The Future of American Jewry

by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror

The following is an excerpt from the book Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century:

 This is part III (the last one) of the series The Special Case of American Jewry


Objective Challenges

Is it any wonder then that few other ethnic groups in the United States have surpassed the Jews in believing in or taking advantage of and fulfilling the American Dream? Judged by the practical standards of Americanism, the Jews are the most American of all the American ethnic groups. They are the wealthiest, best educated, most professional, most organized ethnic group in the United States. They have a higher percentage of political representatives in proportion to their size than other minorities—even representing areas that have no sizable Jewish vote.

So why, with all this, is Jewish existence in the United States still a matter of doubt over the next fifty or sixty years? The organized American Jewish community has significant pretensions in regards to Jewish history. It has developed the two-center theory of modern Jewish existence in opposition to the one-center theory of Zionism.  American Jews would agree that classical Zionism is right in regard to the rest of the Jewish world but wrong in regard to the United States. The rest of the Jewish world may be “in exile” but American Jews are not.  They might put it thus: “We are obviously not in our ancient homeland, but we are still at home”.

They would claim that the American Jewish relationship to Israel is similar to that of Babylonian Jewry during the Talmudic period and the formation of Rabbinic Jewry. They would claim that modern Jewish life can and will survive in at least two more or less equal centers: Israel and North America.

The many positive developments within American Jewry of the past twenty years are often cited by the proponents of the two-center theory as proof of the vigor of the American Jewish community. But these developments must be examined in light of more basic negative trends; trends documented and commented upon in great detail by the American Jewish community itself. Demographics, for one, are a major concern. For although the Jews have always been a small people and although size itself is not a prerequisite to cultural success, continued existence is first of all biological and numerical. Below a certain critical mass, even small peoples have difficulty sustaining communal identity and cultural creativity. In this regard, the long-term statistical trends are not promising. The American Jewish Committee’s Yearbook has reported that American Jewry is shrinking by about ½ % a year (in contrast to Israel’s Jewish community, which is growing by around 1 ½ % a year before aliya).

Other indicators show that this rate of shrinkage is likely to increase. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, 50% of all marriages involving Jews may be intermarriages. Although some of these intermarriages result in the couple rearing their children as Jews, most at present do not.

In addition, the Jews are the most elderly ethnic group in the United States. Some reports claim that the median age of the Jewish community is already over 45 (as compared to about 35 for the general American community and 25 for Black and Hispanic Americans). The median age of American Jewry is, therefore, already beyond the age of reproduction.

Moreover, various social factors – such as a higher proportion of feminist consciousness – lead Jews of reproductive age to marry later than other ethnic groups. The biological future of the American Jewish community, therefore, is not bright if present trends continue.

One reason why this has not been more dramatically felt is the large influx of Israeli, Russian, and Latin American Jews into the United States over the last three decades of the 20th century. It is significant that even with this influx, demographic erosion continues as documented by American Jewish organizations themselves.

The Future of American Jewry

According to some demographic research, Israel has already become the world’s largest Jewish community. What cultural, psychological, and spiritual repercussions will this have for both communities? This question has yet to be addressed. Within the first two to three decades of the 21st century, more Jews will be living in Israel than in all Diaspora communities combined.

As the largest, wealthiest, most powerful Diaspora Jewish community in the world, American Jewry must redefine itself and play a special role in the creation of a new Judaism and a new Zionism. Its special character, unique potential and vital position within the American republic make its contribution to the Jewish future indispensable. It is a partner that the Jewish people must have in order to fulfill its potential.

America’s democratic principles, scientific knowledge, and technological power make it the natural spiritual and practical partner of the Jewish People. America’s heritage seems to have predestined her to become the primary supporter and partner of a renascent Jewish People and the State of Israel.

American Jewry must create a coherent “ideology” of what defines American Jewishness. This must be an American, not an inherited European or Asian ideology. This could be an updated expression of America’s Hebraic roots and could offer a coherent framework that enables American Jews to combine being world, American, and Jewish citizens. American Jewish educators might conclude that teaching about America’s Hebraic roots in Hebrew school outweighs running bar mitzvah “factories”. Teaching children to declaim prayers they do not understand has certainly not proven effective in preserving or enhancing Jewish identity.

Schizophrenia is the natural condition of today’s thinking American Jews. Fascinated with and enthusiastic about America, American Jews have always struggled to relate to America and their Jewishness at the same time and with integrity. They are often uneasy Americans and uneasy Jews. The 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidacy of Joseph Lieberman, while of great historical importance, failed to ease this angst in a meaningful way.

American Jewry must confront what it means to be Jewish in modern, secular, 21st century, pluralistic America. Nostalgic yiddishkeit can no longer suffice—as more and more Jews move further away from the East European tradition.

A real American Jewry must be created—with its own values and an agenda sometimes in tension with Israel— for the sake of Jewish cultural flourishing in general and for the sake of Israel. A mature 21st century Zionism would advocate as one of its central tenets “the reconstruction of the American Diaspora” while discontinuing the use of barren slogans pertaining to the “negation of the Diaspora”.