Koby Benmeleh
I say lizard brain things

Opportunity in the demise of American Jewry

Am I alone in feeling unsurprised by the recent findings of the Pew study on American Jewry? Little wonder, it turns out American Jews are increasingly intermarrying, becoming less religious, not raising their children Jewish or abandoning the faith entirely.

In response, the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America has proposed more programming and even free Jewish preschool to cultivate stronger ties among American Jewish youth. Instead of toying with the packaging, perhaps JFNA should reconsider the product itself.

Daniel Gordis was correct in his eulogy of Conservative Judaism in America to castigate the movement’s failure to address the relevance of Judaism in modern American life. But why spare the other streams of this responsibility?

I went to a modern orthodox private school from age four until eighteen. In my high school Jewish history course, our teacher devoted only a handful of minutes to Baruch Spinoza where she lambasted him and his heresy and lauded his excommunication. Is this how we are to treat the father of biblical criticism and pantheism? By discarding this titan of human intellectual history as an insignificant spiritual deviant?

I was taught that each successive generation following that of Moshe Rabeinu was less holy than its predecessor. So necessitating the total slaughter of the inhabitants of Canaan as condition of settling the land is holy but opposition to genocide is less so? Executing someone for homosexuality is sacred? I’m picturing Kafka at work and Woody Allen shoulder shrugs.

Currently there is a serious disconnect between religious thought and everyday life. Judaism, for all its sophistication and richness and revered dialectic, cannot compete with the free inquiry of ideas. Only in insulated Orthodox communities, where pressure to conform is high, does the Jewish religion continue perpetually (as the study bears out).

This problem needs a solution pertinent to the current atmosphere in the US. In the West, religion is fighting a losing battle given the constrictions it demands and the burden of proof it can never satisfy. We want to preserve our heritage but the religion it is centered upon cannot achieve this.

Jews are a people because of our shared history and language. There lies the numinous and wonder that binds us as one. When standing in front of the Kotel, or Yad Vashem, or the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, or the Rambam statue in Cordoba, I know I am a negligible fraction of a long saga of exile and redemption, irrevocable pain and euphoric happiness.

While this does not deal with the grander questions that vex us all (where religion does not hold a monopoly over the discourse), it does provide a framework of common identity worth preserving, cherishing and passing on to the next generation. Those who assume the responsibility to do so ought to be better prepared for the challenge that lays ahead.

Jewish educators need to be educated themselves. They need to teach the Jewish language, tradition and history in the intellectual framework their students understand. Move away from yeshiva and leave the simplistic theology behind with it. Study Locke, Paine, Jefferson and Douglass alongside the Tanach, Rashi and Maimonides. Continue to teach the classic texts – not as dogma but as tools to contextualize our rituals and history.

To identify with something is to claim personal stake in its fate. Not knowing why we do so will guarantee its demise. So instead of throwing money to fund recycled “solutions,” why not use this crisis as a turning point in Jewish education. If no one addresses this now, I won’t be the only one unsurprised by the next Pew results.

About the Author
Koby Benmeleh is the host of the Youristics podcast. He has free-range conversations with all sorts of people, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Netflix star Aleeza Ben Shalom, tech entrepreneur and investor Dov Moran, hi-tech CEOs, and sometimes simply with his friends. He writes about one thing that kept him thinking from each of those conversations on