Raison d'Etre / Editorial
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Strategies for Survival

The Internet "post" came from a young woman at an Ivy League university:

"I've just sat through a lecture on the so-called 'Jewish Continuity Crisis,'" she wrote. "All I have been convinced of, though, is how overblown the charges are."

"Judy" went on to talk about her own religious background, an upbringing that's becoming increasingly atypical for many contemporary Jews and a factor that makes her observations all the more pertinent.

Growing up in an upper-crust, East Coast suburb, Judy regularly attended a "Conserva-dox" congregation with her family. She went to Hebrew school, participated in and later led her synagogue's youth group, spent her summers at Jewish camps, and visited Israel twice -- all credentials that many sounding the "continuity crisis" alarm would consider a perfect profile for successful Judaic transmittal.

Despite the enormous effort and resources Judy's parents invested in her Jewishness, however, that is not the case. This 20-something makes a startling confession: Were her current beau, a Gentile, "ever to make me choose between his love or my Judaism," it would be the former she would pick, without thinking twice. "For me," she explained, "Judaism is essentially a frame of mind." Indeed, "today it's possible for one to be a 'Jew' without necessarily being Jewish."

I was baffled. "Jewishness," she elaborated, "is about being a compassionate and caring person. It means advocating social justice for all and especially protecting the rights of the underdog." Judaism, she asserted, "is all about ideas. And Jews, undoubtedly, have succeeded in mainstreaming their beliefs. Does it really matter, then, if Jewish ideals survive but the Jewish people don't? Of course not."

Of her many childhood friends from the Jewish camps and synagogue, Judy predicts the majority probably will be confronted, like her, with choices leading to their severing ties with the organized Jewish community. Conventional wisdom has it that the majority of Jewry's "dropouts" are those who have had little or no exposure to Jewish life. Had our youth merely received higher and more concentrated doses of Jewish influences, it is argued, defection from Jewry's ranks would have been unlikely.

Conventional wisdom, however, is an overvalued commodity.

The future has as much to do with the past as with the present. And the sociological strategists drafting battle plans for the war on assimilation have failed to do their homework. (Yes, sometimes even the People of the Book skip pages.) The mass defection American Jewry is witnessing today is not an overnight -- over even a generational -- phenomenon. Not at all.

In many ways, the twin tragedies of assimilation and intermarriage are not the fault of those, who in times of war, would be branded "turncoats." No, the responsibility for any defection lies squarely with those generals whose strategies ill-prepared their soldiers for a battle they perceived as impossible to win.

The sickly weeds that have sprouted on this fertile American soil, likely the most benevolent country ever to host Jewry in exile, were first sown some two centuries ago in Europe and later transplanted. It was in the 18th century, at the height of the Enlightenment, that a substantial part of Jewry decided that the most effective way to win friends and influence people was not to focus on Jewry's distinctiveness and differences and draw admiration, but rather to incorporate assimilationism into Judaic practices.

Whereas Jewry was, until then, "a nation that dwelt alone," the Chosen People gradually altered their belief system in the hope of achieving homogeneity -- and harmony -- with other races and creeds. The Torah, regarded both by Islam and Christianity as of Divine origin, overnight became a tome that was merely "Divinely inspired." The implication was that just as man wrote the Bible, so, too, could he revise it according to need. The Good Book's commands would no longer serves as the cornerstone of Judaism. Instead, selective ethical teachings would be recast as the message for all mankind, Jew as well as Gentile. As Judy said, Judaism has become merely "a frame of mind."

So it has been for nearly 200 years. Jewry has been torn between two conflicting visions: embracing contemporary mores (read: assimilation) and adherence to time-honored, sacred tradition -- a philosophy that challenges us to elevate ourselves, and one that simply allows us to flow with the tide. Each passing generation, and its ever-climbing intermarriage rates, proves again the principle that nature abhors a vacuum. In a country that prides itself on being a "melting pot," minorities without sufficient and distinctive grounding, despite having the ability to thrive, cannot and will not survive.

In the past, the overwhelming majority of young Jews have found their Jewish identities in idealistic, non-religious undertakings as well as token religious overtures. But as Israel becomes financially independent and the Holocaust museum culture takes root, these substitutes will soon lose their urgency and appeal. And all the more so, as new generations of American Jews -- further removed from the varmkeit of the nostalgic tales told by our bubbes and zeides -- continue to emphasize their Americanism over their Judaism. We will have won the war for equality at the expense of our distinctiveness.

The focus by those planning the "Jewish continuity" programs must not be merely increased dosages of the same nebulous philosophies or the offering of free trips to Israel for teens. Nor will redefining Jewishness (e.g, via patrilineal descent) or a campaign for proselytizing to unchurched Gentiles permanently swell the ranks of the Incredible Shrinking People.

At the very best, these measures will merely slow a process that began some 200 years ago. There is only one proven way to keep Jews Jewish and that is to teach our youth to begin re-embracing a way of life that is uniquely Jewish, as unrealistic as that may seem or be.

Even adjusted for inflation, by some accounts, the amount the Jewish establishment intends to spend on Jewish continuity programs will be more than it invested in either the creation of Israel or any effort to save Jews trapped in the Nazi hellhole. If the programs remain the same, it will be of no avail. Never before have I prayed so hard that my assessment of a situation be proven wrong.

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky,


© 1998, Jewish World Review