Disconnected American Jewry (or How do we Solve a Problem like America)

Undoubtedly the United States is today the bastion of diaspora Jewry.  Approximately 5.4 million Jews live in America, with France coming in a distance second with about 480,000.  Overall, close to 70% of diaspora Jewry makes its home in the United States.

The future of world Jewry is intimately intertwined with the fate of American Jewry.  Therefore, anyone claiming to care about Jews must as a consequence be deeply interested in the future of Jews in the United States.

Those who had their ear pressed to the rail did not need the latest Pew survey to understand the direction American Jewry is headed in.  For those who may not be in the know, the 2013 Pew Research Survey of U.S. Jews held that 58% of Jews who married since 2005 have a non-Jewish spouse.  If you remove Orthodox Jews from the equation (who comprise 10% of U.S. Jews and have close to 0% intermarriage rates), then about 65% of Conservative, Reform and secular Jews grouped together have intermarried since 2005 (some publications erroneously quote the Pew Survey as stating 71% of non-Orthodox Jews have intermarried — no such figure is presented in the survey).

Needless to say, each decade the percentages continue to increase.  If we project this trend forward three generations the results are patently devastating.  The obvious concern here is that assimilation has become the silent killer — it is not the Jewish body which is being eliminated, but rather Jewish identity.

In the 17th century, Rabbi Shneur Zalman (the founder and first Rebbe of Chabad) preferred the antisemitic and oppressive rule of the Tsar over the promised emancipation of Napoleon’s French enlightenment.  He therefore prayed that Napoleon’s forces would fail in their attempt to conquer the Russian pale of settlement and as a result liberate the Jews living there.  Rabbi Zalman had the foresight to understand how emancipation would affect Jewish identity, with its accompanying liberal reforms such as the abolition of feudalism and implementation of religious toleration.

I am not proposing that it is preferable to suffer religious persecution than enjoying the freedom and bounty provided by America.  I am however pointing out the irony that a good healthy dose of antisemitic persecution may be better for the maintenance and perseverance of Jewish identity than is religious tolerance.

Additionally, although I do not shy away from publicly recognizing the devastation intermarriage is causing to the future of Jewish continuity, I do not pass harsh personal judgment on those Jews who have fallen in love with and married a worthy person of a different faith.  I have several good Jewish friends who have married good Christian spouses.  I will be the first to admit that had I remained in the United States, I too may have fallen in love with a nice gentile girl — and this in spite of my strong Jewish identity, desire to raise Jewish children and determination to marry a Jewish woman.

Fundamentally, the root of the problem is not intermarriage itself, this is the natural ramification of the underlying deeper cause.  The root of the matter is the gradual and steady erosion of connectedness and caring about one’s Jewishness.  The openness of America, the lack of deep antisemitic roots in the culture in comparison to Europe, the gradual breakdown of the social taboo within Jewish culture (and without) of marrying outside the fold has led and contributed to the present state of affairs.

So the bottom line is, what can realistically be done to provide young non-Orthodox Jews with the strength of will to limit themselves to marrying only another Jew (or at least someone who is willing to go through the conversion process)?  In my opinion, if we truly wish to be honest with ourselves, the answer is quite stark.  The answer is either become an Orthodox Jew or move to Israel.  Allow me to elaborate.

The problem of Jewish assimilation, leading to intermarriage, does not significantly affect the Orthodox Jewish world.  It is not the Orthodox Jewish community which faces identity elimination.  Orthodox Jews not only predominantly marry other Jews, they also have lots of children, most of which remain Orthodox.  The idea of marrying a non-Jew is simply not an option, and further, there exists a stringent social taboo against doing so.  Therefore it is quite a straight forward proposition.  The most affective way to fight the seemingly unstoppable trend of intermarriage is to become an Orthodox Jew.

The problem with this notion is of course that it is also highly unrealistic to believe that non-Orthodox American Jews will become orthodox in large enough numbers to make even a dent against the forces of assimilation.  First, this would entail a tremendous change in lifestyle and basic beliefs.  Additionally, if we want to be truly honest, with the exception of Chabad, the American Orthodox streams of Judaism are not at all welcoming to non-Orthodox Jews.  (With regard to Aish, as far as I am aware they are headquartered in Jerusalem with no significant on the ground presence in the United States).

I, as someone who was raised and lived as a secular Jew most of my life, know this firsthand (today I am what is defined in Israel as a traditional Jew — I have faith, keep kosher, keep the Shabbat in part, but by no means do I maintain an Orthodox lifestyle).  I lived as a secular Jew in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Queens, NY on two different occasions, once as a child and thereafter a stint as an adult.  This neighborhood is comprised of various streams of Orthodox Judaism.  I was looked at and related to as somewhat of an untouchable by my Orthodox neighbors.  Why would I have any inclination whatsoever to join and become part of a group that related to me in this matter?

As an indication of the difference between American Jewish Orthodox ethos and that which exists here in Israel, I put forward the following example.  During the accumulative five years that I resided in this Queens neighborhood, not once was I invited to a Shabbat meal.  Can you imagine a similar scenario in Israel?  I cannot.  And please take my word for it, it is not based simply on not getting a Shabbat invitation that I  base this view of the unwelcoming attitude of American Jewish Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox Jewry.  If others have had a different experience, I respect that.  I simply know what my experience has been.

Proceeding forward, why do I claim making Aliyah to Israel is the only other way to save non-Orthodox American Jewry?  Because frankly, Israel is the only environment in the world today in which non-Orthodox or secular Jewish culture can survive.  Only in Israel will you find a population with a solid Jewish majority, so whether you intend to or not, as a secular Jew the odds are overwhelming that you will marry another Jew.  This is particularly true when you consider that the majority of non-Jews living in Israel are Arabs, and a social taboo certainly exists with regard to such intermarriage.

You may ask why can we not instil a sufficient non-Orthodox based connectedness to Jewishness which will cause non-Orthodox Jews to marry only other Jews?  My initial answer is, well, good luck with finding a way to cause non-Orthodox American Jewry to be sufficiently inspired by Judaism.  I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t be doing everything possible to inspire them, we should!  But this has become a herculean task.

And even if we did succeed in causing American non-Orthodox Jews to become strong and proud Jews in sufficiently large numbers, I fear that even though such a reality would slow down the present trends, it will not stop them.  I believe that the only power and force that can stand a chance against the force of falling in love is social taboo, and this is long gone from general American society and the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

Digressing for a moment, why do I place Conservative and Reform Jews in the same category as secular Jews?  With regard to Conservative Judaism, it has become a dying powerless movement.  When I first moved to the United States in 1981 at the age of 10, I recall attending my grandfather’s conservative synagogue.  The temple was filled on the high holidays with congregants of all ages, with plenty of young children running around.  A mere 15 years later, at best one quarter of the numbers attended the synagogue on the high holidays, a mostly aging congregation whose children had left the fold a long time ago.

Concerning the Reform movement, well, it has in effect given into assimilation and intermarriage.  The Reform movement has taken it upon itself to redefine long accepted Jewish law and hold that a child is Jewish even if the mother is not Jewish as long as the father is.  Instead of encouraging Jews to marry Jews, the Reform movement has in effect encouraged assimilation by removing one of the main disincentives to marrying a non-Jew by in effect stating:  don’t worry, your children will still be Jewish.

For the aforementioned reasons I hold strong to the claim that only in Israel can non-Orthodox Jewish culture survive and maintain continuity into the future.

But in the same way that it is wholly unrealistic to believe that large enough numbers of American Jews will become Orthodox, it is also unrealistic that significant numbers of non-Orthodox Jews will move to Israel, thereby assuring their offspring will retain their Jewish identity a few generations from now.

We have finally arrived at the punch line of this article.  If one accepts everything I have asserted to this point, the conclusion is that non-Orthodox American Jewry is doomed.  A few generations from now there will be a trace memory of what once was.  Not quite, there is one final “hope”.

I do not mean to be so cynical, and certainly I am not being sarcastic asserting the following claim.  I am being brutally honest and brutally logical.  The only thing that can save American non-Orthodox Jewry from demise (other than the timely arrival of the messiah) is Antisemitic persecution.

Only the introduction of antisemitic persecution to the United States can save the future of non-Orthodox American Jewry.  I am sorry, but it’s true.  Now please, this does not mean that I am rooting for such an eventuality, just stating the facts as i see ’em ma’am.

Only the hard knocks of persecution can cause significant numbers of non-Orthodox Jewry to not only feel their Jewishness as fundamentally defining who they are, but also force them back into figurative ghettos.  Only the hard knocks of persecution can bring about mass Aliyah of American Jewry to Israel.

This is the story of America, the blessing and the curse.

About the Author
Ran Zev Schijanovich was born in Israel in 1970 to an Argentinian father and American mother, lived in Argentina through age 11, and then moved to New York. He made aliyah in 2005 and served as a combat soldier in Golani from the ages of 36 to 38. Ran is graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.