The Disappearing Jew

No one who cares about the future of the Jewish People can remain indifferent to what is happening to much of American Jewry. Of course the same phenomena exist to some degree in other Diaspora communities. However, since US Jews constitute such a large percentage of world Jewry, what we are witnessing there is particularly frightening.

According to a Pew study published in 2013 no less than 58% of American Jews who married in the first decade of this century chose non-Jewish spouses. This has serious implications for the likelihood that their children will be raised as Jews. Only 28% of those who took part in the survey felt that being part of a Jewish community was an essential part of what it meant to be Jewish.

When Michael Chabon is invited to address a graduation ceremony at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and declares: ““I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation …. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence”, he is simply echoing what many Jews feel today. However, it is that attitude that will ultimately lead to the demise of much of American Jewry.

In terms of their relationship with Israel, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Temple Solel in Hollywood writes in the latest edition of the Reform Jewish Quarterly: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to Israel, the vast majority of Reform Jews … ‘don’t give a damn’.”

It is not surprising that Israel’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, when addressing the America Jewish Committee conference earlier this week, said that his anxiety concerning the future of US Jewry keeps him awake at night. “I want to save the Jews,” he said. “We must not lose Jews to assimilation. We must strengthen their connection to Judaism and Israel.”

What is happening to much of US Jewry is a tragedy. After all, American Jews represent no less than 40% of world Jewry. If it were not enough that a third of our people were murdered in the Holocaust, the future Jewish identity of millions of others is now at risk. It was the Reform rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who said that the 614th commandment was not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.

In his book To Mend the World he wrote: “… we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with Him or with belief in Him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet another posthumous victory.”

I think of the Jews, who rose up against the Seleucid Empire and refused to bow down to their idols. I think of the Jews in mediaeval Spain, who stubbornly maintained their Jewish identity in spite of the Inquisition. I think of the Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust with the words of the Shema on their lips. I think of the Jews of the former Soviet Union, who at great risk to themselves nevertheless continued practising their Judaism in secret.

But I also think of the ideals and vision of our Bible that includes such statements as: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation”. I think of the poetry of Yehuda Halevi and of Yehuda Amichai. I think of the philosophy of Moses Maimonides and of Leo Baeck. I think of the richness of our liturgy from Kol Nidrei to Shema Yisrael. I think of sitting down with our families on Seder Night and of lighting the chanukiyah together. I think of studying Talmud, midrash and the Kabbalah. Through all the lands of our dispersion we have transmitted our beliefs and our values from generation to generation, and much more….

And so I am saddened to think that there are those who would forsake that heritage without a thought. But it is not their fault. We have not taught them enough about the richness of their religious and cultural heritage, and that pursuing what James Truslow Adams called “the American dream” must not come at the expense of their Jewish identity.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.