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Rabbi Adam Jacobs

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The Jewish American Gut-Check

Posted: 12/15/2011 2:43 pm

A fascinating thing has transpired in the 63-year-old relationship between the Israeli Jewish population and their brethren in the American diaspora. The latter have just realized that their days are numbered -- not as a result of the encroaching existential dangers of the sort that Israel faces day in and day out -- but rather as the result of a slow implosion borne on the back of apathy, cultural acceptance and assimilation.

Ironically, no nation has been as embracing and tolerant of the Jewish people as the United States. One need only to read President Washington's remarkable letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Sadly, the American Jewish community has used this unprecedented opportunity unwisely. Instead of educating our children in the beautiful system of ethics, logic, personal growth and spirituality that is the Torah, they sought mainly to fit in with the population at large. Rather than instruct them in the miraculous and heroic history of the ancient people to whom they belong, they provided anemic and mind-numbing Hebrew School experiences and focused on making sure that they had competitive SAT scores and college-worthy extra-curricular activities. The result has been a cascading abandonment of true Judaic thought and practice and a collective spiritual ignorance that is unprecedented in our 3,000+ year project in this world. As a whole, based on the standard demographic measurements of affiliation, the American Jewish community appears terminal, and the effects are manifesting themselves now. In the words of Reform Rabbi Lance J. Sussman from 2010, "With the exception of a number of Orthodox communities and a few other bright spots in or just off the mainstream of Jewish religious life, American Judaism is in precipitous decline ... the reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!"

When contrasted with the continuity performance of the Israeli Jewish community, it's hard not to be shocked at the gap. Despite their highly publicized problems, the Israeli Jewish world is thriving. Among other facts, the Jewish birth rate there is the highest in the industrial world at about three children per woman. The entire population is obviously fluent in Hebrew and even the public school students get 12 years of biblical study -- both of which deeply enhance their sense of connectedness to their "Jewishness." It is commonly believed that most Israelis are secular but the truth is that in practice most Israelis are a hybrid -- incorporating many elements of Judaic practice such as having a Passover Seder, building a sukkah or lighting Shabbat candles -- without taking on the entire discipline (Hat tip: David Goldman). They also marry Jews, unlike more than 50 percent of their American counterparts. As the products of inter-marriage are statistically unlikely to be raised with any lasting Jewish knowledge or commitment and given their low birth-rates, it is simply a matter of time until the bulk of the community in America destroys itself.

This is the reason for the surprisingly antagonistic responses by secular American Jews to the Israeli government's recent ads prodding their expatriates to come home. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg says that "I don't think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads." He also states that in his view intermarriage "can also be understood as an opportunity."

An opportunity for what? For inter-denominational understanding yes, but as a means of preserving the Jewish nation it fails utterly -- as it always has. It's the reason that the Reform and Conservative populations are now vanishing. Any student of Jewish history knows that there have periodically arisen great new Jewish movements that deviated from the mainstream, temporarily flourished and then collapsed and disappeared. It's the reason why the once great Karaite and Sadducee communities are irrelevant or non-existent, respectively. We are witnessing the latest iteration of that ancient cycle currently and it disturbs those who are standing on the wrong side of history. Israel is once again the epicenter of Jewish life and more and more we will see religiously committed leaders taking authority over Jewish matters -- both at home and in the diaspora. Even the once spiritually bereft IDF has begun contending with the need to accommodate the recent influx and promotion of religious soldiers in its ranks.

America has indeed been an important safe-haven for the remnants of the European destruction. We have flourished materially and been granted opportunities undreamt of by our ancestors. It has been good. But now the ground has shifted, and each Jew must make his or her choice -- to continue to allow themselves to be distanced from their Judaism and their connection to the land, or to explore and (hopefully) embrace them. Israel (and traditional observance), as was foretold by the Torah and the prophets thousands of years ago, is the future: "And He will return and gather you from among all of the nations where he has dispersed you. If your dispersed ones will be even at the ends of the heavens, from there God Almighty will gather you and from there He will take you. And God your Lord will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited and you shall inherit it and He will do good for you and make you more numerous than your forefathers." (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)

That this decline will occur seems a foregone conclusion, but it does not mean that we should casually resign ourselves to it. There is a Talmudic dictum that says that "all Jews are guarantors for one another." On a practical level this means that each one of us is responsible for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of all the others. I cannot sequester myself in my religious enclave and spiritually satisfy myself while the vast majority of my nation cannot read two letters of their own alphabet let alone navigate the finer points of our legal, ethical and philosophical texts. All Jews must take the time and the responsibility to reach out and -- at the very least offer to -- help educate their fellow Jew. Otherwise, soon enough we won't even know who to reach out to.

 

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