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The Vanishing American Jew?
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The Vanishing American Jew?

The recent Pew Report on Jewish identity is a wake-up call for all of us.


For years I would laugh at the irony.

In 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Vanishing American Jew.” Boldly, with the self-assurance of a national publication that had millions of readers, the article clearly explained why in all certainty there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States in the 21st century.

Well, we all know what happened.

Jews survived, but Look magazine disappeared.

We could afford to be amused that once again those who predicted our early demise were so powerfully mistaken.

In the immortal words of Mark Twain who had the remarkable experience of reading his own erroneous obituary in the local newspaper, the report of our death was greatly exaggerated.

In fact, people have been writing our obit almost from the time of our birth. The oldest recorded mention of the name Israel is in an Egyptian hymn of victory dating to Pharoah Mer-nep-tah (about 1230 BCE), and it reads, "Israel is laid waste, his offspring is wiped out." Yet somehow history records a different ending to the story. Passover reminds us that it was Pharaoh and his people who were defeated by the miraculous intervention of God. And the Jews to this day, descendents of slaves in what was once a glorious Empire, continue to write magnificent chapters in the story of mankind.

That’s why I’ve never really been frightened by pessimistic predictions about our survival. In a famous essay, the historian Simon Rawidowicz put it beautifully when he described the Jews as “the ever- dying people.” We always stood on the precipice of extinction - only to amaze onlookers with our super- human ability to persevere and to contribute in unparalleled fashion to creating a more civilized world.

The post-Holocaust generation appears to be existentially endangered by the threat of suicide.

But that doesn’t mean the results of the just released Pew Research Center report, titled "A Portrait of Jewish Americans” haven’t given me reason for grave concern. In a nationally conducted survey of a statistically representative and significant number of Jews across the country, the Pew Institute attempted to explore the meaning of Jewish identity today. What does being Jewish mean at present and how does it relate to issues like denominational affiliation, politics, intermarriage rates, views on Israel, as well as character traits and actions deemed "essential to their Jewish identity"?

The answers were far from reassuring.

To put it as bluntly as possible, the post-Holocaust generation which thankfully no longer needs to be concerned with genocide appears to be existentially endangered by the threat of suicide. What could never be accomplished by the pogroms and persecution of our enemies seems a reasonable peril to our survival by way of voluntary assimilation and self chosen rejection of our heritage

Note the following ominous signs which have exponentially increased in just the past few decades:

  • While 56 percent of the general public say that religion is very important in their lives, the same is true for only 26 percent of American Jews. Entrusted by God with the task of serving as “a light unto the nations,” we Jews have tragically become doubly more secular than those amongst whom we live.
  • Thirty-two percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19% of baby boomers and just 7% of Jews born before 1927. Overall, 22% of US Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.
  • A growing proportion of American Jews say they are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions. The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.
  • The study finds that intermarriage rates appear to have significantly increased over the past fifty years. Nearly 60 percent of Jewish respondents who have been married since 2000 say they have a non-Jewish spouse. Just over 40 percent of those married in the 80s have a non-Jewish spouse. That number is just 17 percent for those married before 1970.

I could go on - but it’s just too painful. Of all the findings in the report, what for me struck the most agonizing chord was the one that focused on how respondents chose to list the factor that best exemplifies the meaning of being Jewish. For 19% it was observing Jewish law. 14% claimed it was eating traditional foods. But coming in at more than twice the percentage of these responses for singling out what is essential to being Jewish, 42% said "having a good sense of humor."

Is it really conceivable that almost half of contemporary American Jewry believes that Judaism has more to do with Seinfeld than Sinai? And can Jews find their moorings, their strength, and their reason for survival from their jokes rather than the inspiration found from their spiritual tradition?

The Pew Report is a challenge to our complacency, to our secularism, to our very identity.

Within every tragedy, our sages teach us, there are the seeds of redemption. So too I believe must be our response to this report which alerts us to the sad state of contemporary American Jewry.

Most Jews, the study reveals, do not believe that one has to believe in God in order to be Jewish. Technically, according to Jewish law, that is correct. Yet history affirms that without belief in God and the divine origin of the Torah, Judaism is downgraded to mere ‘tradition’ – i.e.: something you don’t need to take all that seriously. Why should young people more interested in the latest fix take any time to learn and practice an ancient document that doesn’t really speak to them? Only a Judaism that speaks of enduring wisdom and truth stands a chance of imbuing the next generation with the commitment to choose to remain part of our people.

The Pew Report is a challenge to our complacency, to our secularism, to our very identity. It is a wake-up call for all of us. It makes a strong demand upon us to make a meaningful commitment to the traditions and the faith of our past if we hope to be a link in the chain of the survival of our people.

And in spite of everything, I remain optimistic.

October 6, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 86

(70) expatXX, December 20, 2013 5:28 PM

Nothing Has Changed

This problem was identified over 30 years ago. Nothing has been done since to bring Jewish singles together in an effective nationwide manner. Jewish education,(needed to reinforce the desire to remain within the community) back then, as today is beyond the reach of many. Resources for singles, in the community back then, as now are scant. The internet is a double edged sword in this regard since you can reach more people, but if you don't have the 'right' appearance in your photograph, forget it. I believe that many marry outside of our faith because they've run out of time, patience, or were having no success with the Jews they met, and just plain gave up. I know of one person who did just that. What do you do when loneliness descends on you like a shroud and there's no end in sight? I think the Orthodox community has it right: send your kids to Jewish schools, and don't mix with the gentiles.
They also seem to find partners with less difficulty.

(69) Anonymous, November 28, 2013 12:58 AM

jews like everyone else struggle

I too lost my well-payjng job in the great recession of 2008. After five years of unemployment and being supported by my husband, thank God, I finally found part time work. But I do agree that values of great materialism interfere with spiritual growth. We need enough to be comfortable. Excess is bad; however, as others have stated, many Jews, along with other suffering Americans, are barely able to make ends meet.

(68) Fishel, November 18, 2013 9:51 PM

To be a Jew

Mark Twain wrote, It is better to keep quite and have people think your a fool, than to open your mouth and have it confirmed. A Jew does not flash his Jewishness as do some religions nor does he flash his/her uniqueness of being G-D's chosen one. The Yetza Hara plays a major role in trying to destroy the Jewish religion as does the Satan and that must be understood as well. A Jew knows the up hill battle of everyday life to be a Jew. I do feel and think different from others like more caring or think a problem out differently or being more considerate than other do. These are Jewish qualities that are second nature as a Jew. The fight maybe harder then some but it is worth the proudness to know inside from our Souls who we are and who we represent.
Be well

(67) Leigh Anne, October 12, 2013 9:21 PM

What do Jews do?

What does being a Jew mean in today's world? How does being a Jew affect and or define the deepest values and or meanings for life? If Judaism is just another religion.....then most of the nones will just say "I'll pass".

Because, to be honest, religion has all but lost its relevance to them. There has to be something MORE, something relevant to their LIFE that draws them in. How does Israel...a nation of priests, make a positive difference to a world filled with poverty, loneliness, and pain? If that is not well articulated.....then the people will keep voting with their feet.

(66) Gee, October 10, 2013 6:44 PM

The Problem is EXCESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In America Jews have too much money, too much food, too much entertainment, too much of everything. It distorts and buries the neshama. All this excess and comfort is piled on top of Jews, blinding them to the ugly reality that their souls are not being attended to, AT ALL. Jews in America are DRUNK with excess, they are their own little gods, they haven't a clue and it is beyond sad that a people with all those brains choose to drink secular grossness for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Have Jews taken a look around FAT America where people are resembling SOWS instead of human beings? Americans are totally SICK and OBESE! Jews should KNOW BETTER!!! Why is FAT America even attractive to Jews???? Really???!! Why does a people with so much potential to bring the light of G-d into the world choose the ways of the Romans and excess? Their only power is with Hashem, but they ignore that and live imbecilic lives instead, not even knowing what they are doing. Let us not forget that 4/5ths were left behind in mitzrayim. It will be the same again. "My people die from a lack of knowledge" says Proverbs. May Hashem have mercy on our sorry, sorry, souls.

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