American Jewry’s Future as Seen Fifty Years Ago and Now

, October 15, 2009

No. 49

  • The twenty-first century has challenged if not shattered much of the prevailing optimism about the American Jewish future.
  • Nevertheless, the United States continues to be the Diaspora society most welcoming of Jews and receptive to Jewish participation.
  • Jewish renewal coexists alongside a larger narrative of Jewish assimilation.
  • Jewish political influence may well have peaked, and its continuation should not be taken for granted.

American Jewry, like the America of which it is a component, in the years following World War II perceived itself as poised to assume global responsibilities. By far the largest community in world Jewry, untouched by the horrors of the Holocaust, and closely identified with the world’s leading superpower, American Jewry prepared itself to undertake relief and reconstruction work, to bury longstanding divisiveness over Zionism, and to tend to its own internal needs of preserving Jewish security and enhancing Jewish vitality.

Seven major assumptions dominated American Jewish self-understanding in the immediate postwar period:

  1. News of the Holocaust had made anti-Semitism disreputable within American society. Where the wartime years had witnessed increased anti-Semitism, the postwar years saw its rapid decline.
  2. American Jewry attained its newfound predominance almost precisely at the moment of the birth of Israel and the return of the Jews to sovereignty and statehood for the first time in two thousand years.
  3. As the seminal and dominant events of contemporary Jewish history, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel became the symbols of postwar American Jewish life. Especially after 1967 they in effect became the civil religion of American Jews.
  4. In terms of expectations of Jewish continuity, American Jews assumed that Jews would continue to marry other Jews. Endogamy remained normative, and the few studies of intermarriage that existed suggested that intermarriage rates remained at historic lows.
  5. American Jews assumed that Jewish education formed the key to the collective Jewish future. Whereas in the prewar years probably only half of American Jews received any form of Jewish education, by the postwar years Jewish education in some form-usually in the pre-bar or bat mitzvah years-had become normative.
  6. Jews defined their identity through affiliation with their synagogue. Close to two-thirds of American Jews paid synagogue dues, primarily to Conservative and Reform temples. Orthodoxy was regarded as primarily a matter of nostalgia and slated for disappearance.
  7. Jews were proud of their position within American society, particularly their intellectual influence.

These assumptions need to be traced historically. Initially formulated in the 1950s, they evolved in the 1960s and 1970s into a crescendo of optimism about the Jewish future by the 1980s. In the 1990s these assumptions were sorely tested, and in the first decade of the twenty-first century in some cases have been shattered. The paradigms by which American Jews perceive themselves therefore require revisiting and in some cases revision to understand American Jewry’s self-perception as it confronted the challenges of the twenty-first century.

It is thus now apt to revisit the original operating assumptions and test their relevance in contemporary America.

1. The Decline of Anti-Semitism

Jewish security in America largely remains unthreatened. The long-term patterns of the gradual receding of anti-Semitism to the margins of American society continue into the twenty-first century. To be sure, anti-Semitism does exist and pockets of concern do need to be addressed, particularly the delegitimization of Israel on American campuses, the intellectual assault on pro-Israel activism, and interethnic and interreligious tensions. Nevertheless, the broad consensus remains intact. No society in Diaspora Jewish history has been as receptive to Jewish participation as has the United States. Every door remains open to Jews regardless of which party is in power.

Some danger signs do exist. Black-Jewish tensions erupted in the 1991 Crown Heights riots.[1] Yet correctives for the mistakes of Crown Heights, such as lack of communication between Jewish and black leaders, have since been installed, and tensions between the two communities have subsided considerably both nationally and locally. That nearly 80 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama as president of the United States testifies to positive relations between Jews and African Americans.

In recent years the university campus has aroused great concern. A number of high-profile incidents of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have occurred, including at elite universities. Particularly frightening were pressures on Jewish students demonstrating on behalf of Israel, including potential threats of violence. Jews traditionally have assumed, in many cases wrongly, that higher education acts as an antidote to anti-Semitism. To encounter anti-Semitism within some of the most highly educated sectors of American society therefore is especially disturbing.

Yet it remains important to understand the overall context of Jews in American universities. Most universities have no problem with either Jews or Israel. Less than 2 percent of the population generally, Jews constitute 5 percent of the student population, 10 percent of university faculties, and 20 percent of the faculties on elite campuses. Today, Ivy League universities routinely report over 25 percent Jewish enrollments and have been led on occasion by Jewish presidents.

2. Intensification of Israeli-American Ties

The longstanding closeness between American Jews and Israel-greatly intensified since 1967-now requires reexamination. Many have feared that for younger Jews, who have no memory of May and June 1967, the attachment to Israel has become tenuous. One 2008 study reported that only 49 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under thirty-five regarded the potential destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy-in pronounced contrast to the overwhelmingly high percentage of Jewish communal leaders who would feel such a loss in highly personal terms.[2]

Two primary issues were of dominant concern to American Jews when they considered Israel: the future of the peace process and Israel’s future as a democracy. With respect to the former, a profound shift of thinking has taken place since the collapse of the Oslo process. American Jews have become more skeptical of Palestinian desires for genuine peace with Israel.

However, the discussion has evolved from concerns of history/theology to concerns with Israeli security. Even among the Orthodox one detects a shift away from religious conviction and “Holy Land” to concerns as to whether a peace will be secure and lasting.

More important, American Jews clearly divide over Israeli settlement policy. This issue will likely divide American Jewry much as it divides Israeli society and augurs a possible widening of differences between American and Israeli governmental policies.[3]

Yet perhaps even more important to Israeli-American Jewish relations than the role of the peace process is the perception of Israel’s future as a democracy. Great resentment exists over the Orthodox monopoly within Israel over laws of personal status. The issues of religious pluralism and their place within Israeli society may well constitute flashpoints of concern between the two communities likely to weaken American Jewish attachments to Israel.

These legitimate concerns, however, need to be placed against the backdrop of both Jewish assimilation and renewal in American society. Frequently, those who are most outspokenly critical of one or another aspect of Israeli policy are those most committed and attached to Israel as a Jewish state.

3. The Continuing Salience of Holocaust Memory

After 1967 in particular, as noted, the Holocaust, together with the state of Israel, entered the civil religion of American Jews. For some Jewish activists, the Holocaust became a banner for political activity, particularly for the Soviet Jewry movement. Courses on the Holocaust on university campuses multiplied exponentially.

The opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in 1993 signaled a major breakthrough. The museum attracts just under two million visitors per year, 84 percent of them non-Jews. Among visitation sites in the DC area, the museum attracts more visits per year than any other site after the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History.

Within Jewish education, programs such as the March of the Living enable Jewish teenagers to visit Auschwitz and bring back the message that the Jewish condition is very different today. The visit culminates in a trip from Poland to Israel suggesting that Israel as a Jewish state provides every Jew with a potential refuge, and therefore “never again” should Jews be so defenseless.

Perhaps the most problematic area of Holocaust education, however, is its message for Jews and Jewish identity. For one thing, it distorts Jewish historical memory. The twelve years of the Holocaust provide a very narrow lens by which to view the Jewish historical narrative. Moreover, the emphasis on the Holocaust distorts the meaning of contemporary Jewish identity as it seems to indicate that the choice by individuals to lead a Jewish life is far less significant for the Jewish future than a gentile society that will not permit the Jew to forget who he is.

Not only is this a distorted reading of the Jewish experience, it fails to address the reality of American Jewry today. American Jews feel welcome in all sectors of American society. The problem of Jewish identity for them is why to be Jewish in a society that gives Jews every possible choice. A less myopic view of Jewish history would underscore that it concerns far more than Jewish suffering. It contains a story of Jewish creativity, community, peoplehood, and positive relations between Jews and others.

Yet important reasons remain for the focus on Holocaust education. In itself it represents the most horrendous chapter of Jewish history if not of all human history. Moreover, there remain those who deny the facts of the Holocaust. A larger number, particularly among historians, attempt to relativize the proportions of the Holocaust in effect reducing it to one tragedy among others in twentieth-century history. For these reasons Holocaust history is significant. But it needs to be contained within a larger narrative of the modern Jewish experience. Building a strong Jewish identity requires surefootedness in the riches of the Jewish experience. Similarly, the message of what it means to be a Jew should never be equated with the image of perpetual suffering.

4. The Values of Endogamy and Conversion

Perhaps no issue has been as divisive among Jews as the contrasting communal perceptions on mixed marriage. Some perceive mixed marriage as representing a collapse of communal values of family and endogamy and define it as the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity. Ideally, for them, intermarriage should be prevented. When it does occur the best outcome is the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

Others take a more benign view of mixed marriage, which, in any case, will doubtless remain a fact of American Jewish life. For this group, all efforts should be geared toward outreach to mixed-married couples, encouraging their involvement in Jewish communal life and increasing the percentage of mixed marrieds willing to raise their children as Jews.[4] This latter group regards the rhetoric of endogamy and conversion as potentially offensive to mixed marrieds and their families.

Several qualifications, however, are in order. First, the Jewish community can indeed operate on a principle of inclusivity in which it is open to all interested in joining and partaking of its services. No specific need exists to apply the “who is a Jew” test for communal services and programs that are not religiously based, for example, political activism, adult Jewish learning, childcare, and so on.

The second set of questions relates to the goals of outreach. Many outreach advocates fail to articulate the goal of conversion to Judaism. Still others fail to proclaim the virtues of an exclusively Jewish home. Last, outreach advocates frequently request communal neutrality on intermarriage so as to be effective in their approach to mixed married couple. However, such neutrality connotes surrender to mixed marriage as normative.

Jewish leadership, thus far, has failed to see mixed marriage as a challenge of balancing conflicting imperatives of welcome, inclusivity, and enlarging the Jewish demographic base coupled with preserving a distinctive Judaic ethos that underscores the importance of endogamy and conversion to Judaism.

5.  Jewish Education as Key to the Jewish Future

Perhaps the most pressing long-term concern is the future of Jewish education. Research studies have established its power on the high school level. Day schools currently attract over two hundred thousand students across the country. Yet, as early as the 1980s, the primary complaint about day schools related less to the quality of education and more to the capacity of middle-class parents to afford it.

For the Orthodox, twelve years of day school education have clearly become normative. Among the non-Orthodox, by contrast, the dropout rate after bar or bat mitzvah suggests that children are lost precisely at the moment when day school education is likely to exert the most profound influence in forming their Jewish lives.

Sadly, most American Jews remain unconvinced of the potential of Jewish high schools. Notwithstanding growth in the Reform and Conservative day school movements, few of these have been high schools. Collectively, non-Orthodox high schools report barely four thousand students nationally.[5] Policy implications, therefore, are clear but warrant redefining priorities and norms within the Jewish community.

Most important, the Jewish community needs to undergo a profound cultural change in how it perceives day schools. Adolescence remains a critical age for formation of Jewish identity and warrants communal intervention to secure it. The Jewish community’s embrace of day schools, albeit significant, to date simply has not extended to the high school levels with the critical exception of American Orthodoxy.

6. The Ongoing Salience of Religious Denominations

American Jewish religious life over the past two centuries has been denomination-centered. Yet the critical question by the twenty-first century was whether denominations still mattered at all. A post-denomination ethos had been current since at least the 1970s with the publication of the Jewish Catalogseries. These volumes formed a do-it-yourself guide to Jewish living as practiced and expressed by the 1970s Jewish counterculture and Havurah movements. For the editors of the Jewish Catalog, the religious movements had ceased being relevant to the needs of their generation. Denominational differences in their view were, at best, quite trivial.[6]

By the twenty-first century this view had evolved into an exhortation to the community to “do Jewish,” that is, advance the programs to secure the Jewish-continuity agenda but avoid getting bogged down in what were perceived as irrelevant denominational disputes. Nevertheless, the denominations themselves continue to possess considerable salience for the Jewish body politic. Seventy-three percent of American Jews continue to self-identify as either Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist.

The disputes between the denominations are by no means trivial. Questions of personal status, definitions of who is a Jew, approaches to intermarriage and conversion, and, last but hardly least, how to read Scripture and its record of revelation remain powerful ideological issues that the Jewish community needs to debate and confront.[7]  Similarly, the denominations provide much of the institutional structure-schools, camps, youth movements-essential to transmittal of Jewish identity.[8]

Most important, however, is the power of ideology and commitment. The more Jews battle over what it means to be Jewish, the greater the communal discord but also the greater the passion over the meaning and conviction of what it means to be a Jew. The critical role denominations play in encouraging Jewish passion and ideological commitment is often overlooked.

By contrast, homogenization of the non-Orthodox movements will not create more committed Jews. On the contrary, given such homogenization the most committed elements are likely to find non-Orthodox Jewish life too bland to be sustaining.

Orthodoxy again may be the exception. Demographically an Orthodox ascendancy appears to be occurring, certainly among the active and engaged community. Given the convergence between high Orthodox birthrates and the disparity in degree of Jewish activism between in-married and out-married Jews, sociologist Steven M. Cohen goes so far as to predict that “if Orthodox Jews continue their demographic growth, perhaps approaching a quarter of the US Jewish population in some 40 years, and if they continue to exhibit relative Jewish ‘hyper-activity,’ it’s certainly possible that they’ll make up as much as half of the Jewish communal activists in another generation or two.”[9]

The communal implications in terms of intra-Jewish relations remain to be considered. The rest of the Jewish community, increasingly agonizing over whether it will in fact enjoy Jewish grandchildren, will do well to emulate the dedication of the Orthodox to ensuring Jewish continuity by insisting on the primacy of Jewish education, and strengthening ties to Israel as central to the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and identity. Conversely, a resurgent Orthodoxy, frequently accompanied by a rightward political and ideological trend, often suggests the triumph of extreme rather than moderate positions as religious norms. The current effort to restrict even further conversion to Judaism is a case in point.

Moreover, a resurgent Orthodoxy differs with the larger Jewish community on a range of American domestic policy and church-state questions. Tuition tax credits for Jewish children attending Jewish day schools are one example. Finally, the Orthodox resurgence risks widening the divide between Israel and American Jewry. The longstanding monopoly of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate over questions of personal status portends continued friction between Israel and the Diaspora over the definition of who is a Jew, who is a convert to Judaism, and the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at life cycle events. The critical mass of American Jewry remains non-Orthodox and is dismayed by efforts that appear to disenfranchise the liberal movements. All too often Israeli voices delegitimating the non-Orthodox movements either are echoed or accepted implicitly by American Orthodox leaders.

Conclusion

How, then, to characterize the place of Jews in twenty-first-century America? The fundamental paradigm remains that the narrative of Jews as Americans underscores America as the Diaspora that has worked incredibly well for Jews. The Jewish story in America has been an unprecedented success story. The outer lives of Jews as Americans elicit the envy of virtually every other ethnic and religious grouping. Jewish security rests on firm bases, and Jewish social and economic upward mobility remain high. By the criteria of educational and income achievements, Jews have done extremely well. For example, Jews are at least three times as likely as other Americans to possess graduate degrees.

The paradox, however, relates to the inner lives of Jews as Jews. Jewish insecurity and anxiety relate to concerns over future Jewish continuity manifested by high intermarriage rates, low fertility rates, and the huge gap between secular education attainments and minimalist Jewish educational attainments. To be sure, Orthodox Jewry is an important exception. Moreover, pockets of Jewish renewal exist within each of the religious movements. Yet that story of Jewish renewal coexists alongside a larger narrative of assimilation and erosion.

In short, it remains both the best of times and the worst of times. Jews have become so well integrated into American society that the boundary between Jew and non-Jew has become so fluid as to be frequently nonexistent. Intermarriage itself, a barometer of Jewish weakness, also signals the unprecedentedly high degree of acceptance of Jews within American society.

Moreover, the Jews form an extraordinarily well-organized community. No community in Diaspora Jewish history has constructed so impressive an array of Jewish institutions. Whether that impressive and costly network of Jewish organizations can survive economic downturn and the assimilation of many of its supporters is likely to prove a major challenge for the Jewish future.[10] When economic resources were abundant, few choices needed to be made between conflicting communal priorities. The pressure of balancing budgets and meeting payrolls at a time of economic downturn, however, may well create the necessity for making such difficult choices and in turn cause considerable shakeout among frequently overlapping and competitive Jewish institutions.

Second, continuing Jewish political influence can by no means be taken for granted. Demographics alone suggest an aging Jewish population with fewer young people. In political terms that translates into fewer Jewish votes. To a great extent Jewish political power depends on the rules of the Electoral College, which awards large numbers of electoral votes in presidential elections to precisely those states of densest Jewish concentration. Jews may constitute less than 2 percent of the overall population but 4 percent of the voting population given the relatively low turnout at the polls. Yet fewer Jews in turn mean fewer Jewish votes.

Fortunately, Jewish political influence has never depended on demographics alone. Most important, a great deal of the political discussion in American culture has been conducted by Jews within both liberal and conservative camps. The presence of Jewish intellectuals and thinkers within universities, policy think-tanks, and organs of public opinion means that politicians of both parties will continue to ask what is on the minds of American Jews.

Will these patterns continue in the future? In 2004, Daniel Pipes, pronounced an incipient end to American Jewry’s golden age.[11] In his view, a growing Muslim population augured poorly for continued Jewish political influence. Perhaps of even greater concern is the utter predictability of Jewish voting patterns. Since 1928 a virtual iron law has prevailed among Jewish voters: Jews will vote for the more liberal candidate-Jewish or not-who is not perceived as hostile to Israel. Conversely, Jews will not vote for the more conservative candidate notwithstanding his or her strong support for Israel. By 2010, the predictability of Jewish voting patterns will possibly constitute the Achilles heel of Jewish political strength. If the more liberal candidate can take Jewish votes for granted and the more conservative candidate can harbor no illusions about capturing Jewish votes, little need exists on either side to court Jewish voters.

There remain two exceptions to the patterns of predictability. In 2000, a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Vice President Albert Gore. By 2004, nearly 70 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for President George W. Bush in pronounced contrast to the 86 percent of Reform Jews who supported Senator John Kerry. Russian Jews were also far less predictable and more likely to vote for the more conservative candidate. Together Orthodox and Russian Jewry constitute 18 percent of the Jewish population suggesting that Democratic candidates may reasonably expect continued large Jewish majorities but that the potential of a Jewish shift to the Republican camp remains a possibility, especially given fertility and age rates among Orthodox Jews.

To take the most recent election, in 2008 some voiced concerns about the putative presidency of Barack Obama with respect to Israel, yet over three-quarters of American Jews voted for him. Perhaps more important, the perception of Jewish influence remained in place. All presidential candidates of both parties continued to seek out Jewish votes and expressed themselves positively on Jewish concerns.

The underlying problem, however, clearly remains assimilation. Jewish political influence presupposes a critical mass of Jews interested in leading a creative Jewish life. Fewer Jews concerned with Judaism means a weakened Jewish people. What Jews would do with their unprecedented freedom and why they should lead a Jewish life clearly have become the most vexing questions that need to be answered in order to shape the Jewish future. American Jews had survived well the storms of the twentieth century. How they would cope with an America that loved Jews and welcomed them into all sectors of American society remains very much an open question.

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Notes

This is an abbreviated version of an essay to appear in a forthcoming book on the future of American Jewry by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Steven Bayme.

[1] Edward S. Shapiro, Crown Heights (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 2006), ch. 7. Notwithstanding efforts to alleviate intergroup tensions, Shapiro suggests that real tensions do continue to simmer albeit somewhat below the surface. For a somewhat more whimsical portrait, see Cheryl Greenberg, “Negotiating Coalition,” in Jack Salzman and Cornel West, eds., Struggles in the Promised Land (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 168. See also Shapiro, We Are Many (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 239-247, on efforts by Jews to romanticize their relationship with blacks and reconstitute the black-Jewish alliance.

[2] Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel (New York: Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, 2008), see table on p. 9.

[3] Sam Freedman, “In the Diaspora: American Jewry’s Green Line,” Jerusalem Post, 11 June  2009. See also Steven Bayme, “American Jews and the Settlements,” New York Jewish Week, 23 July 2009.

[4] For a summary of this debate, see Steven Bayme, “Jewish Organizational Responses to Intermarriage: A Policy Perspective,” in Roberta Farber and Chaim Waxman, eds., Jews in America(Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 1998), 151-162.

[5] Marvin Schick, A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2003-2004 (New York: Avi-Chai, January 2005), see tables on pp. 6-7.

[6] For a description of the Jewish Catalog series, see Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 320-321. See also Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism(New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.

[7] Surprisingly, these debates are often dismissed as petty or trivial. See, e.g., Sanford Cardin, “A Personal Reflection on Contemporary Trends in American Judaism,” in Zachary I. Heller, ed.,Synagogues in a Time of Change (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2009), 186.

[8] Jonathan Woocher, “Jewish Education: Postdenominationalism and the Continuing Influence of Denominations,” in ibid., 143.

[9] Steven M. Cohen, email communication, 10 August 2009

[10] Jonathan Tobin, “The Madoff Scandal and the Future of American Jewry,” Commentary, February 2009, 11-14. See also Jonathan Sarna, “The American Jewish Community in Crisis and Transformation,”Contact, vol. 11, no. 3 (Spring 2009), 5-6.

[11] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The End of American Jewry’s Golden Era,” an interview with Daniel Pipes,”Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 20, May 2004.

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Dr. Steven Bayme serves as director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and of its Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. His publications include Understanding Jewish History: Texts and Commentary, a survey of the Jewish historical experience, and Jewish Arguments and Counter-Arguments, a volume of essays on contemporary Jewish life. He has been a visiting professor at Yeshiva University and at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Steven Bayme

Steven Bayme serves as national director, Contemporary Jewish Life, for the American Jewish Committee and is director of its Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. He is also a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.