In certain circles it has become fashionable to poke fun at Jewish federation life – the perpetual fund-raising, the vulgarity of money translated into social status. But I find something profoundly moving about the billions of dollars raised every year by the vast panoply of Jewish charitable organizations.
The extent of Jewish giving confirms our Sages' statement that generosity and mercy are inherited characteristics of the Jewish people. Better that social status should come from Jewish charity than from the conspicuous consumption of consumer baubles.
Nevertheless it is by now clear that the so-called 'civil religion' of American Jews, which substitutes ethnic identity for Judaism, and which is exemplified by the federations, cannot perpetuate itself.
American Jews consistently attach less importance to religion than any other American group. What is most striking, writes Jonathan Woocher, 'is the thoroughly insignificant role which any God-concept plays in the civil religion.'
Only 40 percent of American Jewish households belong to a synagogue, and even those who do rarely attend. Among those whose great-grandparents came to America, only 8% of Conservative Jews and 2.5% of Reform Jews attend at least once a month. One-fifth of American Jews do not even consider Judaism to be their religion.
Nonetheless, Jews have been much more active in preserving their ethnic identity than any other immigrant group, creating an unparalleled web of charitable, cultural, and defense organizations. Philanthropy and good works, support for Israel, and Holocaust remembrance have become, in the words of Steven Cohen and Charles Liebman, 'the core religion of American Jews.'
Yet this ethnic identity is proving to be largely a one- or two-generation affair. The strong sense of Jewish identity that immigrants brought with them to America or that was nurtured in immigrant enclaves cannot be transmitted.
Lacking any account of why the continued existence of Jews is itself important, ethnic identity inevitably wanes. For if Judaism is an increasingly trivial affair, why show any particular concern with the fate of fellow Jews. And indeed, younger Jews give much smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than older Jews, and when they do give are far more likely to contribute to non-Jewish charities.
For all the rhetoric of 'One People,' American Jews are increasingly unlikely to view themselves as part of a brotherhood of Jews. Only 20%, according to a recent study, strongly identify with Israel; only 11% view Jewish philanthropy as an essential element of being a 'good Jew'; and only 27% would actively oppose a child's intermarriage. (And even these figures significantly overstate the percentages by excluding from the study the 20% who do not consider themselves Jewish by religion.)
JEWS ONCE knew why it was important to be Jewish. They knew that they had been chosen by God to be a holy nation; that they had been uniquely privileged to hear the unmediated word of God; and that His word was embodied in their sacred texts. Today less than 7% of American Jews even describe the study of those texts as a crucial aspect of Jewish life, and far fewer actually engage in such study.
Every aspect of our ancestors' lives was connected to God through His commandments. That connection could not have been summarized in a few ritual observances on a sociologist's questionnaire - e.g., Do you light Shabbat candles?
Because they knew why Judaism was important, our ancestors knew why fellow Jews were important. The feelings of ethnic solidarity that still bind Jews are a residuum of our ancestors' understanding of their relationship to one another as bearers of a common mission.
The truth is that the American Jewish community knows what it must do to survive. It must once again begin to speak about God as a commanding, living force in Jewish lives.
It can be done. The Lilly Foundation recently commissioned a study of the impact on teenagers of membership in youth groups sponsored by the National Council of Synagogue Youth.
NCSY has traditionally reached out to many from public school backgrounds and non-religious homes. Of this group, an amazing 80% of NCSY alumni continued serious textual studies in college and beyond; 90% belong to synagogues; only 2% intermarry; and even though many of those surveyed are still in their childbearing years, they average 3.2 children per family. Their Jewish continuity is secure.
If we excite teenagers about Judaism, they will come to Israel on their own. The average NCSYer has visited three times, compared to the 70% of American Jews who have not been even once. There would be no need for expensive gimmicks to bring them.
Yet the American Jewish community continues its search for something - anything - besides Judaism itself upon which to base Jewish identity.
'Continuity without content,' Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee calls it.
American Jews have grown comfortable with a religion that, in the words of former Conservative rabbi Howard Singer, 'entails no restrictive personal requirements, does not interfere with their social lives, and yet, on demand, can put them in touch with their past.'
The Holocaust is by far the strongest element of American Jewish identity precisely because it has no implications for everyday life and does not exact, as Jacob Neusner puts it, 'much cost in meaningful everyday difference from others.'
Historian Edward Shapiro notes that American Jews wildly overestimate the threat of antisemitism to avoid having to redefine themselves as Jews in more positive ways.
More American Jews would actively oppose their child's marriage to an Orthodox Jew than currently oppose intermarriage. The latter might entail changes in lifestyle; the former rarely does.
Feminist icon Germaine Greer was once asked if Teddy Kennedy and Norman Mailer were the only men left in the world, with whom would she prefer to perpetuate the species. She replied that she would prefer to let it perish.
American Jewry is similarly confronted with a choice between a renewed commitment to serious Jewish learning and living or disappearance. Let us hope it does not follow Greer.