Today is August 20, 2019 -
When published five years ago, the 2013 Pew Study of American Jews rocked the Jewish world. Jack Wertheimer said, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population.” Religious observance was on the decline, while intermarriage rates had skyrocketed.
I heard a lecture by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who suggested that while many in the organized Jewish community were horrified by the survey results, the assimilationists were likely dancing in the streets. From their perspective, all of their hard work was paying off.
Since the mid to late 19th century, during the 2nd Industrial Revolution and the Jewish emancipation in Europe, Jews have been struggling with the concept of assimilation. Perhaps for the first time with their newfound freedoms, Jews could mingle with the non-Jewish majorities, and people questioned whether they should and, if so, how much. Certainly, for many Jews who had immigrated to the United States, they were looking to start over without the baggage of being identified as Jewish. Jews were changing their names, their diets, their clothing, their language, and their Shabbat rituals in an effort to assimilate into the American culture.
Others clung to their Jewish identities. They kept their names, diets, clothing, etc. As a result, we see today an entire spectrum of Jewish thought.
So how does this pertain to our current theme of Israeli and American Jewry issues?
Institutional Judaism’s responses to the 2013 Pew Study have been overwhelming:
On one side of the spectrum, there has been a recognition that Jews identify differently today than in the past, and if we want to keep people Jewish then we need to engage and embrace. There is room for every Jew under our tent; we need to develop our understanding of Judaism to accommodate everyone. The Reform movement calls this “audacious hospitality.” The Conservative movement has been working the relational Judaism model. Jewish Federations have been adding engagement departments to focus exclusively on this work. Even the Modern Orthodox (with some limitations) have joined this bandwagon.
On the other end of the spectrum, the ultra-Orthodox (with some exceptions) have dug in. We heard from a few members of the community at our conference. They are so afraid of this new world that they are breaking away even further. They want to protect their children from this world of intermarriage and non-kosher. Judaism is from Sinai not an ever-expanding tent capable of fitting everyone.
We discussed last week the disproportionate say that the ultra-Orthodox have in the Israeli coalition. They control the Kotel, kosher food, marriage, etc. Many American Jews are not happy.
To be continued…
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