Friday, November 21, 2008 | return to: opinions


American Jewry’s challenges: impact, education, leadership

by manfred gerstenfeld

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What are the prospects for American Jewry? The United Jewish Communities General Assembly, which took place this week in Jerusalem, presents an opportune time to address challenges facing the larger concentration of Jews in the world.

Since the shock of the early 1990s, when the first National Jewish Population Survey confronted us with the true extent of assimilation, "continuity" has become a key term in Jewish discourse. Thus concern about the number of those who identify themselves as Jews has increased.

Ira Sheskin, who heads the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, says the most probable number of American Jews is between 6 million and 6.4 million, and will remain stable for some time before declining. The U.S. population, however, currently at about 306 million, is expected to increase by some 90 million over the next 30 years. To maintain the Jewish community's influence, its efforts at building coalitions with other groups will have to be strengthened.

Regarding Jewish identity, one first has to understand what this means. Sociologist Steven Cohen observes that the word "identity" is used for lack of a better term for the complex of Jewish belief, behavior and belonging. He remarks that for most American Jews, being Jewish no longer entails a set of obligations, but has become an aesthetic understanding, and thus "being Jewish" has increasingly become a matter of choice.

Rabbi David Ellenson, who heads the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Research, illustrates this by explaining that the Reform movement would not have decided to accept patrilineal descent if there weren't many intermarried Jews who want to remain part of the Jewish community.

Education remains a central element. Among an estimated 1 million Jewish children of elementary and high school age, around 20 percent are enrolled in Jewish day schools. At any given time, more than another 20 percent get some Jewish education in after-school programs.

Perhaps the greatest recent successes have been in informal education. Summer camps and youth movements play a significant role for some children. The Birthright Israel program has become the largest Jewish education program ever. About 150,000 young North American Jews have participated so far. Research shows that, due to the visit, attitudes toward Judaism have changed, but without altering Jewish behavior. This remains a major challenge that the organizers of Birthright Israel intend to confront.

As attacks on Israel and the Jews have increased in the new century, the "commonality of fate" has again come to the fore as a binding element. "One people, one destiny" — the motto of the recent General Assembly — expresses an increasing understanding of this.

Participation in New York's annual Parade for Israel is another sign. Teaching about Israel in Jewish day schools, however, is still falling short. Thus even the most committed Jewish youngsters are often unprepared for the anti-Israelism that has become a plague at American universities. The development of Israel studies on elite campuses provides only a partial answer.

The aging of the Jewish population leads to challenges beyond the financial. Rela Mintz Geffen, former president of Baltimore Hebrew University, points out that for the first time in American Jewish history there is a significant number of four-generation families. This brings a need for much more attention to the role of grandparents — a subject neglected in sociological studies of American society at large.

The current financial crisis might exacerbate economic problems, beyond a decline in Jewish philanthropy and an increase in the number of poor. Already, sending children to Jewish day schools is a heavy financial burden as tuition costs continue to increase faster than income.

Synagogue movements remain by far the largest organizations in Jewish life. Due to society's general polarization, those in the middle risk being squeezed. This is particularly true for the Conservative movement, but modern Orthodoxy is also under pressure due to the shift toward the right among segments of its younger generation. This is partly the result of their studies in Israeli yeshivas.

Another important trend is that of women becoming more dominant in non-Orthodox religious life, while men are marginalized. Sylvia Barack-Fishman and Daniel Parmer of Brandeis University, who have investigated this phenomenon, have suggested various policies to counteract the trend.

This multitude of challenges puts great stress on Jewish leadership at a time when, as Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, says, there are no longer any universalized leaders among American Jewry.

While several leaders are effective heads of their organizations, they rarely rise above their own sphere to influence the broader issues affecting Jewish life. In a dynamic and fragmenting world, that is perhaps the largest single challenge.

Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the board of fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. This column first appeared in the Jerusalem Post


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