Monday, August 10, 2015

Can American Jewry Be Saved?

Professor Steven M. Cohen
The scramble by Reform and Conservative leaders to increase or even sustain their huge numbers would be funny if it weren’t so devastatingly sad.

Reform and Conservative Jews comprise the majority of Jews in America. But as that now famous (infamous?) Pew report from a few years ago showed, those numbers are declining rapidly. This is true even in Reform Judaism - which has taken drastic action to increase its numbers. Like redefining who is a Jew via birth to include patralineal descent and accepting converts based on little else but the desire to be considered a Jew.

Both of these movements were founded as a response to the times. The idea obviously was to try and be inclusive of the vast majority of Jews who were not fully observant – or at all. The reasons many were not observant were varied but in many cases it was because of the assimilationist spirit of America at the time of their founding. 

Although the Conservative movement was founded as a reaction to the excesses of Reform and designed to ‘conserve’ Judaism, it was also intended to serve in ways that accommodated assimilation. Thus making it more inviting than Orthodoxy to those who for one reason or another were not observant at an Orthodox level (Mostly having to do with keeping Shabbos.)  

These movements failed to understand how devastating to its members (and even more importantly their offspring) it would be to bend, ignore, or eliminate observance in order to accommodate the assimilationist spirit of the times. The lack of a Jewish education and observance combined with the zeal to assimilate would create a next generation of Jews that could not care less about a Judaism they knew little about. That is why the intermarriage rate is so high. Where at one time non observant parents still wanted their children to marry ‘in’- now they hardly care.

I am not gloating here. I am reacting to an article and video in the Forward by Professor Steven M. Cohen.  Professor Cohen  is not some Orthodox triumphalist . He is a sociologist of American Jewry and the Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the flagship institution of Reform Judaism: the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In this article he quotes the statistics that make it obvious that Reform and Conservative Judaism are in free fall. Just to mention a few: 
high intermarriage rates – 40% among Conservative Jews & 80% among Reform Jews-with non-Jews
low birthrates: about 1.7 children per household
high rates of non-marriage and late marriage
only 7% of the grandchildren of the intermarried are being raised as Jewish-by-religion.
Meanwhile Orthodox Jews in all of its segments are increasing. And their children are by and large not intermarrying. Furthermore they marry young and have many more children.

Why does this segment have such a high growth rate? Why do they remain Jewish and why do their children remain Jewish? It is because they were given a Jewish education. An education that instills a strong sense of Jewish identity in the vast majority of its student. An identity that is reinforced through the observance of Mitzvos. Many of which are Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and God) Which consists of various rituals and prohibitions that separate us from the Western culture rather than fully assimilate with it. 

Assimilation is then limited to those aspects of western culture that do not contradict Halacha. We are different on purpose. That gives us our separate identity. And it has kept us a unique people for centuries.

None of this is true for the vast majority of non Orthodox Jews. Although there are some exceptions most non Orthodox Jews do precious little that separates them from their surrounding culture. There is, in other words almost total assimilation of the non Orthodox American Jew into the broader culture. Nothing he does separates him for the non Jew. 

Why would such Jews then care whether they or their offspring are Jewish?  Intermarriage? No problem. That’s why  non Orthodox Jews are hemorrhaging out exponentially with each new generation. This is a very sad fact not only for heterodox rabbis, but for Orthodox rabbis too. 

What can we do about it? Professor Cohen makes a few suggestions, some of which I agree with and others, not so much.

Oddly enough, one of his suggestions is to seek out Chabad. That Chabad has impressed a Reform Jewish professor with their outreach says a lot for them. I agree with him about Chabad. I would add that there are other organizations like NCSY, Aish HaTorah, and JEP that are invaluable assets in that regard as well. But even if we add all the outreach successes together, it hardly makes a dent in the numbers leaving. This does not mean we don’t try. Every assimilated Jew that these organizations keeps Jewish is one less Jew that assimilates out.

Aside from the  aforementioned Chabad, Professor Cohen makes a number of other suggestions . Like creating more Jewish summer camps. That too may help.  But some of his other suggestions are non starters.

Like getting more non Orthodox rabbis on campuses. He believes non observant Jews might better relate to them than Orhtodox rabbis. But I don’t see how Reform and Conservative rabbis who have failed so miserably to keep their members in the fold are going do any better on college campuses.

He also suggests that intermarried Jews treat their non Jewish spouses as Jews. That is certainly not a solution. It is in fact part of the problem. You can’t increase your numbers by marrying out where-  if the mother is not Jewish - neither will their children be. Half of all children of intermarried couples will not be Jewish, not matter how you treat them.That is a prescription for disaster – not a solution to the problem. But at least Professor Cohen recognizes the problem and suggests some solutions.

Unfortunately, I believe that in the majority of cases, it’s too late. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to do something about it. Outreach organization like the ones I mentioned are key in this regard. Perhaps they should pool their talents and resources so as to be more efficient. The most effective tool by far, however, is Jewish education. It worked well for Orthodoxy. The goal of outreach should therefore be to get young people into Jewish schools.

I know there is a tuition crisis in Jewish education that seems to be getting worse with time. Nonetheless for me, this is the only credible hope for the future. How do we fund these schools? How do we get parents to send their children to these expensive schools? Do we waive tuition for them?  Or reduce it more for them than for observant parents?  Who will subsidize the increased expense that increased enrollment entails?  All good questions which I have no answer for. But this is really the best hope of keeping Jews Jewish in this country. Without it, the vast majority of Jews will eventually disappear.