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Examining the Reasons for Jewish Population Decline; One Key Factor Is Judaism’s Politicization

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2003

According to a nationwide survey released in October, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews fell by 5 percent from 1990 to 2000, the first statistically significant decline in the U.S. Jewish population since 1800.  

The study’s central finding was that the U.S. Jewish population numbers 5.2 million, According to the survey’s sponsor, United Jewish Communities (UJC), “the Jewish population in the U.S. has remained stable over the past decade, declining 5 percent.” During the same period America’s overall population grew by some 13 percent.  

According to The Forward, the survey’s lead researchers blamed the decline “on a mix of factors, including deferred child-bearing — owing to a variety of women’s issues such as career advancement —and the cumulative impact of interfaith marriage.”  

Ohio State University demographer Frank Mott, cochairman of the survey’s technical advisory committee, said, “It doesn’t look good. Unless there are changes, the age cohorts now in the child bearing years will not replace themselves.”  

Emergency Conference
Early in December, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced that it was organizing an “international emergency conference” on world Jewish population decline — using as evidence the UJC survey.  

Agency officials in Jerusalem referred to a worldwide Jewish “demographic crisis.” At the Jerusalem meeting, speakers referred to a decline of 300,000 in the world Jewish population during the past decade, a figure that agency chairman Sallai Meridor called “a point of no return” for world Jewry.  

The UJC, which released a portion of its survey in October, announced in November that it was withholding the bulk of the survey for further study, after learning that some supporting data had been lost. The tentative nature of the statistics led some observers to question the alarmist tone adopted at the Jewish Agency conference.  

“How is the word ‘emergency’ justified?” asked Steven M. Cohen, a senior research consultant to UJC on the population survey. “Even if 5.2 million turns out to be correct, I wouldn’t use the word ‘emergency.’ Emergency should be reserved for the Shoah, the Six-Day War, a disease outbreak.”  

Demographic “Crisis”
The two-day Jewish Agency conference was the inaugural event of its newly formed Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which is chaired by former U.S. Mideast peace envoy Dennis Ross. The conference featured a string of speakers from Israel and other centers of Jewish population lamenting the demographic “crisis” and calling for urgent measures, including increased immigration to Israel and greater funding for Jewish day schools.  

Sallai Meridor declared that the statistics showed Jews are “disappearing” at a rate of 50,000 per year. Several news accounts translate Meridor’s figures into a “disappearance” rate of 150 Jews per day.  

Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola insisted that the “demographic crisis” is real. “There are missing materials that are helpful to evaluate the statistical error of the data, but not the data itself,” he declared. “Our numbers are based on quite accurate research ... It cannot be explained by some technical mistake.” Setting aside the debate over the precise numbers, the question of why the number of Americans identifying themselves as Jews by religion is declining has not been properly addressed.  

Jewish Intolerance
Some observers argue that the intolerance of marriage between Jews and non-Jews has driven many Jews away, some into other religions, some away from any form of organized religion.  

Edmund Case, president of the Interfaith Family.com Network and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life, noted that, “According to the recent survey ... 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How should the community respond to them? ... the decisions that interfaith couples make about the religious identity of their children is critical to the future vitality of the community.. About 30 percent of interfaith families are sadly lost to the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life ... But the majority of interfaith families ... offer fertile ground in which to grow the American Jewish community.”  

In Case’s view, “If we want interfaith families to raise their children as Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative — ‘bad for the Jewish people,’ ‘communal suicide’ and the like — they are made to feel worse than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews ... It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counter-productive and self-defeating strategies, or to seize an opportunity by doing what is necessary to increase the number of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews.”  

If Jewish intolerance of diversity, including the refusal of most rabbis to participate in interfaith marriages, is one reason for a decline in Jewish numbers, the politicization of Judaism and the replacement of the State of Israel for God as the object of worship in all too many instances is another.  

Advocacy for Israel
Consider the Hillel Foundation, whose mandate is to promote Judaism on college and university campuses. What it is promoting at the present time is largely advocacy on behalf of the Israeli government’s position with regard to Middle East politics. According to The Jerusalem Report, “Jewish organizations that work with students have retooled their Israel-advocacy programs over the last year and allocated more resources to them. Hillel, for example, is sending Israel-advocacy interns to 40 campuses to help existing staff, while also holding intensive leadership training programs over the summer, and sending some students to Israel for seminars. The most significant change from last year ... is the creation of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group which is bringing together some 20 national Jewish organizations to coordinate their Israel propaganda and educational efforts.”  

Thus, Jewish outreach programs on campus have become not a religious undertaking but “propaganda and education efforts” concerning Middle East politics.  

How many Jewish students who are searching for religion and spirituality will simply be driven away by efforts to make them into propagandists for this or that Israeli policy of the moment?  

Daniela Gerson, editor of New Voices, a national Jewish student magazine, says she is hearing from many students that they are simply tired of Israel-related debate on campus, “They are feeling alienated by the issue because they can’t relate and they are exhausted about hearing about the debate. There’s a lot of Middle East fatigue. They are tired of getting e-mails that fill their mailboxes about it every day. They just want to opt out.”  

“Hearts in the East”
In February, the annual National Federation of Temple Youth convention was held in Washington, D.C., bringing together Reform Jewish youth leaders from across the country. The theme of the convention did not deal with religion, but with Middle East politics. It was “Our Heart Is in the East.”  

According to the Washington Jewish Week, “Participants had a chance to talk by phone with more than two dozen high school students in Israel ... and to buy products from Ben Yehuda Street vendors who had traveled from Jerusalem.”  

Even the most sacred religious services have been politicized. During Rosh Hashanah services at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayolan, was the speaker, urging the congregation to speak out in behalf of Israel. At Yom Kippur services at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, he presented the same political message.  

By persistently confusing religion, nationalism and international politics, American Jewish organizations are failing to meet the spiritual needs of those who view Judaism as a religion relevant to their lives and focused upon God rather than upon the state of Israel. They are, in the view of many, engaged in a form of idolatry, making a particular state, in effect, the object of their devotion.  

In his book Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that Judaism is a religion dedicated to God, not to any particular geographical area, and that those who have confused Judaism and the policies of the State of Israel are guilty of a kind of idolatry.  

Religion or Nationalism
“As for the ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories — these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism,” he writes. “Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state — which is only an instrument serving human needs — supreme value from a religious standpoint ... The idea that a specific country or location have an intrinsic ‘holiness’ is an undubitably idolatrous idea ... Nationalism and patriotism as such are not religious values. The prophets of Israel in the period of the first commonwealth and the Jewish sages in the period of the second commonwealth were, for the most part, ‘traitors’ from the perspective of secular nationalism and patriotism. The rabbis who argue today that we should keep the territories for ‘religious reasons’ are not carrying on the tradition of Elijah and the prophets of God but rather of the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah ‘who ate at the table of Jezebel.’”  

Henry Siegman, an ordained rabbi and formerly a leader in the American Jewish Congress, observed that, “American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when these governments do things that in an American context these organizations would never tolerate. It was inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians — in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has not been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations.”  

In Siegman’s view, many Jews have made Israel into a “surrogate religion.” He noted that, “The support of Israel filled a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question.”  

Free Speech Challenged
In such an atmosphere, free speech itself has been challenged. In one case, a Torah commentary written by Jill Jacobs, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was rejected by the seminary’s weekly student newsletter on the grounds that it included a critique of Israeli government policies. The decision by a member of the administration not to print the commentary prompted the resignation of the student editor of the publication and sparked intense debate within the institution.  

“In the Torah commentary,” writes Jacobs, “I spoke of the symbolism in last week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, of the names of the Tribes of Israel inscribed on the clothing of the High Priest. All political leaders, I suggested, implicitly ‘wear’ the names of those whom they represent. Thus, actions by the State of Israel — the Jewish state — are, in effect, actions in the name of all Jews. The fact that the State of Israel acts in our names, I argued, places on all of us the burden of challenging the government to act justly.”  

She continues “In accordance with the ‘Shnai Luchot Habrit,’ a 17th century text, I also proposed a connection between the clothing of the High Priest and the teshuva, or repentance, of the Jewish people, I suggested that we need to do teshuva for the ways in which we have ignored the story of the Palestinians in our teaching and preaching about Israel. This piece, rooted in the Torah and in my own experience, was not, as some might imagine, a summons to dismantle the modern state of Israel, but rather a challenge for a country I love to become a more just place.”  

Disturbing Trend
In Jacobs’ view the decision by the Seminary to censor her article “points to a disturbing trend within the American Jewish community to silence dissenting views on Israel. Again and again, we are called on to support Israel unconditionally, to visit Israel and to frequent Israeli merchants. There is an assumption that the call for unconditional support of Israel is a ‘neutral’ position and there is little discussion of the moral repercussions of such unqualified support,” She laments “...the virtual absence of space within the American Jewish communal discourse for open and honest discussion about Israel. Those who voice discomfort about offering unconditional support of Israel are often called traitors or are accused of siding with suicide bombers. We are so preoccupied with presenting the world with a unified position on Israel that we have shut down discussion even within our own institutions.”  

Among the reasons given for not publishing the Torah commentary by Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) administrators was that publication might have deterred the Israeli Tourism Ministry, which subsidized a January JTS mission to Israel, from supporting another student mission. Some suggested that JTS donors might be less willing to give to an institution whose students criticize Israel. Shaul Magid, associate professor of Jewish philosophy and acting dean of the seminary’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, said that he believes the decision not to publish the Torah commentary was a “mistake.” He declared: “We’re training rabbis, and we’re training people who are going out into the American Jewish communities to serve as leaders and teachers. The place where they’re trained should be the kind of place where these contentious issues are openly discussed and debated.”  

Jill Jacobs believes that, “The beauty of the Jewish tradition lies in its openness to debate and dialogue. We do not always have to agree with one another. We do, however, have to allow each other to speak.” In some Jewish circles, it seems, this is a minority view.  

In another instance, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) meeting in Baltimore in February, solidly rejected a bid by the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations to pass a resolution supporting President Bush’s call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The JCPA nominally guides the public policy stands of 136 national Jewish groups and local community relations agencies.  

Turning Point in Debate
A turning point in the debate came when Moshe Fox, the Israeli embassy’s public affairs minister, took the floor. The Forward reports that, “Fox approached the microphone before the plenum’s discussions even began. In order for Fox to be allowed to speak, the rules of debate had to be changed, but no one spoke out to object.”  

According to The Jerusalem Report, “Fox ... invoked the more than 700 Israelis killed in the intifada. He insisted that as long as Palestinian attacks occurred, Diaspora Jews had no business issuing statements other than ones of full support for Israel. In the wake of this, JCPA delegates quickly gutted what had been a strongly worded Reform movement resolution urging an end to further settlement development so as not to preclude any eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And by a near unanimous vote, the more than 600 delegates passed a generic statement of support for Israel and condemnation of Palestinian terrorism and leadership that made no mention of settlements. Among wording cut from the original resolution was a paragraph stating that ‘a two-state solution is in Israel’s best interest in order to protect its Jewish and democratic character. We believe Israel’s policies, including those affecting settlement activity in the territories should reflect this long-term goal ...’”  

Of Moshe Fox’s call for uncritical loyalty to Israel on the part of American Jews, Leonard Fein, a longtime Reform social action leader, called it “outrageous and demagogic.”  

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Religious Action Center, said that the real issue was the American Jewish community’s “role to raise our voice and tell people what we think.” He pledged that the Reform movement would keep pushing for a broad debate among American Jews on the issue of settlements in the territories.  

War in Iraq
In recent months, the issue which seems to have dominated the agendas of most major American Jewish organizations and the Jewish press has been the war in Iraq and the role American Jews have allegedly played in promoting military action.  

A number of commentators, publications and political figures have charged that individuals and groups close to the government of Ariel Sharon in Israel have been the most vocal advocates of war in Iraq because, apparently, they believe the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein will serve Israeli interests.  

On “Meet The Press,” host Tim Russert read from a February 14 column by the editor-at-large of The Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who wrote of a “Bush-Sharon doctrine,” declared that “Washington’s Likudniks have been in charge of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Bush was sworn into office,” and argued that the “strategic objective” of senior Bush administration officials was to secure Israel’s borders by launching a war to democratize the Arab world.  

Russert then turned to one of the guests, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a key advisory panel to the Pentagon, and one of the most outspoken proponents of war with Iraq, and asked: “Can you assure American viewers across our country that we’re in this situation against Saddam Hussein and his removal for American security interests? And what would be the link in terms of Israel?”  

The fact that some architects of the Bush administration policy toward Iraq have close ties with Israel’s right-wing is simply a matter of fact, A 1996 paper prepared by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser and published by the Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, was entitled, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” It was intended as a political blueprint for the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu.  

“Clean Break” with Oslo
The paper stated that Netanyahu should “make a clean break” with the Oslo peace process and reassert Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza. It presented a plan whereby Israel would “shape its strategic environment,” beginning with the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad, to serve as a first step toward eliminating the anti-Israel governments of Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran.  

These Americans — Perle, Feith and Wurmser — were clearly advising a foreign government in 1996. The “realm” they were seeking to secure was Israel. Then, they were private citizens. Now they are in influential positions in the Bush administration —Perle with the Defense Policy Board, Feith as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Wurmser as special assistant to State Department chief arms control negotiator John Bolton. In 1996, they advised the Israeli government to “shape its strategic environment” by removing her enemies. Now, they propose that the U.S. shape the Middle East environment by removing these same enemies. Without questioning their motivation — for they may indeed believe that U.S. and Israeli interests are the same — many critics believe that this remains a disturbing coincidence.  

Discussing Tim Russert’s question, The Forward noted that, “It was a startling question, especially when directed at Perle, the poster boy — along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Assistant Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith — for anti-Semitic critics who insist that the U.S. is being pulled into war by pro-Likud Jewish advisers on orders from Jerusalem. ... Russert ... is generally regarded as a balanced, first-rate journalist in sync with the zeitgeist of Washington’s media and political elite. If Russert is asking the question on national television, then the toothpaste is out of the tube. The question has entered the discourse in elite Washington circles and is now a legitimate query to be floated in polite community.”  

Writing in The New Republic, Professor Stanley Hoffman of Harvard noted that among those promoting war “is a loose collection of friends of Israel, who believe in the identity of interests between the Jewish state and the United States ... These analysts look on foreign policy through the lens of one dominant concern: Is it good or bad for Israel?”  

Pro-War Voices
With regard to the organized American Jewish community, The Forward reports that, “The most audible voices are pro-war, and they’re making themselves heard ... It’s true, as countless commentators have pointed out ... that America’s 6 million Jews are divided on the war, like other Americans. But the organized Jewish community tilts heavily toward war ...”  

Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, the journal of the American Jewish Committee, says that even action against those states identified by President Bush as the “axis of evil” is not enough: “The regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, this axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as ‘friends’ of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen.”  

In an article published widely in the Jewish press in March, Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, says that the war against Saddam Hussein will, “Hopefully ... be just the first step in a new approach to combating terrorism ... Kabul and Baghdad should be just the first steps. Replacing the pro-terrorist regimes in Riyadh, Damascus and Ramallah should be next on America’s list.”  

When Rep. James A. Moran (D-VA), answering a question at a community meeting in Reston, Virginia, said that, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this,” a storm of controversy ensued.  

Call for Resignation
Virginia rabbis called upon Moran to resign, stating that, “At issue is not mere political disagreement ... Rep. Moran has regularly singled out the Jewish community and its historical support for the state of Israel for criticism that echoes the most scandalous rhetoric of the last century.” American Jewish Committee Washington-area director David Bernstein said, “Jim Moran’s past record indicates that he has a problem with Jewish political power.” The Washington Jewish Week declared that Moran “completely ignores the canard he has raised, never directly addressing the anti-Semitic implications of his remarks — that Jews are powerful enough to control the government, the typical rhetoric of conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish extremists.”  

To some observers this reaction represented overkill. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen declared that, “Moran’s profuse, serial apologies ought to suffice: ‘I should not have singled out the Jewish community and regret giving any impression that its members are somehow responsible for the course of action being pursued by the administration, or are somehow behind an impending war.’ He even volunteered that his daughter is about to marry a Jewish man and is converting to Judaism ... What is clear...is that Moran’s remarks have produced an overreaction. In the first place, his reference to Jews did not come out of left field. He was attending an antiwar meeting at a church when a woman who identified herself as Jewish wondered out loud why more Jews were not present. It was then that Moran said, ‘If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction where this is going, and I think they should.’”  

In Cohen’s view, “Moran was wrong on several points. Opinion polls suggest that Jews hold approximately the same views on the war as do Americans in general. What’s more, a glance at the leaders of the antiwar movement indicates that many of them are Jews. ... But Jews are politically potent — and no one knows that better than a member of Congress. Their activism, their prominence in political life, is a fact. What’s more, one reason — and it is one among many — that the U.S. is almost uniquely pro-Israel is that the American Jewish community makes its weight felt ... Moran clearly overstated the case and mangled his facts. But he did not slip into hoary theories about Jewish conspiracies ... He seemed ... to have quickly realized his mistake and appreciated how his words would sound. Nothing in his record suggests that he is an anti-Semite. That’s important. American political life is going to become even more sterile than it already is if a single remark can ruin a career.”  

Historically Indignant
In a column in Slate, columnist Michael Kinsley, citing the activities of a number of American Jewish organizations, poked fun at them for rushing to condemn Rep. Moran while posting laudatory comments on their Web sites hailing the pro-Israel lobby’s potent ability to get things done. He wrote: “You shouldn’t brag about how influential you are if you wanted to get hysterically indignant when someone suggests that government policy is affected by your influence.”  

Professor Samuel G. Freedman of the Columbia University Graduate School of journalism, author of the book Jew vs. Jews the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, urges American Jews to “resist the temptation to play the victim by denying their vigorous role in the public debate on Iraq.”  

A larger problem is the fact that the heated debates within the American Jewish community appear to be among a small group of vocal spokesmen and groups who are obsessed with Middle East politics, not the religious, spiritual and ethical concerns which are to be found among the vast majority of American Jews. In this sense, what they say is not only not representative of the thinking of most American Jews but, beyond this, may be what is driving many men and women out of the Jewish community, thereby accounting for the population decline these same leaders and groups decry.  

Israel Is Peripheral
While Jewish organizations place Israel at the “center” of their agenda, for the vast majority of American Jews Israel remains a largely peripheral interest.  

In a recent study, The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America, (Indiana University Press), the authors, Steven N. Cohen, associate professor at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Arnold M. Eisen, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, explored the foundations of belief and behavior among moderately affiliated American Jews.  

The authors report that, “Their connection to Israel ... is weak, as is the connection they feel to the organized Jewish community in America. They take for granted the compatibility of being both Jewish and American; this is simply not an issue anymore ... They want to be Jewish because of what it means to them personally — not because of obligation to the Jewish group ... or the historical destiny of the Jewish group ...”  

When asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, just nine percent of respondents answered “extremely attached” (as opposed to 13 percent in a similar survey in 1988). Only 20 percent in the survey thought it was essential for a good Jew to support Israel and even fewer (18 percent) had similar views with regard to visiting Israel in the course of one’s life.  

Lukewarm Attitudes
Professors Cohen and Eisen stress that, “It is no longer uncommon to find lukewarm-to-cool attitudes to Israel coexisting with warm-to-passionate feelings about being Jewish ... Israel is not central to who American Jews are as Jews — and so the need to visit it, or learn about it, or wrestle with its importance to the Jewish people, is far from pressing.”  

If Jewish organizations are misrepresenting the views of those in whose name they claim to speak when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, the same is true with regard to the oft continuing crusade against religious intermarriage. An American Jewish Committee study found that most American Jews accept marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Indeed, fifty-six percent said they disagreed with the statement, “It would pain me if my child married a Gentile,” and 80 percent said they agreed that “intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.” Fifty percent said it was “racist” to oppose marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Fewer than one in four respondents said a rabbi should refuse to officiate at such marriages.  

Despite these findings, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) launched a campaign to change such increasingly tolerant attitudes. What constituency is being represented by such a campaign — other than the organization’s executives themselves — is less than clear. Professors Cohen and Eisen found that “virtually none of our respondents articulated an unambiguous commitment to endogamy.”  

“Pained” by Campaign
Peter H. Schweitzer, a long-time AJC supporter and great-grandson of its early leader, Louis Marshall, says that he is “pained” by the AJC’s campaign against intermarriage: “The AJC has expressed great disregard for the majority of its members who have shown their responsible tolerance of intermarriage. By launching its ‘Jews should marry Jews’ drive, the leaders of the AJC have ignored the voice of its membership and, moreover, have missed an opportunity to reach out to intermarried couples, who, in effect, they condemn instead ... Louis Marshall defended and championed the rights of all minorities ... It is time to show the same respect and tolerance to those Jews who intermarry, including some of Marshall’s own descendants ... In the congregation to which I belong, we do not shun these families or make them pass any litmus tests. Rather, we greet them with open arms ... For us, the higher value is inclusiveness and respect, not chauvinism and bigotry.”  

Genuine religious and spiritual concerns do not seem to be the dominant agenda of most Jewish organizations, including some which describe themselves as representing rabbinical and synagogue groups. For too long, argues Professor Douglas Rushkoff of New York University, “The health of Judaism has been defined largely by numbers ... The problem for Jews today, if there is one, is not waning demographic or cultural assimilation. It is the focus on these factors as the core priorities of the Jewish faith.”  

Lack of Religious Content
Dr. Rushkoff, author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, points out that, “Reform Jewish schools and synagogues like the one I attended had begun to emphasize Zionism and the benefits of marrying within the faith over religious education. Every Jewish institution I encountered as a young man seemed more dedicated to safeguarding the Jewish ‘race’ than to teaching Judaism, This has led to a Jewish culture based not on faith or spiritual inquiry, but on the mechanics of preservation ... Dark pictures with retrograde notions ... do not help keep young American Jews in the fold. How effective a retention strategy is it, really, to treat Judaism as a tribe to be measured in numbers of surviving members rather than as an ethical proposition born 3,000 years ago whose success should be gauged by its level of actual acceptance? ... As Judaism focuses on its imminent demise, it grows less attractive to those looking for a living connection to something greater than the self ... As our nation and the world struggle to balance the conflicting priorities of religion, freedom and human rights, Judaism’s core strengths are greatly needed. It would be a terrible shame if the religion’s biggest concern continued to be itself.”  

Zackary Sholem Berger, a Hebrew and Yiddish teacher at the Ivry Prozdor, a supplementary school affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary, argues than, “There needs to be a place on the spectrum for the recognition that Israel is not the natural center of American Jewish life. Unfortunately, the lack of such recognition reflects a deeper problem among American Jews — a mistaken notion that solidarity with Israel will substitute for a deeper reflection about our Jewish purpose. Indeed, while many of the most basic American Jewish institutions, including Hebrew schools, day schools and synagogues, devote great effort to promoting a love of and support for Israel, the intensity of this effort is not balanced by an equal attention to the depth and meaning of American Jewish life itself.”  

Spiritual Commitment
While Jewish groups have made Israel the number one question on their agendas, most American Jews seek religious and spiritual fulfillment. If Jewish leaders wonder why the number of Jews in America is in decline, they might engage in a bit of introspection. It may be their own narrow parochialism which is driving people away. Thus, those who publicly speak of a demographic “emergency” are the very ones who have produced that dilemma.

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