In the past year I’ve watched three of my rabbinic peers, all in the 30-40 year old prime of their rabbinate, announce their aliyah. I’ve cheered on several congregants along their path of aliyah over the past few years. While much of the decision-making process for these olim has been individual, focusing on factors like children’s education or job situation or personal Zionism, I also see in it a sign of the increasing irrelevance of the American Jewish community. (Note: This isn’t a value judgment, just an observation.) Just as individual Jewish communities move their centers of gravity over time, so the world Jewish community is inexorably moving its center to Israel.
This is not a religious statement about the centrality of Israel for Torah observance, it’s not a Zionist statement about the future of Jewish life, it’s not a negation of everything American life has offered Jews for centuries. It’s just a recognition of a social shift which is already underway.
Certainly, the American Jewish community is currently the wealthiest and most politically connected in the world, but I’m looking at this community’s relevance for the future of the Jewish people, and I see three major signs of communal irrelevance: Satellitism, Entropy and Individualism.
The American Jewish community is losing its relevance because, religiously as well as politically, the American Jewish community functions increasingly as a satellite of Israeli Jewry.
For education of our children, for Birthright connections, for halachic guidance, for the leadership of institutions which address issues of modernity in the context of Judaism, we look to the Israeli Jewish community. Much of our political leadership is currently in America, and much of our philanthropic is as well, but this landscape is shifting.
The American Jewish community is losing its relevance because its institutional infrastructure is decaying and is not being replaced.
This is true across the spectrum of religious observances. From schools to philanthropic umbrella organizations to synagogues, the problem of funding as well as communal participation (and even communal interest) is proving difficult to solve. Major challenges include the tuition crisis, the drift away from umbrella philanthropy, Jewish disaffiliation from JCCs, and the tendency of younger Americans not to affiliate with synagogues. Just look at the numbers at the Jewish Databank’s surveys; it’s all there in the community studies.
Much institutional time and energy is being devoted to finding solutions to these major problems.
Non-Orthodox movements have developed an approach of solving the problems by negating the questions. Example: Intermarriage is not a problem, because intermarrieds can now be members, are seen to be making a legitimate lifestyle decision, and are labelled as “on the cusp of Jewish confrontation with secular society.” The biggest question is how we can serve them. Another example: The choice of sports activities over religious school is not a problem, because one can engage in sports Jewishly, and religious schools can fit everything into one afternoon a week.
Orthodoxy has done no better in solving these problems. Schools are underfunded, JCCs and Umbrella philanthropies are ignored. Institutional dissolution is considered acceptable; we’ll just look elsewhere to meet our needs. Creative, effective solutions are few and far between.
The American Jewish community is losing its relevance because American Jews seem to be more committed to the welfare of the individual than the welfare of the community.
There just seems to be little interest in guaranteeing the future of Jewish life in America. Intermarriage rates are one indicator of this problem. Affiliation with institutions is another. A third indicator is the failure of the Jewish community to adopt any sense of sacrifice for the sake of the future. George Hanus’s “Five Percent for Jewish Education” plan is a program which could work, but I’d like to see it at 10% or 15%. It’s not going to happen, of course; too many of us are more interested in Caribbean vacations and building on to our homes and purchasing fancy cars. Think back to great-grandparents who had little to spend on food, and yet they gave money to Hebrew Loan Funds and to support mikvaos, and contributed their time to Jewish community infrastructure; today’s level of consumerism would have been unthinkable to them.
Ultimately, this may just be the natural evolution of a community, from its early growth to its institutional strength to its senescence. It may be a function of the failure of Jewish education for some, and the success of Jewish education for others, leading each group to abandon this community, whether to pursue Jewish oblivion or to pursue aliyah. Call it a Divinely orchestrated pattern of events, if you like.
As I see it: American Jewry will remain as a Jewish community, at least for the foreseeable non-Mashiach era, just as there are Jewish communities in South America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the FSU and Hong Kong. However, it will be a community with decreasing potency and decreasing leadership. The strongest institutions will open branches elsewhere, particularly in Israel, and those branches will eventually become their centers. Our children and their children will increase their rates of aliyah. Kibbutz Galuyot will happen naturally. בעתה אחישנה.