Hashkafa / Outlook

Jewish World Review / Oct. 23,1998 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin American Jewry: Ethnicity or faith?

       DO YOU BELIEVE you are part of the Jewish people? The future of American Jewry may hinge on the answer. According to Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew University, American Jews are experiencing a severe decline in almost all forms of "ethnic identity" while still maintaining relatively high levels of Jewish religious belief.

Cohen, who released the results of a survey of American Jewish attitudes that was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center Association, sees this decline in ethnicity rather than a decline in religiosity as key to understanding the rising levels of intermarriage and assimilation.
Secularists point to the fact that it is possible to maintain a sense of Jewish peoplehood without Jewish religion in the State of Israel, where a flourishing Jewish civic culture has been created in this century.

Cohen measured religious belief in terms of religious commitment, faith in G-d and ritual observance. Ethnicity was measured in terms of Jewish peoplehood, "tribalism," the feeling of being marginalized because of membership in a specific minority group, commitment to "in-marriage," attachment to Israel, having Jewish friends, attachment to Jewish institutions and belief in social justice as a Jewish value.

Interestingly, Cohen discovered that younger American Jews are just as G-d oriented and ritually observant as their elders. Not surprisingly, he found that young Jews are less committed to every aspect of ethnicity as he defined them, including the idea of a Jewish people, marrying a Jew and less attached to Israel.

For those of us who care about Jewish continuity, these results pose a huge problem.
Cohen found that the highest levels of Jewish ethnic as well as religious identity were people who belong to both synagogues and JCCs. The JCC Association is right to point to centers as positive influences on its member's Jewish identity. If the survey helps reinforce the idea that centers are important, that is all to the good.

But it is important that we not be sidetracked into thinking that the answer to our problems lies in promotion of a primarily secular Jewish identity.

Secularists point to the fact that it is possible to maintain a sense of Jewish peoplehood without Jewish religion in the State of Israel, where a flourishing Jewish civic culture has been created in this century.

But anyone who seriously believes that an ethnic American Jewish culture which is only loosely connected with Judaism can survive, is kidding themselves. An American Jewry that does not have a sense of belonging to a community of faith is one which is destined to fade away as surely as the identities of other American immigrant groups have.
        Jewish identity is a complex mixture of faith and peoplehood. But each element without the other is sterile, as many in Israel (which has begun to experience a few continuity problems of its own) have started to understand.

Zionism remains a big part of the picture as the survey results which showed that Jews who were members of the Young Judea youth movement have stronger levels of observance and affiliation than those who did not have the kind of experience.

But even Young Judea's success cannot be replicated in a spiritual Jewish vacuum. Nor can it exist without the level of knowledge that would give youngsters a Jewish context for their Israel experience.

The promotion of a model that does not reinforce our relationship with our Creator, the Torah and the Land of Israel, is one which will not produce values that are, as the sociologists like to say, transmissible. And though the new survey says young Jews still believe in G-d and practice a few rituals as their parents did, with each new generation's increasing ignorance of our religion, Hebrew and all the rich treasures of our heritage, gives us little chance to maintain a sense of peoplehood.

In short, without Jewish education, there is no Judaism (Whether one defines oneself as Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox).

And no Jewish future.

Ethnicity by itself cannot be reproduced. No rational person will sacrifice for the sake of a bagels and lox Jewish identity. Nor will they contribute money in the future for the sake of such a community.

Those who wish to preserve our ethnicity must look to day schools and synagogues as well as to a JCC movement which has committed itself to a non- denominational Jewish identity rather than a purely secular one. The future of American Jewry rests on ensuring that our posterity isn't as Jewishly illiterate as our present.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin