The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.