Jewish Journal

The Judaism shutdown

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

October 2, 2013 | 1:05 pm

It has not been a good week. Not for America, and not for the Jews.

Actually, the government shutdown will eventually go away. We should be so lucky with the Jewish shutdown.

These are my main takeaways from the Pew Center study on American Jewish identity.

  • There are slightly more American Jews than we had thought. Not many more, but there are more.
  • The intermarriage rate could not get any higher.
  • Most American Jews live in a handful of geographical locales, and mostly in large cities and suburbs. Large numbers of Americans will probably never meet a Jew, except on television.
  • In the words of the rock group REM, we are losing our religion. In four generations, we have imitated the four children of the Haggadah: the wise child of the immigrant generation; the rebellious child who willfully threw it all away; the simple child whose response was pure innocence and naivety; and now we are at the child who doesn’t know how to ask. Actually, he/she does know how to ask. We just aren’t that sure of our answers.
  • We are the least religious of all Americans. We attend synagogue far less than most American Christians attend church. In the most religious country in the West, we are out of the cultural loop. This also means that we have trouble understanding others who are religious.
  • We care about something called Jewish culture.
  • The Shoah continues to be central to our identity.
  • So does being funny.
  • Jewish law? Yawn.
  • Jewish peoplehood: yes. Israel: sure. But we have quibbles with Israeli policies. So do most Israelis.
  • A lot of us have been to Israel. Many of us think that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. An interesting theological assertion. Religious Zionism is alive and well in America. 
  • We are prosperous, but there are also far more poor Jews than we had ever imagined.
  • We are still overwhelmingly Democrat and invested in social justice as a key factor of American Jewish identity.

We wanted to be part of the American mainstream, and we won. When our great-grandparents sailed into New York harbor, many of them took out their tefilin, kissed them goodbye, and threw them overboard. There is an underwater mountain of tefilin somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. That became the dominant metaphor of the American Jewish experience. But it didn’t stop with tefilin. The whole tallit of American Jewish life is unravelling. 

Is there anything left for us to do? Yes. 

Intermarriage: Many basements in my general area of New Jersey have water problems. A contractor told me: “You’re constantly fighting a battle with the water. It just wants to come in. So, you put in sump pumps and French drains and hope for the best.”

To continue the metaphor -- none of the sump pumps or French drains or fancy waterproofing devices have kept the flood of unlimited freedom out of the American Jewish basement. Can we still win the intermarried for Jewish life?

My son, Sam Salkin, suggests a Birthright Israel program for the intermarried, the intermarrying, and those who are considering conversion. As sociologist Len Saxe has shown, Birthright is working for college students. I am willing to gamble on the fact that it would “work” for young marrieds as well.

Synagogue life: When Jews talk about having cultural connections to Judaism, they’re not just talking about bagels. No – there actually is a bonafide Jewish culture – music, film, art, literature, theater. In fact, here’s the good news that didn’t make it into the Pew study: almost all of the creative stuff that is happening in the Jewish world is happening in the arts. Bring it all into the synagogue – sort of like what Lab Shul is doing. Bring it into worship services. (Channeling Mordecai Kaplan here!). Perhaps even the creation of synagogues that are entirely devoted to the arts. And we need far more synagogues like Bnai Jeshurun in New York – with joyful, quality Jewish music.

Investing in young leaders: Remember all those young people who are going on Birthright? Consider how that experience is going to reshape the American Jewish future. Within the foreseeable future, a majority of American Jews will have spent time in Israel. This will help transform American Jewish life. We should be investing more heavily into Birthright Next programs, tracking participants, leadership development, etc.

One last thing (and back to the real estate metaphor): When you have your house inspected, the inspector will show you all the problems – many of which you had no idea about. You can then repair the house, or you can walk away.

We have major cracks in the American Jewish foundation. We knew about it. We neglected the repairs. Or we invested in the wrong kind of repairs. Or we put a little spackle here and there, thinking that we had done the best we could.

We were wrong. We just read the American Jewish inspection report, and if we are truly serious about what is wrong, and if we are interested in going beyond self-congratulation (as if there are any reasons to be sanguine), and/or protecting our own programmatic agendas and fiefdoms – then we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and work together.

Do we have the communal will and energy to do it?

I am hoping that we do. Time is short. 

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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