Are we writing ourselves into the Book of Death?

Cokie and Steve Roberts, from the cover of their book From This Day Forward. Credit: Harper Collins.

Are we — non-Orthodox American Jewry — writing ourselves into the Book of Death?

For several reasons, it appears so.

1.  Failing to have sufficient numbers of children.
2.  Intermarrying to such an extent that the children who are born have only tenuous connections to the faith.
3.  Transforming what for 125 generations had been a religion into a political movement.

Take the last point first.  Commenting on this week’s Torah portion, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says,

The great questions – “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is our task?” – are best answered by telling a story. .. This is fundamental to understanding why Torah is the kind of book it is: not a theological treatise or a metaphysical system but a series of interlinked stories extended over time, from Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Mesopotamia to Moses’ and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. Judaism is less about truth as system than about truth as story. And we are part of that story. That is what it is to be a Jew.

Conservative media host Ben Shapiro offers the following answer to Rabbi Sacks’ questions.  Many of us, he writes, have become Jews in Name Only, JINO’s who  “eat bagels and lox; watch “Schindler’s List”; visit temple on Yom Kippur — sometimes. But they do not care about Israel. Or if they do, they care about it less than abortion, gay marriage and global warming.”

I belong to a 165-year old Conservative congregation in suburban Detroit.  It was founded in 1861, according to the Detroit Historical Society, (  when 17 followers of Traditional Judaism withdrew from the Beth El Society in Detroit to found the Shaarey Zedek Society.  It was a time when most Jews in America had come from Germany, bringing with them Germany’s attraction to the Reform.

Reform Judaism’s own website describes that denomination:

Central to Reform Jewish beliefs is the idea that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that we are God’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam, the repair of our world, is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as we strive to bring about a world of justice, wholeness, and compassion.

Reform Jews strive to make thoughtful choices about how we put our values into action. Organizationally, we are led, in part, by the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a nonprofit advocacy center in Washington, D.C., that educates and mobilizes North American Jewry on legislative and social concerns.

With that in mind, here is how Jewish News Service’s Jonathan Tobin expects at High Holiday services:  (

For many U.S. rabbis, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provided them with their best opportunity to make an impression on their congregants. This is particularly true for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues whose attendance on those days is far greater than at any other moment during the year.

The subjects addressed during High Holiday sermons are as important as perhaps even their content, especially if rabbis use these occasions to rally their listeners to support a specific cause or issue. Even if synagogues are, sadly, no longer seen as being as important to Jewish life in North America as they once were, the ability of rabbis to lead the communal conversation in this manner shouldn’t be underestimated.

And that’s why many American Jews should be bracing themselves for a thorough dose of advocacy about U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming days.

(Although folks on the Left despise both Trump and Netanyahu, the differences between Jews in Israel and those in America may be greater than liberal rabbis may like.)

In his 2018 New York Times article entitled, “How America’s Jews Learned to Be Liberal,” Steven Weisman quotes an American Jewish Committee poll which found that “Israelis approve of President Trump’s handling of United States-Israeli relations by 77 percent… But only 34 percent of American Jews feel the same way.”

Weisman concludes: Israelis are red-state Jews. American Jews are blue-state — politically liberal in their outlook.

Have we been diligent in following the Ten Commandments inscribed in our Torah?  Have we been honest in business, and attentive to the needs of our poor?  If Tobin is to be believed, it’s not as important as whether we are supporting or opposing political leaders in America and Israel.

Aaron Starr, the senior rabbi at my congregation, argued on Shavuot that whatever Covenant once existed between the Lord of Hosts and the Children of Israel was severed — by Gd Himself during the Holocaust. (  He has presented the idea of Putting Gd Second, the subject of a book by that name by Sholom Hartman Institute President Donniel Hartman.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has spoken up in opposition to these precepts.

Even if we were the most observant, ideologically pure people on earth, the numbers seem to suggest we are punching our tickets for oblivion.  The average American woman and her mate(s) is having 1.7 children.   It doesn’t take a math degree to see that to replace one man and one woman takes two children.

Jewish women study longer,  marry later, and have even fewer children.  Very few these days have more than two, and large numbers have one or none.  Completed fertility of 1.3 would mean that each 1,000 women are having 650 daughters of their own, and 650 sons.  At that rate, the 650 daughters will be producing 422 granddaughters (and 422 grandsons.)  With intermarriage rates of 50-70%, disappearance is inexorable.

Every intermarriage, it is said, is an interfaith love story.  As it was with Cokie and Steve Roberts who began dating while in college and merged his Jewish background with her Catholic faith, producing two children and six grandchildren.  Cokie died this week, after a long bout with breast cancer, leaving behind a loving family and an estimable body of writings and other work.

It’s impossible to tell how her children and grandchildren view the two religions they share.   This is from the NPR remembrance of her life:

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Cokie Roberts was never reluctant to talk about her religion. Her devotion to her Roman Catholic faith was deep and lifelong.


COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: I am Catholic like I breathe.

Rabbi Sacks, recall, asks, Who are we?  Why are we here?

To which, I add:  If there is no Covenant;  if we put Gd second; if we fail to have sufficient numbers of children; and if we all marry spouses like Cokie, aren’t we sticking knives into the lives of non-Orthodox Jewry in America?

About the Author
A resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I hold BA and MA degrees in economics, and spent the first decade after graduate school in journalism. I have worked on Wall Street, met a payroll, won a wire service award, and served on three boards. With a partner, I am involved in a litigation funding business.
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