Friday, November 03, 2017

Learning From History

Scenes like this are disappearing as more Jews shed their Jewish identity
Rabbi Berel Wein is really on target. He gets it. Except for Orthodox Jews, American Jewry is dying. While not blaming heterodoxy directly for it. It is clear that it had a large part in it.

The fact is that there was a time where American Jews cared about being Jewish – even if they weren’t fully observant. In many cases it was because they felt they had to work on Shabbos, lest the family starve. 

Back in the melting pot era of he early 20th century, working on Shabbos was the norm for most jobs. Sunday was the day off. Two day weekends were not necessarily the norm. There are stories of Jews who were tenacious about observing Shabbos and ended up getting fired every Monday because they not show up for work on Shabbos. My father in law had this experience. Most Jewish immigrants of that time could not stand up to that kind of pressure.

It is also a fact that the immigrant Jews of that time had little Jewish eduction. Many were ignorant of Halacha – certainly by today’s standards. They just kept Shabbos because that is what they saw in their parents home. They tried to keep the Halachos they could and keep the family as traditional as possible.I am not here to judge anyone. 

I’m only describing circumstances.

But keeping their children Jewish in a melting pot culture where assimilation was the order of the day was a fool’s errand. Especially when there was a dearth of Jewish days schools for their children to attend.  These immigrants also saw the public school system as the key to a successful future for their kids. Any Jewish education their children received was usually through afternoon Hebrew schools and Sunday schools sponsored by their Shul. Those parents felt that their influences in the home plus the smattering of Jewish education their children received in those schools would suffice. 

This scenario, says Rabbi Wein was perfect for the Conservative Movement. They catered to it in the mistaken belief that they could perpetuate some form of tradition in the offspring of their members.

But those children knew hypocrisy when they saw it. Despite the best intentions of their parents – who wanted their kids to be traditional – working on Shabbos while expecting their children to attend shul was not a good model for them. They correctly asked their fathers, ‘Why should we be Shomer Shabbos when you’re not?! They hated afternoon schools and Sunday schools. Attending additional schools after they spent the day n public school while their friends were our having fun was not appealing at all tothem – to say the least. Most kids hated it. And wanted to be as American as they could. Which meant running as far away from Jewish tradition as they could.

Long story short – as those children became adults, marred and had children of their own, they wanted to impress those same assimilationist values on them. And it worked. 

Their children did not run away form Yiddishkeit because they never lived it to begin with. They were the classic Tinokos SheNishbu – having been raised as secular as possible – with some of them even having Christmas trees in the homes in December.

There is no coming back form assimilation like that. Most American parents of the late fifties/early sixties succeeded in stripping their children of all tradition. And the Conservator movement failed in their attempt to keep some of it in their membership.

That – along with the freedom this country stands for and the wide acceptance and even admiration by Americans of the Jewish people that polls tells us is the case - is why there is so much assimilation and intermarriage today. Traditional Jews have all but disappeared.

If there is any upside to this, it is that it is a lot easier to reach out to Jews that don’t have the animus against Jewish practices that their parents did. They did not run away, like their parents did. They simply don’t know anything about it. They are therefore a Tabula Raza  - a ‘clean slate’ for those of us in Jewish outreach can ‘write’ upon. But as I’ve mentioned in the past, the percentage of those we reach is minuscule compared to those we don’t. And that is a tragedy.

It would have been far better had we been able to build a religious schools system sooner. Although it probably would not have stopped those parents who felt they needed to work on Shabbos from doing so, I believe that a strong Jewish education would have made a huge difference in spite of the hypocrisy they saw at home.  

This is the sad fact of Jewish history in 20th century America. All attempts to keep future generations of Jews traditional are doomed to failure unless a serious Jewish education becomes the centerpiece of raising children. We have seen what happens without it. And we see what happens with it – as Orthodoxy seems to be the only viable future for the Jewish people in America.