American Jewry's Future as Seen Fifty Years Ago and Now

October 15, 2009

Source: The Institute for Global Jewish Affairs


The twenty-first century has challenged if not shattered much of the prevailing optimism about the American Jewish future. Nevertheless, the United States continues to be the Diaspora society most welcoming of Jews and receptive to Jewish participation. Jewish renewal coexists alongside a larger narrative of Jewish assimilation. Jewish political influence may well have peaked, and its continuation should not be taken for granted.


In this article, the author examines the seven main assumptions which dominated American Jewish self-understanding in the immediate postwar period and their relevance in contemporary America.


Among his conclusions:


"The fundamental paradigm remains that the narrative of Jews as Americans underscores America as the Diaspora that has worked incredibly well for Jews. The Jewish story in America has been an unprecedented success story. The outer lives of Jews as Americans elicit the envy of virtually every other ethnic and religious grouping. Jewish security rests on firm bases, and Jewish social and economic upward mobility remain high. By the criteria of educational and income achievements, Jews have done extremely well. For example, Jews are at least three times as likely as other Americans to possess graduate degrees.


The paradox, however, relates to the inner lives of Jews as Jews. Jewish insecurity and anxiety relate to concerns over future Jewish continuity manifested by high intermarriage rates, low fertility rates, and the huge gap between secular education attainments and minimalist Jewish educational attainments. To be sure, Orthodox Jewry is an important exception. Moreover, pockets of Jewish renewal exist within each of the religious movements. Yet that story of Jewish renewal coexists alongside a larger narrative of assimilation and erosion.


In short, it remains both the best of times and the worst of times. Jews have become so well integrated into American society that the boundary between Jew and non-Jew has become so fluid as to be frequently nonexistent. Intermarriage itself, a barometer of Jewish weakness, also signals the unprecedentedly high degree of acceptance of Jews within American society.


The underlying problem, however, clearly remains assimilation. Jewish political influence presupposes a critical mass of Jews interested in leading a creative Jewish life. Fewer Jews concerned with Judaism means a weakened Jewish people. What Jews would do with their unprecedented freedom and why they should lead a Jewish life clearly have become the most vexing questions that need to be answered in order to shape the Jewish future. American Jews had survived well the storms of the twentieth century. How they would cope with an America that loved Jews and welcomed them into all sectors of American society remains very much an open question."

Updated: Oct. 20, 2009