In what follows, we base ourselves primarily on a reanalysis of data gathered by last year's Pew survey, Portrait of Jewish Americans, but that did not make their way into its published findings. Our focus is not on the socio-economic mobility, general educational attainments, or other measures of Jewish achievement in America. Rather, we focus on how Jews relate to Judaism, Jewish institutions and causes, and what if anything they are doing to perpetuate Jewish life in the United States. The exercise should tell us a good deal about the American Jewish condition—a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.
Rebuilding for a Better Future
A crucial first step is to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. Whatever may be the number of Americans claiming some measure of Jewish identification, the proportion among them who, though of Jewish parentage, no longer identify themselves as Jews has never been higher. Not only that, but among identified Jews who are non-Orthodox, the levels of disengagement from Jewish life—diminished social connections, shallow practice, attenuated involvements—are unprecedentedly high. If current trends continue, the identified American Jewish populace will consist increasingly of burgeoning communities of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews and unengaged or “partial” Jews.
American Jews now stand on the precipice of a demographic cliff, and the choice before them is simple: either fall off, or turn around. Alas, much of organized Jewish life—which is to say, much of American Jewish leadership—shows no sense of urgency but proceeds as if a few small tweaks will miraculously reverse the destructive patterns eroding secular and non-Orthodox Jewish life. Seeing their roles as cheerleaders, reasoning that donors and volunteers can be recruited only if guaranteed of success, too many leaders cannot bring themselves to admit that American Jewry is in the midst of a deep-seated crisis. They therefore ignore not only the Pew data but, even more damagingly, a raft of other studies in recent decades that, for anyone truly interested in rebuilding American Jewish life, point to a number of ways out of the crisis.
All such studies make evident that the most effective initiatives share three critical features. (1) They create social networks that enhance interactions among Jews centering on matters of Jewish interest. (2) They target individuals in the same stages of life, enabling them to heighten their involvement in Jewish life along with their peers. And (3) they communicate Jewish content by exposing learners to sacred texts and the cultural heritage of the Jewish people.
With those three criteria in mind, let’s turn to the most endangered but also the likeliest candidates for re-engagement, namely, those in the middle: Conservative and Reform Jews who are either in-married or intermarried but still committed to some form of Jewish life. And the most obvious place to begin is with their school-age children, who are still forming their identities. The Pew data underline the significance of both the time and the intensity devoted to early Jewish education. These are the immersion years, in which bedrock Jewish literacy is most easily acquired and the Hebrew language is most quickly assimilated. This makes it all the more tragic that day schools at every level have become largely the preserve of Orthodox Jews, with only small percentages of others choosing an immersive Jewish education for their children.
The challenge, therefore, is to persuade more Jewish parents to enroll their children in strong programs of Jewish education—and to support what those programs are teaching. A properly organized Jewish effort would aim to increase the numbers of such parents and students by investing more philanthropic dollars in order to reduce tuition costs and by fighting for—rather than against—tax credits to offset those costs and stimulate greater philanthropic giving. (In this connection, it has been short-sighted in the extreme for philanthropies to stand idly by as Conservative institutions, especially Solomon Schechter day schools, have faltered; their decline or disappearance has impoverished the wider Jewish community.) Any such concerted effort should also seek to dispel the misconception that these schools cordon children off from participation in American society. The truth is that, in addition to offering a strong Jewish return on investment, most offer a first-rate general education and send their graduates on to elite colleges.
Read the entire article at Mosaic.