Sarah Schmidt on American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Present and Future, by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Steven Bayme

, November 1, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and editor of the Jewish Policy Studies Review, and Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the William Petschek Department of Contemporary Jewish Life of the American Jewish Committee and of its Koppleman Institute on American Jewish Relations, have coauthored this volume of essays by, and interviews with, eminent American Jewish personalities. These thinkers, from varying perspectives, address the central issue currently facing the American Jewish community: is it possible to build – or perhaps more accurately, rebuild – a cohesive American Jewish identity in our contemporary postmodern world?

The volume opens with Bayme’s excellent overview of American Jewry since World War II. He first notes six major assumptions that defined American Jews’ understanding of themselves in the immediate postwar period: affiliation with a synagogue; a sense of  minimal anti-Semitism, leading to unprecedented personal and communal security; the feeling that relating to the new, independent Jewish state of  Israel  might lead to new accusations of “divided loyalty”; the belief that confronting the enormity of the Holocaust and helping Holocaust survivors build new lives would present major, unprecedented challenges; the expectation that Jews would marry other Jews and create families of three or more children, leading to the growth of the American Jewish community; and the sense that Jewish education held the key to the collective American Jewish future.

Bayme’s article ends by reassessing each of these assumptions and their relevance to the contemporary American Jewish community. He initially addresses the implications of a resurgent Orthodoxy, including a rightward political and ideological shift that differs significantly from positions held by the majority of American Jews on a range of American policy and church-state issues. He then notes the reappearance of anti-Semitism, now often in the guise of anti-Zionism, particularly on many college campuses. On the other hand, many universities recently have introduced courses in Israeli Studies, a phenomenon almost unheard of previously. Hopefully this may counter the diminishing ties between young American Jews and Israel, a phenomenon Bayme attributes to differences in culture, politics, and primary identity, differences that he feels threaten to pull apart the world’s two largest Jewish populations.

He goes on to comment on the continuing salience of Holocaust memory, albeit at the expense of a more balanced focus on the history and creativity of prewar Polish Jewry. And last, but surely not least, he is troubled by the rising rates of intermarriage, its increased acceptability both within the (non-Orthodox) Jewish community and in American society at large, and the debate over patrilineal descent and the value of outreach efforts, particularly those that fail to articulate the goal of conversion.

Gerstenfeld, who both coauthored the volume and conducted most of the interviews, focuses on American Jewry’s future and the degree to which it is influenced by major changes in the social, political, and economic environment in the United States. “Vulnerability” and “uncertainty” are the key terms here: vulnerability to future terrorist attacks and uncertainty about the Western economic system, both of which will affect American Jews’ ability to function in the future as they have in the past. Gerstenfeld’s comprehensive overview explores the key issue of continuity by providing facts and figures related to its many aspects. He discusses demography (falling birth rates, an aging population, constant mobility), the need for effective leadership, attitudes toward Israel, interfaith relations, and the challenges inherent in building alliances with new multiethnic communities, issues that are addressed in greater detail in the volume’s remaining chapters.

One item in Gerstenfeld’s article relates directly to the book’s title, namely, his reference to what he calls the “comfort level” of Jews within American society. American Jews are reassured by the fact that they have so many representatives in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and are in the forefront of many respected American activities. Yet increasingly there are signs of emerging hostility, particularly on college campuses, within mainline Christian churches, in bestselling books such as that of former president Carter and respected scholars like Walt and Mearsheimer, in many political blogs, and in the anti-Semitic character of much anti-Israelism, even in high school textbooks.  Taken together these contribute to a sense of discomfort, the feeling that the future for American Jews may not be as bright as the past.

 

Intermarriage

Inevitably in a volume composed of numerous essays and interviews, there is overlap and repetition. Thus the issue of intermarriage and the relationship of the major Jewish denominations to it, as well as that of the lay leadership, is addressed in varying ways in several of the articles. Bayme notes the negative effects of the “lack of candor” and the “language of inevitability” among the leaders of the American Jewish community, both of which foster an ambience seemingly favoring intermarriage. Sylvia Barack Fishman writes about the role of Jewish parents, many of whom are unable to articulate to younger family members why being Jewish matters. She urges them to be open about expressing their Jewish values and in explaining to their children why they feel it is important to date only Jews. One positive sign, however, is the effect of Birthright Israel: follow-up surveys show that participants are much more likely to marry Jews than those who had not gone to Israel. In a clear expression of positive Jewish identity, nearly 60 percent of married non-Orthodox alumni had married other Jews.

The Future

None of the social scientists, historians, community activists, or rabbis whose thoughts constitute this volume is a prophet. Yet, in assessing the future, the item aside from the threat of increasing intermarriage on which almost all agree is that Reform Judaism will continue to be the largest religious movement among American Jews. Rabbi David Ellenson, the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, urges American Jewry to develop communal policies and practices that will attract children, including those from mixed marriages, and encourage them to engage actively with the Jewish community. Ellenson, thus, defends patrilineality as a valid approach that embraces all those with some tie to Judaism. Yet he also feels that people need boundaries and a sense of direction, which is why Reform Judaism is becoming more traditional, with closer ties to Israel.

The problem, then – not only for Reform Jews but for the entire American Jewish community – is how to create a balance between an age-old tradition and the seemingly unlimited options available to individuals in a free society. Significantly, Ellenson leaves this as an open-ended question.

Conclusion

This is an excellent, concise, yet all-inclusive introduction to the problems the American Jewish community is currently facing. This author, as one who teaches courses that focus on American Jewish history to mainly North American students who come to Israel for a semester or year of study, will make it recommended reading. One reason for doing so is that many problems are discussed, yet no real solutions are offered. None of these “experts” appears to know whether – or even feels confident that – the problems they address can be fixed. Perhaps it is up to the next generation to work through how they wish the American Jewish community to evolve, whether they will continue to intermarry and further disconnect from Jewish tradition and/or from Israel – or wake up in time to prevent themselves, and their connection to Judaism, from ultimately disappearing.

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DR. SARAH SCHMIDT teaches courses related to modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an emphasis both on Israeli and American Jewish history.   

Dr. Sarah Schmidt

Dr. Sarah Schmidt teaches courses related to modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an emphasis both on Israeli and American Jewish history.