THE VANISHING AMERICAN JEW
By Yehoshua Mizrachi
10 June 2002
30 years - that's all I ask to prove to you that the American Jewishcommunity is dying.
I am not referring to the recent New York Post article that reveals a string of Islamic fundamentalist attacks against the Jewish community over the last 12 years; nor I am referring to the near pogrom at San Francisco State University, or even the admission by Ahmed Rahman Yassin that the original target of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. No, American Jews are not being murdered to extinction, we are committing suicide.
There, I've said it. I have broken the taboo that community leaders know and dread to utter. For 100 years or more, five full generations, American Jews have experienced a vacation from Jewish history: unfettered freedom, complete civil liberties, economic opportunity, the virtual absence of anti-Semitism, and social mobility. But what have we done with our advantages? Let's take a dispassionate look at the condition of the American Jewish community.
In 1970, there were 6.7 million Jews in the US, according to the Britannica Book of the Year. By 1990, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of that year, there were 5.2 million Jews. As the results of the 2000 NJPS have been delayed in publication (tremulous fear, perhaps?), some estimates put the current figure at 4.3 million. If current demographic trends hold (and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that they won' t), within 50 years there will be perhaps 1.5 million Jews, mainly Chareidim and mainly in New York. Concomitantly, the power and size of the Arab-American community is growing. They currently number approximately 6million, and are taking careful notes on how the American Jewish community organizes and exerts it's electoral clout. What are the implications of this counter-phenomenon?
Many American Jews point proudly to their pro-Israel lobbying efforts and argue that large-scale aliyah of American Jews would jeopardize US support for Israel. However, when there are 10 million Arab-Americans and only a million Jews, which lobby will carry the day in the corridors of power? David Bonior is not a singular pro-Arab Congressman from Michigan; he is the harbinger of the future. There is another democratic country, once strongly pro-Israel, which now hosts a population of 6 million Arabs and only 600,000 Jews. Ever heard of France? Study it well, my American friends - the synagogue bombings, the attacks upon Jews, the public policy, all of it -for that is the road you are treading.
Let's look a little deeper. By virtue of it's size, Conservative Judaism has been popularly regarded as mainstream, normative Judaism; and by virtue of its position, it claimed to moderate between the Reform on the left and a small but indomitable Orthodox community on the right. Since the direction of American Jewish communal life has largely been steered through the influence of the Conservative Movement, it is instructive to see how the Movement is doing. At the recent Conservative Movement Convention, which claims a membership of 2.1 million Jews, Dr. Neil Gillman, a Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, noted the absence of "G-d talk" within the Movement. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Vice President of United Synagogue, admitted publicly that "...large numbers of Conservative Jews do not live the life or values we teach." Conservative Jews tend to either drift left, towards the Reform, or, if they do live Jewish values, tend to develop into Orthodox Jews. There is also a push within the Movement to invigorate the liturgy, which is widely regarded as stultified and devoid of meaning. Finally, Rabbi Silverstein, by urging the Movement to be more "demographically pro-active," hinted at the great, unspoken specter that haunts the Conservative Movement: the average age of the Conservative congregant is skewed into the 60s or 70s, and there are few young people entering the Movement to replace them. So 50 years hence, their 800 congregations will be churches, mosques or bingo halls. The Conservative Movement has no direction, no mission, and - very soon - no congregants; in short, the Movement is not self-sustaining.
The Reform Movement, on the other hand, is thriving for now; and why shouldn 't it? As the Judaism of "individual autonomy," it demands nothing of it's adherents, except of course expensive dues and building fund pledges. According to recent estimates, only 50% - 60% of Reform Jews are halachically Jewish. Reform Judaism will continue the drift to the left, resembling Christian Unitarianism, only with Jewish iconology. It will aggressively advocate political action in the realms of diversity, radicalfeminism, militant gay rights and socialism. So it will continue to thrive in American life for a while, as the only address in the Jewish community that de-stigmatizes intermarriage and positively celebrates and accelerates assimilation. Eventually, though, the Reform will so successfully divest themselves of the vestiges of Jewish identity, that they will find their pews empty, too. More church buildings available at bargain prices.
American Orthodoxy is also not without it's problems. Increasingly, secular values and images, the seductive culture of youth, and the appeal of instant self-gratification have made insidious inroads into even the most august observant homes. We seem unable to convey to many of our children the Jewish notion of ritual fused with meaning; unable to answer convincingly, against a backdrop of unlimited choices, why a teenager should choose to be a Jew in this day and age.
To avert this disaster, we must return to our Divine calling.
"V'Ata Kadosh, Yoshev Tehilot Yisrael" - "And You are Holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel."
Yoshev - suggests Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.
Tehilot - suggests Torah.
Yisrael - Klal Yisrael.
The living interconnection between the Land, the Torah and the People is the great secret of Jewish survival. They are the tripod of G-d's throne, as it were, and a stool with only two legs is no stool at all. American Jewry is self-destructing because we have attempted to base our Jewish identity on any two, or sometimes only one of them. Our liberal Jewish brethren who have discarded both Torah and the Land find it difficult to understand why their adherents can't find much use for the People, either. Our Orthodox communities emphasize Torah and Klal, but attach almost no significance to Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Our secular Zionist brethren have demonstrated the abject failure of the People and the Land without Torah.
We point to our impressive institutions, Federations and synagogues, built out of necessity, with such painstaking effort and at such staggering cost. But we are like the proverbial castaway who, when offered the chance of rescue, is reluctant to return to civilization; reluctant to leave the crude instruments of survival he engineered and so lovingly built with almost superhuman effort. We are reluctant to abandon our desert island for a life
in Israel where being Jewish is normative, where Jewish continuity is taken for granted, where the ground , the air, the water is suffused with the spirit of G-d. We can no longer afford to ignore the historical imperatives that drive us towards our destiny: the People, loyal to G-d and Torah, living on the Land sworn to our ancestors, fulfilling the mission of bringing G-d's holiness into a weary world desperately in need of it.
Those few Diaspora Jews who happened to have found themselves in shul recently heard the story of the meraglim, the 12 spies, who made a pilot trip to Israel, but preferred their life in chutz l'aretz. Consider the words of G-d directed at those who rejected the Land of Israel: "And your young children of whom you said they will be taken captive [in Israel], I shall bring them; they shall know the Land that you have despised. But your carcasses will drop in this wilderness." - Bamidbar 14:31, 32 Think about that before you sign up for that fat 30 year mortgage.
From Gush Etzion, where we are living your dreams.
Yehoshua Mizrachi is a writer living in the Gush Etzion. His forthcoming book deals with Jewish renewal and rediscovering our Divine mission.