American Jewry Finds its Scourge

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Jack Wertheimer has issued another one of his periodic jeremiads on the state of mainstream American Jewry in the October Commentary (“Jews and the Jewish Birthrate). In recent years, Wertheimer has emerged as one of the most incisive analysts of American Jewry.

In previous articles in Commentary, he has taken mainstream Jewry to task for its failure to adequately support day schools (“Who is Afraid of Jewish Day Schools,” December 1999), berated the national Jewish leadership for having thrown in the towel on intermarriage (“Surrendering to Intermarriage,” March 2001), and catalogued the lack of job satisfaction and dwindling numbers of heterodox clergymen (“The Rabbi Crisis,” May 2003).

Though Wertheimer holds a high position within Jewish establishment, he is unsparing in his criticism of the failures of both the so-called ” Jewish defense organizations” and the various “denominations,” including his own Conservative Movement. (Wertheimer is provost of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.) He frequently cites American Orthodoxy as the exception to the general pattern of decline that characterizes American Jewry.

Two themes run throughout Wertheimer’s writing: without taking Judaism seriously, there is no hope of reversing American Jewry’s decline towards extinction; Jews must learn once again to think in terms of communal interests. The latter requires abandoning the easy assumption of the identity between Jewish and American values. It also requires conceiving of the community as something more than a conglomerate of individual consumers.

Wertheimer’s most recent survey of the state of American Jewry begins with some depressingly familiar statistics. Over the last 50 years, the American Jewish population has failed to grow at all, despite the influx of 500,000 Jewish immigrants during that period. Even worse, the 5.5 million persons classified as “Jews” by demographers likely includes over a million who are not halachically Jewish; the comparable figure fifty years years ago would have been close to zero.

The future is hardly more promising. The median average age of the American Jewish population is seven years higher than that of the American population in general. Jewish women are less likely to marry than their contemporaries, and when they do marry, they do so at a later age and predictably have fewer children. Worse still, two out of every three marriages involving Jews are intermarriages. “The cumulative effect of these demographic changes is now being felt, and will only become amplified as time goes by,” concludes Wertheimer.

The face of the future is increasingly Orthodox. Among synagogue-affiliated Jews, there are already more Orthodox children than Conservative or Reform. The differences between the heterodox movements and Orthodoxy are not accidental, but attitudinal. And, in Wertheimer’s view, they point the way that the rest of American Jewry must go if it is to survive. The pro-marriage and pro-natalism attitudes of Orthodox Jews are instilled at an early age.

The contrast to Jewish officialdom could not be starker. The working assumption of the latter is that only the acceptance of every kind of “family arrangement” can ensure a thriving Jewish life – an assumption that Wertheimer rightly calls “not only a gross distortion of Judaism, [but] palpably false.” The official statement of the Reform rabbinate for Jewish youth cannot even bring itself to mention traditional marriage as an ideal, and that of the Reconstructionist movement goes even farther, disparaging marriage as “historically a relationship of two unequal parties.”

There were once those who argued that intermarriage would somehow revitalize American Jewry, and result in growing numbers. That claim, Wertheimer demonstrates, can no longer be made with a straight face. Three-quarters of children of intermarriage marry non-Jews, and of those only 4% raise their children as Jewish. The most thoroughgoing sociological study of intermarriage found that only 14% of intermarried homes describe their religious orientation as primarily Jewish, and even in these “Judaeo-centric” homes, 60% have x-mas trees.

Wertheimer is scathing when it comes to what he labels the intermarrieds lobby, driven by Jewish grandparents desperate to believe that their grandchildren are Jewish. So powerful is that lobby that national Jewish organizations no longer define intermarriage as a problem or discuss its consequences. A photo in the largest circulation American Jewish paper of a Jewish “rabbi” marrying a Protestant minister, under a bridal canopy, surrounded by various Jewish, Protestant and Catholic clergy encapsulates for Wertheimer the end of the intermarriage taboo.

The organized Jewish community has come to accept intermarriage as something inevitable and unchangeable, like the weather. Rather than combating it, the community has adopted a variety of strategies, each more doomed than the last. Those include accounting tricks such as redefining who is a Jew, as the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have done, or labeling as Jewish anyone living in a household with a Jew, as demographer Gary Tobin urges. Another approach has been to reach out to intermarried couples to ask them how they would feel comfortable relating to the Jewish community, as if the goal of the Jewish community were to make intermarriage less stressful. Equally “quixotic,” in Wertheimer’s view, are calls for pro-active conversion campaigns aimed at non-Jewish spouses. After two decades of such efforts, rates of conversion (however defined) continue to drop.

Jewish religious schools, charges Wertheimer, dare not utter a word in favor of endogamy, “or prevent Jewish youngsters from being exposed to the jumbled religious views of their dual-faith classmates.” No wonder, Wertheimer laments, that of a group of recently bar and bat-mitzvahed youth in his own Conservative movement – i.e., among the most Jewishly identified of American Jewish youngsters – two-thirds think it is o.k. to marry a non-Jew.

And why should we expect anything different. As far as most American Jews are concerned, indeed as far as they have been taught, “there are few differences between a ‘Jewish’ perspective on the world and the perspective of contemporary American culture.” The bare minimum requirement for American Jewry to survive as a distinct community, in Wertheimer’s opinion, is for its leaders to speak directly about where, how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethos of the culture at large. That, in turn, would require “speaking on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia . . . have willingly, and gratefully, set themselves apart.”

The problems is that there are no leaders willing or capable of doing so. Despite the fact that Jewish day schools have long been recognized as by far the most powerful tool for instilling Jewish identity, day schools are still the beneficiaries of only 4.5% of total federation spending. A higher percentage probably goes to supporting hospitals and other institutions that today serve few, if any, Jews. Moreover, the mainstream Jewish organizations remain unremittingly hostile to any form of government support for even the general studies component of the day schools’ budget. The reason, Wertheimer asserts, is that the Jewish public policy establishment remains palpably averse to promoting any such particularistic Jewish interest as day schools. The Jewish community, in its view, should stand only for universalistic values.

Even the nominally religious institutions of American Jewry have little interest in unique Jewish values. As Rabbi Cohen has evolved into Rabbi Bob, he is no longer viewed as the teacher and transmitter of a religious tradition. A new Judaism is evolving, charges Wertheimer, that “revolves around individuals and families rather than around the concerns of a people: its holy days, its liturgy, its sacred texts, its collective memories.” No longer is the rabbi judged by his knowledge of Torah, but as a care-giver, hand-holder, and counselor. He is judged by “how he treated me and my family at our ‘life-cycle’ event,” – events increasingly held in private catering halls for guests only and far removed from any communal involvement, by whether his sermon “spoke to me,” by whether he uttered the words “I needed to hear.” Loss of “market share” and declining “star attraction” were the reasons given for the firing of one Reform clergyman.

Many clergy have wittingly served as accomplices in their own diminution of status. A “rabbi” quoted by Wertheimer is distinguished only in his egregiousness: “My job is not to teach Torah. I leave that to the college professor and the Orthodox rabbi. . . . My job is to point the Way – the Way toward Wonder, toward Meaning, toward Meeting, toward Love.” Not much hope that any Jewish youth whom are to be found in his temple will ever hear a word of Torah or about how Judaism differs.

Should American Jewry continue on its present rush to oblivion, at least its leaders will not be able to say that Jack Wertheimer did not tell them so and point a different direction.

Published in Hamodia, November 4, 2005

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2 Responses

  1. Rishona says:

    Fascinating. It seems as if he almost wants to blurts out, “The Orthodox community was right…” in these issues; but refrains from doing so.

  2. David says:

    From my experience any member of the Conservative movement that points out any problems with the movement or contradictions between its stated philosophy is at best accused of chicken-little-ism, at worst is laughed at and ignored at a right-wing relic. It was this frustration that led to the creation of the UTJ.