Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Will All of American Jewry Eventually be Orthodox?

Lubavitchers that do outreach work - at a 2013 annual meeting
One may be tempted to feel a sense of triumphalism because of the thoughts expressed yesterday in a Forward article by Hebrew Union College Research Professor Steven M. Cohen. But I am not so eager to celebrate just yet. Professor Cohen has come to the conclusion that the American Jews of the future will all be Orthodox. At least that’s the way the title of his article first read. It has been changed. That’s probably because it is a bit of an exaggeration. But not by much if one reads the article.

This is not news to those of us that have seen the Pew Research statistics about the increase in the size of Orthodox Jewry versus the decrease in size of all other denominations – including unaffiliated Jews.

Although Pew is one of the most respected research organizations in the world some have challenged their research parameters. As have some of the conclusions drawn from their research. But even if their numbers are off - the direction non Orthodox Jews are going is clear. Heterodoxy has failed while Orthodoxy has succeeded.

For me that is strong evidence that it is Halacha that has kept us alive throughout the millennia. I don’t think this is arguable. While culture has always played a role in how Halacha developed or is practiced, it is beyond clear to me that following it is what kept us going – and will continue to keep us going into the future. And it doesn’t help heterodoxy that they have small families versus Orthodox Jews which have large families. While Orthodoxy too has an attrition rate – a truly big challenge we face internally, it is no where near the attrition rate of non Orthodox Jews abandoning their Judaism.

What it is about Halacha that perpetuates us? The obvious answer for those of us that are believers is that God promised us in the Bible that we would always exist as His nation. Never to be completely wiped out. That is the spiritual reason. But I believe one can see a more practical reason. Former British Chief Rabbi - Lord Jonathan Sacks has called it ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Which is the title of a book he wrote on the subject. It is our differences that have kept us unique and identifiable as an entity. Assimilation – if it is total is indeed a melting pot to the extent that it erases our identities. If Jews are the same as non Jews in every way, then belief alone will not not carry us into perpetuity. Our children may not have those beliefs. If we behave like everyone else – we become everyone else. If we walk like a duck…

Culture is not enough to keep us distinct. That’s because it changes over time and differs among different societies. Often cultural distinctions cease to be unique to us and are adopted by host cultures. For example Yiddish used to be exclusively the language of the Jewish people. Now one can find many Yiddish words in an English dictionary. And how many Yiddish speakers are there today anyway (except in isolated conclaves like Satmar)? While the incorporation of Jewish culture is great in terms of our acceptance - it is not something that keeps us unique. Only Halacha does that - as I have said countless times. That is ours and ours alone. It keeps us different, unique, and gives us dignity if we practice it the right way.

This was the mistake made by the Conservative movement. It was founded with the intent of conserving Judaism – as its name suggests. But it has failed in that mission. Some of their leading lights (like Rabbi Jack Wertheimer) have identified the real reason for its failure. Their leaders have by and large ignored the lack of Halachic practice in most of their members. They believed that coming to Shul on Shabbos was enough to keep them Jewish – even if they drove there. Clearly that hasn’t worked. And now they are scrambling to keep themselves relevant by turning to secular or traditional Israelis in the belief that their mission will succeed there. They believe – with some justification – that Israelis will never assimilate out in a Jewish state. Although I’m not sure how successful they will be even if they gain the official recognition from the State they are fighting for.

Perhaps there will be a remnant of  non Orthodox Jews in the America in the future. But the handwriting is already on the wall. It won’t last any more than other non Halachic movements of Jewish history lasted. In some cases even Halachic movements like the Essenes died out because they were too far out of the mainstream.

All this may sound triumphalist. But it isn’t. I do not feel good about what’s happening here in America. Yes, I’m gratified that my beliefs are vindicated by a positive statistical outlook for the Orthodoxy of the future. But the fact that the vast majority of Jews here are not Orthodox or observant in any real way is very depressing. The numbers are staggering. 

Conservative Judaism was not wrong in identifying the problem back in the melting pot era of its founding. They saw Judaism being challenged and they wanted to do something about it. They were just wrong in how they went about it. The question is, what do we do about it?

The obvious answer is outreach. In my view, in light of the dire circumstances cited by Professor Cohen we need a far more aggressive approach to reach out to our fellow Jews. Not aggressive in terms of force. But in terms of interactions with them. We are simply not doing enough. Orthodox Jews may feel satisfied living among themselves and leading their lives according to Halacha more or less oblivious to what is happening to non observant Jews. And even if they are aware of this problem they might say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it anyway’. But that is absolutely false. Ask any Lubavitcher.

We can and should do things as individuals. Like making a public Kiddush Hashem in the way we behave. We should be role models if we are truly observant. We ought to go out of our way to be open, warm, and welcoming to all Jews regardless of their denominations. Never disparaging their movements or rabbis. Invite a fellow Jewish worker and his family over for a Shabbos meal. Let them see what keeping Shabbos is really like. Take pride in who you are as a religious Jew. Much can be done by each of us that isn’t being done now by most of us.

Organizationally Lubavitch is by far the most successful outreach group. But they can’t do it alone. Even if you factor in every single Jew that became a Baal Teshuva through their efforts, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to vast numbers of Jews leaving Judaism. If a 70% intermarriage rate among non Orhtodx Jews doesn’t send us this message, nothing will. And Lubavitch by far has the greatest numbers of Baalei Teshuva. Probably more than all other outreach groups combined.

I therefore suggest the following. All segments of Orthodoxy must come together in one singular cause. If there was ever a reason for unity this is it. It doesn’t matter whether one is Charedi, Chasidic, Lubavitch, Sephardi, Centrist, or left wing Modern Orthodox. The leaders of these groups ought to meet and unite in the singular cause of doing what the Conservative Movement tried to do – keeping Jews Jewish.  

No stone should be left unturned. Instead of working at cross purposes and getting in each other’s way – outreach ought to be coordinated among all such groups. This ought to be the highest priority for us in light of the spiritual Holocaust that seems to be taking place. We need to put our differences aside and work towards the same goal of perpetuating Judaism for as many Jews as possible.

I would go one step further. I believe that many of our heterodox brethren truly care about keeping Jews Jewish – despite their failures of the past. I know many formerly Conservative Jews that became Orthodox with the full approval of their Conservative rabbis. Although those rabbis would have preferred that their people remain Conservative, they are far happier when they go right than when they go left - and out of Judaism altogether. I am also aware of Conservative rabbis feeding some of their teenage members to NCSY events. This is something that should certainly be explored and expanded upon in my view.

It is not an impossible dream. But it will take courage and determination by all involved. It is far more important to see a Jew following Halacha than it is to see him adopt a specific Hashkafa. In this regard, NCSY is a leader since their Baalei Teshuva can be found in all streams of Orthodoxy.

It is more than time for all Orthodox segments that feel their own way is the only – or even the best way - to rid themselves of that feeling and work towards reaching out to all Jews for one purpose: to return as many Jews as possible to the only form of Judaism that has proven to be legitimate: observant Judaism. And let the peripherals – like what kind of hat to wear - take care of themselves.