Can American Jews Get Their Groove Back?
Published September 1, 2019. IsraelHaYom.com
The synagogue’s librarian is well-uniformed in Coke-bottle spectacles and a beige blouse. She is approachable and competent and has just wheeled a large cart to the library’s main entrance.
“Free books” advertises a handwritten note. “These are ones nobody seems to read,” she says with a hint of regret.
This library houses one of the largest collections of Jewish books in Denver, Colorado. It is located inside the city’s biggest Reform shul. My family is here for private Hebrew lessons with an Israeli tutor.
When my children’s lesson begins, I excuse myself to thumb through the books. This collection of Jewish literary and historical flotsam and jetsam is overflowing. As I browse the titles, it starts to feel as if there is a puzzle to piece together.
I first save from uncertain fate Alan Dershowitz’s “The Vanishing American Jew.” In this 1997 book, he sounded the alarm about the demographic winter facing non-Orthodox American Jews. It has been 22 years since he wrote the book. Did he get it right?
Unfortunately, yes. Since Dershowitz’s book, non-Orthodox American Jewish families are having even fewer Jewish babies. Assimilation is also worse. Today, nearly a third of secular, Reform, and Conservative Jewish women are spending their lives alone, without husbands or children.
Dershowitz’s 1997 volume reprinted the famous “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” chart. Following 22 years of additional data, a second chart is needed for the next edition: “Will you have any grandchildren at all?”
Unlike their Israeli counterparts, non-Orthodox millennial American Jews do not seem to embrace the call to be fruitful and multiply. The fertility and assimilation numbers are so dismal that our community is scheduled to lose almost one-third of its strength by the next generation.
This Denver congregation is the demographic group that is most impacted by Jewish childlessness. It is therefore ironic that Dershowitz’s warning is literally being tossed out.
The next book I save from the cart is a reprint of Rabbi Israel Friedlaeder’s seminal essay “The Problem of Judaism in America.” It is in a 2004 issue of the now-defunct journal, Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Friedlaeder wrote in 1909 that “the Jewish education of the children, which formed the cornerstone of our heritage was being dwindled down to Sunday school experiments.” The children of Israel today “know of Judaism and their people no more than what they are told by Israel’s enemies.”
I think of an agonizing affliction among many American Jews today. Untrained in their own history, they are shilling for people who would have our heads if they could. Victims of their own ignorance, these Jews describe Israel as an apartheid state and some support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. How did we get here?
The first answer is that an unprecedented number of American secular Jews already have one or both feet outside our tent. Their parents or grandparents, who made the choice to disengage, are not reliable homeschoolers. While there are abundant free and effective online resources for teaching children and young adults about Jewish history and Zionism, the problem is their willingness, not ability, to consume them.
Accordingly, hundreds of thousands of Hebrew school-age children, young adults, and college-age secular Jews have not had the faintest brush with their history. This is the largest and fasted-growing category of non-Orthodox Jews in America.
Compounding this problem are mixed messages – and occasionally even isolated cases of hostility – toward contemporary Israeli history and Zionism among some teachers at today’s Reform synagogues.
It is, therefore, no wonder that we are now facing the largest-ever group of under-educated, befuddled, and bewildered young Jews. They make easy targets.
Ironically, the next find on the rack is Mordecai S. Chertoff’s wonderful anthology, “Zionism: A Basic Reader,” published in 1975. It contains short but powerful translated works by Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban, and about 20 other luminaries of Zionism. For the Israeli reader, this is canonical stuff. For prior generations of American Jews, it was required and exciting reading.
Had these BDS-supporting secular and Reform Jews read Zionism would they have learned enough about the Jewish people to remain true to themselves? Would the facts and worldviews shared by Herzl, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, and Eban make an impact upon them? Would the modern history of our people successfully crowd out the noise of their Facebook feeds?
I think so. Truth is like sunshine. But first, you need to wake up and open your eyes.
After Rabbi Friedlaeder’s essay, I turn to Israel Prize winner Charles S. Liebman’s article, “Boundaries of the Religious Marketplace” in the same book. Some shuls are becoming too consumer-oriented, he writes. Many congregations forsake essential building blocks to pursue fads and popular causes.
Liebman writes: “More and more synagogues are conducting self-surveys that ask members to report what it is they want the synagogue to be doing. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, finds this remarkable.”
Fifteen years after Liebman’s concern, it seems worse than ever. Many Reform shuls seem like the central headquarters of a political party. Coordinated activism and fundraising include Trump “resistance” signs, Syrian refugee relief, efforts to prevent climate change, support for abortion and biodiversity, and whatever other issues of the day burn in the hearts of members.
Reform rabbis usually permit this. Many encourage it. They do so without any thought to their conservative, libertarian, and classically liberal members (often one of the shul’s larger donor groups). These marginalized members bite their tongues or opt out of the partisan carnival.
It has crossed my mind that this could be a business decision of sorts by the Reform movement. After generations of Jewish educational malpractice, are left-wing domestic politics and kugel cook-offs the last common denominators that unite Reform congregants?
It is true that political questions are often valued questions. A religion that has nothing to say about them also risks feeling irrelevant. Yet our traditional approach to politics in the temple invites reasoned argument and understanding. As the old saying goes, put two Jews in a room and expect to get at least three opinions.
Imposing political purity tests upon the most interesting and politically diverse group of people on the planet is not only morally wrong but it makes visits to the shul dull and intellectually unsatisfying. This applies to both the Left and Right.
When I reach the final page of Liebman’s essay, a folded document drops out and sails to the floor. I pick it up and discover a letter. It is a cover letter from writer and entrepreneur Scott Shay to the Reform congregation’s rabbi. He sent a courtesy copy of his 2006 book, “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry.”
There is good news at last. Shay’s book is not on the chopping block. It is safely on the library’s shelves.
Nine years after Dershowitz’s magnum opus on the subject, Shay’s solution-oriented book on the American Jewish demographic winter is even more compelling. It is brimming with data and graphs as you would expect from a preeminent banker who craves facts and raw data.
Shay also addresses the fertility crisis. American Jewish women are the best-educated and highest-credentialed group of women on the planet. His idea is that they should have children between college and graduate school, not afterward. By doing so, they will still enjoy the most important and lucrative stage of their career which occurs after completing graduate school.
This advice is sage. The exciting aspect of demographics is that if Shay’s advice can become a trend, then the American Jewish community’s dismal future can suddenly look bright again.
While my heart warms to Shay’s positive thinking, I still have a sinking feeling. Is the window of opportunity still open? If it is, should every Jew who can get airtime on the left-leaning US television networks be talking about this? The members of our community who need to know about our dismal demographic future are clearly not reading our books and articles.
Shay’s book was the last piece of this puzzle for me. The picture is complete. The image that has emerged from the pieces is unfortunately not a happy one.
It is a scene at almost any America college campus. A group of Palestinian activists is handing out fliers. They contain the usual anti-Jew hatred and lies and encourage the public to boycott Israel. A young Jew walks by. He takes a flyer and reads it. Yet he is not angry. He just looks confused.
Chris רמי Robbins is a writer and real estate developer from Denver, Colorado.