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The Polarized Jewish Community

The Polarized Jewish Community

Assimilation and cultural renaissance: two sides of the same coin of American Jewish life.


The renewed debate over how many Jews there are in America is about as meaningful as the mythical medieval argument over how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. Five million angels? Six million? Eight million? A more sensible question would be: Even if they could, why would any number of angels want to stand on a pin?

The pin in this case is a meaningful Jewish identity. This is not necessarily the same as answering "yes" over the telephone to a pollster who asks you if you are Jewish or are raising your children as Jews. The same pollster can ask you whether you eat cornflakes, and you can answer "yes" to that, too, without intending to convey that cornflakes are central to your life or that you would even exert yourself to buy a box of them if your neighborhood supermarket ran out of them.

As has been repeatedly pointed out, counting Jews in America is a function of how one defines being Jewish. Once upon a pre-modern time, this definition was agreed on by all Jews. A Jew was someone recognized as such by Jewish religious law, which meant someone able to participate in the rituals and ceremonies of the Jewish community to which he or she belonged.

But this was back in the days when just about every Jew did belong to a Jewish community. Those times were already passing in the early 19th century and are long gone today. Outside of Israel, Jewishness, at least as far as the statisticians are concerned, has become a matter of self-definition -- and self-definition, as we all know, is subjective and therefore intrinsically not measurable. Two people saying they are Jewish can mean totally different things by it.

This is why the numbers debate is not really very significant. One can argue whether there are 5.2 million Jews in America, as was determined by the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, or whether there are 6.4 million, as has now been claimed in a study undertaken by demographers Ira Sheskin and Arnold Deshefsky, respectively, of the universities of Miami and Connecticut, but in either case, the 1.2 million now-you-see-them-now-you-don't Jews that make up the difference are more virtual than real.

This is because the Jews who are the most difficult to count are inherently those who are not part of the Jewish community, do not give their children even minimal Jewish educations, and can be located only by means of random phone calls of the "Do you eat cornflakes?" variety. Even if they identify themselves as Jewish over the telephone, this identity is highly likely to be tenuous in the extreme and highly unlikely, in their children, to survive another generation of intermarriage and assimilation.

The nonaffiliated Jews of today are of a different composition from that of the nonaffiliated Jews of former times.

One doesn't need to be a demographer or a statistician to realize that in terms of real Jews, the American Jewish community has been steadily shrinking for a long time. This is not because the number of affiliated Jews has dropped sharply, but because the nonaffiliated Jews of today are of a different composition from that of the nonaffiliated Jews of former times.

Once, in the second and third generations of the great Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, there was such a thing as an "ethnic Jew," men and women who, although they did not go to synagogue or participate in Jewish communal life, ate like Jews, spoke like Jews, thought like Jews, socialized with Jews, and married Jews. It is this type of Jew that has all but disappeared from American Jewish life. Today's fourth- or fifth-generation nonaffiliated Jew eats like other Americans, speaks like other Americans, thinks like other Americans, socializes with other Americans, and marries other Americans.

And yet any observer of the American Jewish scene knows that shrinkage is only half of the story. The other half is the remarkable strengthening of Jewish education, religious observance, and creativity in that part of the American Jewish community that has chosen to remain strongly Jewish. Nor are these two seemingly opposed processes unrelated. On the contrary: As assimilation has claimed more and more American Jews, American Jews who wish to resist it have increasingly come to understand that the only way to do so is by putting more of an effort into being Jewish.

Assimilation and cultural renaissance are thus two sides of the same coin of American Jewish life, and all of the wordy arguments about what direction American Jewry is going in are largely a matter of which side of the coin one is looking at. The American Jewish community is rapidly polarizing into more and more assimilated Jews, on the one hand, and more and more Jewish Jews, on the other. The broad ethnic middle has fallen out of it.

This community has also become more Orthodox, both because Orthodox families have by far the highest Jewish birth rate -- they are the only American Jews who are reproducing above replacement level -- and because they have, again by far and away, the greatest success in retaining their children and preventing defections from the Jewish fold. Although they constitute today an estimated 10% of American Jewry, they comprise a third of its regular synagogue goers, 20% of its under-18 population, and barely 1% of its Jews who intermarry.

Moreover, as bitter as the divide between them and Reform and Conservative Jews may be over cultural issues, the intense allegiance of Orthodox Jews to a Jewish way of life is a model that Reform and Conservatism will increasingly have to follow if they are to survive. The real demographic story of American Jewish life may turn out to be its steady "Orthodoxization" in the years to come. Although this is something whose implications few American Jewish leaders or institutions have given much thought to, it is too clear a trend to ignore.

This article originally appeared in The New York Sun.

January 6, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 21

(20) Rafael, December 3, 2015 2:54 PM

To be or not to be - Jewish

I was a steady entertainer at Kutchers country club in upstate New York . It was a place where Jews would vacation and feel a safety in numbers . Kutchers closed in 2014 when the clientele dwindled to nothing . The reason given by the Kutchers family is that Jews are doing financially well and feel comfortable vacationing and having homes most anywhere in the USA .
These freedoms have diminished the necessity for Jews to cling to each other . An article in Aish written by I think" Evette Alt"said the lack of anti semetism in Asia also disassembled the Jewish community that existed there .
I believe in the case of the Jewish community it is anti semetism that keeps hard and soft core Jews united in some form . The less negative attention Jews get ... The closer they grow and assimilate to the Gentile population . The Gentile population on the other hand doesn't define itself in terms of Gentile and non Gentile . Churches are closing all over the USA as the parishes diminish .
The former religious Jews and former religious Christians as well as disenchanted former Muslims and Hindos are embracing a new 21st century consciousness . Like the walls of Jericho the barriers have come tumbling down . This is not only bad news for Jewish tradition but for all religious denominations that have successfully partitioned themselves in the past !
It is a terrible thing to say that Hitler was the unwitting dark angel that justified for the world ...the State of Israel . The Hollocaust is the battle cry that inspires Jews to go on the offense and hold their ground " AS JEWS".
The Torah is all about stife and fighting enemies according to the will of Hashem . Is it possible that American Jews need a fresh infusion of anti semetism to rekindle the unity of the good old days .

(19) Rabbi Aryeh Moshen, April 14, 2015 3:44 PM

What percent is Orthodox

While there has been no actual complete census taken (and our tradition frowns on taking one) I believe that we can claim at least 1,000,000 Orthodox Jews in the States. That would mean about 20% of all Jews, and perhaps 40%-50% of all American Jewish children under the age of 16.

(18) Anthony, April 2, 2014 3:05 PM

Solving the polarization problem

After reading many books such as: Atlas of Jewish Civilization, Josephine Bacon; Crash Course of Jewish History and World Perfect by Ken Spiro) I came to the conclusion that maybe a Rabbi of profound knowledge should be named to joint Jewish people of different community of Jews.
The Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, Essenes, Reformist, Orthodox and Conservative have always been the cause of a great divided between the Jewish people. Also the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Falasha and Zionist all a cause of great differences’, something must be done and I conclude on the need of a voiceless coordinator of the world Jews.

(17) Anonymous, October 30, 2012 9:09 PM

The Great Jewish Reformation

Tu., 10/30/12 common era //////////I was raised in the Reform movement but came back to G-d and His Torah when I turned age 40. In my experience, the typical Reform "rabbi" lacks the Torah knowledge of the average high school Yeshiva student and of the average frum young woman. Reform "Judaism" provides only an ethnic veneer. To boot, Reform Judaism was concocted to eliminate or at least greatly reduce antisemitism by making Jewish religious practices more closely resemble Protestant Christian ones. And this all happened in dear old Deutschland. I rest my case.

(16) Jacqueline S Kurz-Dunn, February 25, 2007 12:32 PM

If jews born as jews don't care why should anyone else

I really believed in Jaudais as a convert until I saw and experienced so many Jews who honor very little of their traditions especially in my husband's family. Two of my my 3 nieces/nephews (by marriage), married nominal christians and therefore the children are raised as essentially nothing. My brother in law tried to make me believe that a seder plate is a new invention, and my Sister-in-law never lights shabbat candles. They brag about cooking pork when the rabbid visited the house uannanounced. To me they insult Jewish traditions. After seeing so many Jews outright dishonor and blattantly practice their faith only when convenient, I decided to back to being a Christian. To too many Jews in day to day life means very little. How sad!

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