Gary Schiff
Former Conservative Synagogue President of Board and new oleh

Battling the Challenges Facing Jewish America

Polls clearly indicate an overall shrinking Jewish population in the US, due to significant population declines in the less observant sectors. Projections show the population may shrink by 25% or more over the next two decades with a slow and steady revival in the observant sectors. In tandem, many Jews in America have lost their most basic attachment to our land, our people and our faith. Many in the more religious world as well as Jews in Israel look at this loss as inevitable, tragic and assume that there is little to be done. Yet, for two millennia the ancestors of these Jews have worked hard to keep the flame alive for these families, fleeing persecution across the globe. Many of these families built the American Jewish “Federation” community. To see the Jewish lineage broken at this point is heartbreaking. To do nothing about it is irresponsible.

A closer look at the specific challenges which are causing the decline may yield important insights. Effectively responding to those challenges for some may be still possible.

The three obvious challenges are: 1) a diminishing attachment to the Jewish homeland, 2) a diminishing attachment to the Jewish people and 3) a diminishing attachment to a higher power and the Torah.

Diminishing attachment to our Jewish Homeland. Jews outside of Israel are increasingly less attached to Israel. In 2013, Pew reported on a study which found that half of US Jews under 35 would not see Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy. That was six years ago. What would those numbers look like today?

Not only are they less attached, Jews are unfortunately leading anti-Israel efforts. Here are but a few examples. The ADL put Jewish Voice for Peace near the top of their “top ten anti-Israel organizations.” JVP actively works to support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement as one of their prime missions. Linda Holtzman, a leader in the Reconstructionist movement and Philadelphia rabbi, helps lead this effort. Jewish activist Simone Zimmerman leads “IFNOTNOW” an organization recently dedicating significant effort to pressure Democratic presidential candidates to publicly support BDS. Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders and his Jewish staff actively work to support this effort. Many of the anti-Israel Congressmen and Senators have Jewish staff advising them and drafting their positions.

What can be done? For Jews such as Linda Holtzman, Simone Zimmerman, Bernie Sanders and the Jewish staffers to Congressmen who oppose Israel, it is difficult to imagine a discussion or a visit to Israel or anything else which would cause them to become re-attached to our Homeland. However maybe we can slow the growth in the number of future disciples.

Birthright and other Israel discovery programs are wonderful and impactful. Yet young people also want to build relationships with their Israeli counterparts and help. A generation ago, the kibbutz programs, where Jews from around the world came to help, was successful in creating an attachment because young people had to do something to help build the land. While today, there are also many outstanding internship programs, perhaps there are more opportunities. One idea might be to consider pairing college students in the US, one on one with Israeli soldiers where they can build a relationship and support their soldier-friend with food treats, other needs, basic encouragement and ultimately a visit. Brainstorming new ways for American Jewish youth to be involved in Israel’s success, build relationships with Israelis, and consider Israel as their future home, would be time well spent.

A Diminishing Attachment to the Jewish People.

One of the basic reasons for diminished attachment to Judaism is that Jews are not associating as much with other Jews. Large numbers are unaffiliated and many of those who are affiliated are inter-married. Most recent studies show assimilation rates for Jews in Conservative and Reformed movements hovering between 50 and 75% while Jews in the Orthodox movement hover in the single digits. Recent surveys also show that there are between 500,000 and one million Israeli ex-pats now living in the US. Assimilation rates among Israeli ex-pats are also on the rise with the most recent study showing high intermarriage rates as well.

Battling assimilation requires tremendous strength in today’s culture. Young Jewish couples need Torah based guidance to help them. There is also the question of the intermarried families and how to address this challenge. Do we completely write off the thousands of children of intermarried Jewish fathers? Can we recognize them as Zera Yisrael, the seed of Israel, so they feel they have status in the greater Jewish community? Maybe they will ultimately find a stronger attachment.

Attachment to other Jews requires the ability to communicate. When Jewish youth from the US and elsewhere do come to visit Israel, they are generally quite impressed with their counterparts, many who are in the IDF or studying in pre-military yeshivot. However, they can’t communicate with their Israeli counterparts and form friendships, because their Hebrew skills are so lacking. How is it that thousands of Jewish kids can graduate from 12 years of private Jewish schools and can’t speak Hebrew beyond the most basic level? Regardless of what Jewish flavor we choose, we need to be able to communicate. Half the world’s Jews are now in the promised land. Many don’t speak English well. In order to build relationships, we need to be able to communicate with each other. Can we make learning Hebrew an American Jewish priority?

A Diminishing Attachment to a Higher Power

American Jews lead the nation in being the group that has the least attachment to a higher power and the lowest percent of church/synagogue attendance. According to a recent Harris survey, 10 percent of Protestants, 21 percent of Roman Catholics, and 52 percent of Jews do NOT believe in God. According to Maimonides’ this is the first principle of faith for every Jew. Lack of fear or awe of a higher power can lead to some particularly bad behavior which reflects poorly on our people and our faith. Attachment can lead to a less stressful and more complete life.

How do we reattach? There are a number of kiruv organizations which provide strong intellectual arguments which help support those who are seeking answers; even answers that mesh science and faith. In addition, though, there is the expression of faith. Here’s one very simple thought for starters. Much of Israel’s population are by and large “mezuzah kissers” as are many day school students in the US. They are expressing an attachment to a higher power. Maybe it’s time to focus on Jewish reattachment in this and other ways.

All in all, it is difficult to watch and easy to write off the ever-shrinking American Jewish community. But we should not give up. We need to honor the memory of their great grandparents and generations past which may also be our collective relatives. There are many wonderful opportunities for each and every Jew to re-attach and rebuild the American Jewish community and our attachment to our brethren in our historic homeland.

About the Author
Gary Schiff is a former Conservative Synagogue Board President and new oleh.
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