As a result we got a campaign called "Jewish continuity". Desperate to stem the tide, non-religious Jewish groups brainstormed for ideas that would increase young Jews' sense of belonging to their religion. Birthright was developed to give secular kids a chance to tour Israel and enjoy its varieties of alcohol and much money was invested in increasing Jewish educational opportunities like, oh say, the Holocaust.
Now the new survey of the New York population is out and the results are fascinating to behold. As Jonathan Tobin writes:
The survey's estimate of New York City's Jewish community pegs it at about 1.1 million, with 1.54 million being counted when you include the surrounding suburban counties on Long Island and Westchester (Jews in Northern New Jersey who would also be considered part of Greater New York were not counted). Of even greater import is that the rapid expansion of fervently-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry are the sole reason for this population growth.
By contrast, the numbers of Jews who identity with the heretofore much larger non-Orthodox movements have declined precipitately. The only other sector that is growing is made up of those Jews who reject all the denominations or eschew religion entirely. If, as the survey tells us, 40 percent of Jews in New York City and 74 percent of all Jewish children are Orthodox, then this must inform our conclusions not only about what American Jews believe but also about its future. When combined with the nearly one-third of Jews who are abandoning Jewish identity altogether, this paints a picture of an American Jewish population that is comprised of two ships passing each other in the night — one becoming increasingly Orthodox and the other on the brink of not being Jewish at all.
Is this at all a shock? Years ago, Cross Currents ran a piece on a large Jewish conference on continuity and education. The piece focused on an Orthodox Jewish social worker who tried to attend and bring suggestions as to how to increase Jewish identity and was told not to bother because the secular folks there were not interested in "Orthodox methods". At the time I made a comment that subsequently showed up (without proper attribution!) in The Jerusalem Post itself: They have conferences, we have babies. Let's see who endures.
Twenty years later, the answer is clear. Those of us who hold tight to the traditions of our ancestors, for whom our Jewishness comes first and modifies everything else, the outlook is quite bright. Much to the dismay of the intellectuals and atheoskeptics, Orthodoxy is not falling apart but growing stronger. Meanwhile the secular community still hasn't found the major bullet that will make Jews simultaneously avoid any commitment to Torah and mitzvos but still feel proudly Jewish to the point that they will want to marry only other Jews and maintain some kind of Jewish lifestyle.
Perhaps it's because the bullet doesn't exist.
There is, however, a real danger that should prevent anyone frum from gloating at the results of the survey. Following the general cultural trend worldwide, the Jewish community is splitting into extreme left and right with the centre slowly withering away. But where does the trend to extremism end, especially on the right?
Once upon a time simply insisting on wearing a kippah in public was seen as being fanatic. Once upon a time insisting women wear hats when married at least in shul was seen as dedication. Now the bar has moved. Today the Burka Babes are seen as nuts but as Prof. Marc Shapiro sadly points out, it won't be more than a generation or two before their current idiocy is seen as normative and we are told by all the right spokesmen that, in fact, this is how all Jewish women dressed before the rise of Reform and was always approved by all the right "Gedolim". And if the Burka Babes aren't extreme anymore, one must shudder to think what will occupy the far right side.
A strong centre is so important because it helps define both extreme right and left. With such a position what today is the extreme right becomes the centre but in nature it still remains a radical, exclusionist position.
Once upon a time Conservatism occupied this middle group. Although never halachically acceptable they still provided a bridge for many folks interested in being assimilated but also maintaining a minimal tie to Jewish tradition and ritual. Today the movement is little more than Reform-lite and a merger between the two groups seems inevitable. What will take its place?