Bambi Sheleg reports from the General Assembly in Toronto ("Community in Crisis") that the primary issue facing North American Jewry is how to maintain the affiliation of young Jews. Actually another issue precedes that one: Will there be a Jewish community to which they can attach themselves?
The statistics cited out by Jack Wertheimer in the October Commentary are not encouraging. Over the last 50 years, the American Jewish community has experienced no growth, despite the influx of at least 500, 000 Jewish immigrants. Of the 5.5 million people classified as Jews by the demographers, more than a million are not halachically Jewish. Fifty years ago, the comparable figure would have been near zero.
The median age of the American Jewish population is seven years older than the general population. Jewish women marry latter, and when they do, they predictably have few children. Worse, two out of every three marriages involving a Jew is an intermarriage.
Three-quarters of the offspring of intermarriage will themselves marry non-Jews. Not surprising given that in only 14% of intermarried households is the religious orientation "primarily" Jewish – and even in those 60% have x-mas trees.
The American Jewish future is increasingly Orthodox. Among synagogue affiliated Jews, Orthodox youth outnumber all other denominations.
Sheleg introduces us to three representative young Jews: the editor of an edgy magazine "Heeb" aimed at those who hated Hebrew school; a woman rabbi; and a player in a band fusing klezmer and rap. Each grew up finding the classic Jewish texts "dry" and unrelated to their lives.
The likelihood, however, is that they were never exposed to Torah at all, and that their Jewish education, if any, suffered from a surfeit of relevance – i.e., political correctness -- not its absence. If they ever heard a High Holiday sermon at all, it was more likely to be on gay rights or the threat of the Christian Right or the evils of Orthodoxy than connected to Torah.
The one thing they never heard is why Judaism, and thus the preservation of the Jewish people, is important. By constantly changing the rules for inclusion, in an effort to hold on, at least for accounting purposes, to everyone with any Jewish genes, the Jewish community has conveyed the message that Judaism is trivial.
Young Jews have never heard where Judaism has differed in the past, and continues to differ today. In Wertheimer's words, they know nothing of "the distinctive commandments, beliefs, and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia have willingly and gratefully, set themselves apart" – at a heavy cost in blood.
The Reform rabbinate's official statement on sexuality cannot bring itself to mention traditional marriage as an ideal. And the Reconstructionist Movement goes even further, disparaging marriage as "historically a relationship of two unequal parties."
Having lost any sense of Jewish uniqueness, the community has long ago thrown in the towel on intermarriage. A photograph in the largest circulation Anglo-Jewish paper of a Jewish "rabbi" marrying a Protestant minister, under a chuppah, and surrounded by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clergy pretty much sums it up.
Non-Orthodox Jewish schools are afraid to say a word in favor of endogamy, lest they offend children of intermarriage. Wertheimer cites a Conservative synagogue in which two-thirds of recently bar-mitzvahed youth – among the most identified of American Jewish youth – saw no problem with marrying a non-Jew.
The common strand Sheleg found uniting her representative youth is that all complain of a lack of communal funding for their endeavors. They can stand in line. Though Jewish day schools (regardless of demoninational affiliation) have demonstrated themselves to be by far the strongest bulwark against assimilation, such schools receive only 4.5% of federation funding and face continual financial crises. In addition, the mainstream community remains the most vociferous opponent of any form of government funding or tax relief that might aid these schools.
The bottom line is: Unless American Jews start once again taking Judaism seriously, they can offer their young no reason to affiliate with a dying community or to marry one another.