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Is the Golden Age Over for American Jews?

06/08/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

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100 years ago my great grandfather took a ship from Poland to New York. He eventually made his way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He soon sent for his two brothers and sister, who made their way there as well.

I don't think he ever told them, as the saying goes, that the streets in America were "paved with gold." But he did tell them life was much better here. Economic opportunities abounded. Antisemitism was minimal. The future brimmed with possibility.

History proved him right. Those Jews who came to American survived and prospered. Their fate contrasted sharply with those who stayed in Europe. 90 percent of Europe's Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and the Second World War.

After the war ended, Jewish Americans continued to thrive. Thousands of synagogues were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. Jews moved into the middle and upper middle classes. Our population also grew, and by the mid 1960s Jews were five percent of American population. As this timeline of American Jewish history shows, Jews have succeeded in America.

The Luckiest Man in the World

My grandfather's own life paralleled this history. He returned from the battlefields of the Second World War and set up a successful medical practice. He moved to the suburbs and had three children. He helped build a synagogue and watched all of his children graduate from college. He took his three grandsons to Israel. Shortly before he passed away in 2007, he told me he felt like the luckiest man in the world.

I wonder how he would feel today. Israel thrives, yet it faces contorted politics and a significant threat in Iran. American Jews have built extraordinary institutions and synagogues, but two thirds of us do not affiliate with them. Jews attend colleges at an extraordinary high rate, but 54 percent of our students report experiencing antisemitism on campus.

These contrasts have left some Jews feeling as if the Golden Age has ended, and a familiar weariness has returned. As columnist Rich Cohen put it, "It's as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we'd been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away."

A Cautious Optimism

Is he right? I'd answer with a cautious no. I say "no" because despite our drop in population and affiliation, American Jews remain the freest, largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world. More Jewish day school exist and thrive in America than at any other time. Reform and Conservative Jews--who face significant restrictions and obstacles to full rights in Israel--continue to evolve and find new ways to reach and engage unaffiliated Jews.

Many interfaith families have also chosen to live Jewish lives, joining synagogues and enriching worship. And Jews remain a strong voice for social justice and shaper of civic life in small towns and big cities.

My caution stems from a recognition of the truth of Cohen's observation. Antisemitism has its ups and downs, but through 4000 years of history, it has never gone away. We are witnessing its resurgence throughout Europe, and we hear its echoes on America's college campuses. The visible tension between America's President and Israel's Prime Minister does not help.

The Challenges Within

In addition to the threats without, we also face challenges within. Jews figure significantly among "the rise of the nones." These are the Millennials and Post-Millennials 35 and younger who reject organized religion. They frequently describe themselves as spiritual but religious.

Yet, I remain cautiously optimistic because the spiritual but not religious have opened a door. They have just not entered it. Our task is to keep that door open, because the rains are starting to the fall and the winds are getting stronger. This is not the first time they have gotten stronger, as this overview of American Jewish history reveals.