Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

But Where Does The Trend End

Around twenty years ago a large Jewish population study caused a major panic in the secular Jewish community.  The study showed that assimilation was rampant and that intermarriage was eating faster into the Jewish community's declining numbers than any other factor. There was apathy and lack of education along with the idea that Jewish identity was built around the Holocaust and secular Zionist patriotism.
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?


Anonymous said...

In fifty years the truly devout will look very different from the secular. The secular Jew will be a curiosity – a rarity. The devout Jew will get much closer to the Amish – living a life truly apart.

The one thing that could throw a wrench in the works is if the government stops offering generous welfare benefits. That would stress the Orthodox Jew, and perhaps force him back into mainstream society. Then we would have a new flowering of Modern Orthodoxy.

Finally, sometime around the year six thousand – if moshiach has not arrived – Judaism will face a crisis. Some will leave, angry. Others will rewrite the tradition, let everyone know it really is ok, and that it turns out the year seven thousand is what matters.


Sparrow said...

I actually think that the next generation will be the backlash to this extremism and will want to be more moderate.
I'll just wait until they all catch up to me. ;)

AztecQueen2000 said...

What defines success? Numbers only? How many of those Orthodox Jews are under the age of 18? They don't really have too many choices.
The true test is the adults. As a product of an interfaith marriage turned BT, I get annoyed at the idea of an interfaith marriage meaning Episcopalian grandkids. My mother married out, her sister didn't Guess whose grandkids have the greatest sense of Jewish identity?
As for moderation, I think that will happen when the current crop of yeshiva bochurim marry off their daughters and find out what it means to be on the giving end of that sort of support.

harediandproud said...

There never was that "important" center and we managed just fine.

BTW your sentiments (babies vs. conferences) would strongly support the Haredi viewpoint, would it not? The growth we're seeing is not from the 3 child and growing smaller MO families.

Neil Harris said...

I think the next generation will be idealistic and fairly moderate.

Using the Strauss-Howe generational theory ( the next generation will be the "prophet generation".

"Prophet generations (dominant) are born after a Crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order. Prophets grow up as the increasingly indulged children of this post-Crisis era, come of age as self-absorbed young crusaders of an Awakening, focus on morals and principles in midlife, and emerge as elders guiding another Crisis.[25] Due to this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age fervor and their values-oriented elder leadership. Their main societal contributions are in the area of vision, values, and religion." (from wiki entry)

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Neil, the question is what the coming economic upheaval along with the increasing global influence of radical Islam will mean for this next generation.

SJ said...

How about nothing will take its place.

Everyone is sick of Judaism some jews are just more willing to admit it than others.

Adam Zur said...

not everyone is sick of it. not me.

JRKmommy said...

I'm not sure if any of us will be able to predict the future. Sure, we can look at trends and graphs - but those would have utterly failed to predict the course of events in the Jewish community during the 20th century.

Could those in the shtetl who thought that the main argument was between Hasidim and Mitnagdim have predicted that so many would flee pogroms and emigrate?

Could those early Reformers have predicted that the German culture which they loved would spawn the Nazis and lead to the Holocaust?

Could those who predicted the disappearance of Orthodoxy in pre-war North America have predicted its resurgence?

When I met some Soviet relatives in June, 1989, did I dream that I would next see them in Israel in 1993?

I have no idea what events will bring.

I can guess that we will see new movements and definitions emerging. Some of the older institutional structures may make less sense. However, while the formal Conservative movement may decline if it doesn't reinvent itself, I don't think that the niche will. From what I see, there is still a sizeable group of Jews that aren't anti-religion and that want a connection to traditional Judaism, but aren't insular and want Halacha with some flexibility. It's just that today, I see this group attending Chabad. I suspect that some people will become less concerned with labels (witness the growth of Limmud, for example). The old focus on Jewish continuity will be acknowledged to be a failure (because really, would you join any group whose members constantly whine that they aren't sure if they are going to be around much longer?). At the same time, there may be more of a reach, particularly in the more liberal settings, to non-Jews and those who are intermarried, because it's hard to both whine that your numbers are dwindling and work to exclude people. In Israel, there will continue to be a growth in non-Orthodox forms of spirituality which look entirely different from Reform or Conservative, and which are likely inspired by Eastern religions.