judaism. Until and unless these can be reestablished in the American Jewish community, the Jews will continue to vanish as a people. Ami Isseroff
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