Is our legacy Jews without Judaism, or no Jews?

Do Progressive rabbis have a sense of legacy?

The issue of legacy is raised by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks this week in his discussion of  Vayelech, the final Torah portion before Yom Kippur.   He notes

The biblical case study is Moses, of whom we are told that even at the end of his life, “his eye was undimmed and his natural energy unabated.” At the opening of today’s parsha he says, “I am now a hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer come and go, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’”

At roughly the age of 70, Rabbi Sacks relates from the work of Erick Erikson, “many people’s perspective changes. They begin thinking about legacy, about what will outlive them. Their focus often shifts from self to others.”  The link is here

I am 70, and for some time I have been thinking about what will outlive me.  I have three children, two of whom are unlikely to have children, and a third who several years ago married a woman who had insisted for years she did not want to have any.

For the better part of a decade, I have belonged to a Conservative synagogue whose history stretches back to before the Civil War.  For extended periods of time, it grew in membership and influence, but as is common for the denomination, it peaked years ago and has been shrinking.

The associate rabbi is a delightful chap, recently married to the daughter of an officer.  His sermon on Rosh Hashana’s second day reflected on accounts which many had shared with him of overflowing crowds, of folding chairs everywhere, of two and sometimes three bnai mitzvot each week.   Many of the members tended to live within walking distance of the shul.  Those, he remarked, are generally thought of as the Good Old Days.

His sermon, entitled, “If You Could See Us Now,” suggested that in years to come future congregants will think of present day circumstances as “The Good Old Days,” as well.   Applause broke out at conclusion of his words.

Rabbi Sacks notes that in Moshe Rabbenu’s waning days

He warns the young people who will enter and inherit the land, that the real challenge will not be failure but success; not slavery but freedom; not the bread of affliction but the temptations of affluence.

Which is essentially what has happened in this suburban Detroit area.  Grandparents, some of whom carried numbers tattooed on their arms, operated grocery stores, saved to buy small parcels of income properties, ran package stores and pawn shops.  Their children are by and large doctors and lawyers;  the grandchildren’s idea of a starter house is more akin to what they grew up in..

And they are not having enough children to maintain Jewry’s numbers.  The senior rabbi noted recently  that it is a challenge to reverse this trend.  Yet, in his  family, two Holocaust Survivor grandparents had three children, who between them had four grandchildren (one of whom is the rabbi.)  The four grandchildren, now forty-somethings, have between them only four children.

Simply put, if we all follow that family’s example, and each time four women and their mates  ( a total of eight Jews) have only four children,  the next generation will have fallen by half.  The roughly 66,000 Jews in Metro Detroit will have become 33,000 and then 16,500 a generation later.  This is without giving effect to intermarriage or departure from religion.  Just imagine the results if 50%  to 75% of the smaller generations become intermarried.

My daughter in law finally did have one child.  Her brother and his wife have had none.  It doesn’t take a graduate degree in economic statistics (though I have one) to see that each time four people have one child between them, the next generation shrinks by 75%.  Do that for a couple generations, and there is no legacy.  Just history, with no one left to read it.

I began these thoughts by asking whether Progressive rabbis carry any sense of legacy.  When I was married, my mother (who lost much of her family to the Nazis) told us, You must have at least three children.  One to replace each of you, and another to replace one of those who was lost.

It is not that difficult to raise these issues from the bimah.  It is not impossible to teach Jewish demography in Hebrew School.  It may be challenging to ask young couples about their choices:  How many expensive cars, big houses, and trips to the Caribbean does a young family need?

It is a matter of choices.

Intertwined with the idea of legacy is the idea of membership in something.  Men in the generation before mine sailed off to Europe and the Pacific  to protect this nation. I’m not sure how many Millenials would do likewise.  How many Progressives believe as the New York governor does, that America was never great?  How many of the Progressive clergy are more a part of Judaism than their liberal agendas.

The opinion editor of their beloved Forward (formerly The Jewish Forward) insisted recently that we should not let our obsession with Jewish continuity get in the way of our Liberal values. Why not?

For that matter, Forward editor Jane Eisner speaks fondly of Jews without Judaism.

Reiterating Rabbi Sacks, the challenge  for all of us in maintaining a legacy is not the bread of affliction, but the temptations of affluence.

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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