Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in America

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2004

by Jonathan Sarna,  
Yale University Press,  
490 Pages,  

Throughout the United States, a celebration is underway commemorating 350 years of Jewish life in America.  

On September 9, “From Haven to Home: A Library of Congress Exhibition Marking 350 Years of Jewish Life in America” opened in Washington, D.C. It marks the anniversary of the arrival in New Amsterdam of 23 Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil, which passed from Dutch to Portugese rule in 1654. The exhibition features more than 150 treasures of Judaica Americana from the Library’s collection as well as items on loan from partner institutions on the congressionally recognized Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History.  

“The Library’s collections are rich in materials that document the history and culture of America’s Jewish community,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “Letters from George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to prominent Jewish Americans and comprehensive collections of materials in a variety of formats by and about America’s Jews testify to a sympathetic, creative, and reciprocal relationship between America and its Jewish community.”  

It is fitting that the book American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna appears at this time. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is the author or editor of more than 20 books on American Jewish history and life, and is chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History and of the 350th Commemoration of Jewish Life In America, 1654-2004.  

Judaism Adapted  

Tracing American Judaism from its origins in the colonial era through the present day, Sarna explores the ways in which Judaism adapted in this new context. He focuses on the challenge of creating religious community in a voluntaristic society. Unlike Europe, where Jews had to be part of the local kehillah (the Jewish communal structure), America, he points out, represents religious freedom in its widest sense, including the freedom not to be religious at all. This volume explores how American Jews created community under radically new conditions.  

In the introduction, Sarna recalls that, “Thirty years ago, when I became interested in American Jewish history, I mentioned my interest to a scholar at a distinguished rabbinical seminary, and he was absolutely appalled. ‘American Jewish history,’ he growled. ‘I’ll tell you all that you need to know about American Jewish history: the Jews came to America, they abandoned their faith, they began to live like goyim (Gentiles), and after a generation or two they intermarried and disappeared.’ ‘That,’ he said, ‘is American Jewish history; all the rest is commentary. Don’t waste your time. Go study Talmud.’”  

While Sarna did not take the sage’s advice, he notes that, “I have long remembered his analysis, for it reflects, as I now recognize, a long-standing fear that Jews in America are doomed to assimilate, that they simply cannot survive in an environment of religious freedom and church-state separation. ... Freedom, the same quality that made America so alluring for persecuted faiths, also brought with it the freedom to make religious choices: to modernize Judaism, to assimilate, to intermarry, to convert. American Jews, as a result, have never been able to assume that their future as Jews is guaranteed. Each generation has had to wrestle anew with the question of whether its own children and grandchildren would remain Jewish, whether Judaism as a living faith would end and carry on as ancestral memory alone.”  

Dynamic Story  

The story of American Judaism recounted in this book is not, Sarna writes, “just a stereotypical tale of ‘linear descent,’ of people who start off orthodox and end up intermarrying. It is, instead, a much more dynamic story of people struggling to be Americans and Jews, a story of people who lose their faith and a story of people who regain their faith, a story of assimilation, to be sure, but also a story of revitalization.”  

The American Jewish experience has been radically different from the Jewish experience in Europe and, as a result, has produced a different dynamic: “Discrimination and persecution, the foremost challenges confronting most diaspora Jews through the ages, have in America been less significant historical factors than have democracy, liberty of conscience, church-state separation, and voluntarism. Emancipation from legally imposed anti-Jewish restrictions, and the penetration of secular ‘enlightenment’ ideas into Jews’ traditional religious culture, central themes of Jewish history in Europe, have also been less central to the history of the Jews in the U.S. Expulsions, concentration camps, and extermination, of course, have never been part of American Jewish history. By contrast, as nowhere else to the same degree, Judaism has had to adapt to a religious environment shaped by the denominational character of American Protestantism, the canons of free market competition, the ideals of freedom, and the reality of diversity. What is distinctive in American Judaism is largely a result of these factors,”  

While individual Jews were involved in America’s earliest days — from those who traveled with Christopher Columbus to Joachim Gaunse who arrived with Sir Walter Raleigh at Roanoke Island in 1585 — it was in September 1654 when a small French frigate named the Ste. Catherine sailed into the port of New Amsterdam, that organized Jewish life can he said to begin.  

Twenty-three Souls  

On board that ship were “twenty three souls, big and little,” refugees from Recife, Brazil, which had come under Portugese control. While Brazil was ruled by the Dutch, Jews enjoyed rights unmatched by any other 17th century Jewish community. Seeking to encourage Jewish settlement and trade, the States General of the United Netherlands ordered: “Treat and cause to be treated the Jewish nation on a basis of equality with all other residents and subjects in all treaties, negotiations and actions in and out of war without discrimination.”  

At a time when Europe’s Jews still lived highly restricted and traditional lives, excluded from many areas, denied citizenship even where they were permitted to settle, and far removed from contact with non-Jews, Dutch Brazil was different. “Recife offered an alternative vision,” writes Sarna, “one based on legal equality and commercial opportunity. Protestants, Catholics and Jews coexisted in Recife, albeit somewhat uneasily, and Jews practiced their religion conspicuously and traded lustily. Long before the forces of enlightenment and emancipation brought about comparable changes in the lives of German and East European Jews, market forces in the new world triumphed over traditional prejudices and created a climate where Jewish life could develop and thrive.”  

While New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant was reluctant to welcome Jews, or other “sectarians,” he was told by the authorities in Amsterdam that such an approach was not acceptable. In l663, after Stuyvesant banished a Quaker from the colony and spoke out against other sects, his superiors in Holland instructed him: “You may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government.”  

Tranquility and Commerce  

The British, who took control of New Amsterdam in l664 and renamed it New York, sought to promote tranquility and commerce. To this end, they maintained the colony’s religious status quo. Public worship became available to Jews without any fanfare around the turn of the 18th century, just about the time when New York’s first Quaker meeting house was erected, and before the Baptists and Catholics had opened churches in the city.  

The “synagogue community” which emerged in the colonial era was far different from the European kehilla, the communal self-government that characterized Jewish life in the Middle Ages. In much of Europe, Jews had lived for centuries as a “people apart,” with special obligations and privileges as well as separate taxes, all carefully spelled out in a charter that formed the basis for Jewish group settlement.  

In America, things were quite different: “No Jewish religious authority of any kind in colonial America possessed sufficient status to challenge the authority of the laity ... Synagogue-communities as they developed in the major cities of colonial America, bespoke the growing compartmentalization of 18th century American Jewish life into Jewish and worldly domains. ... Colonial synagogue-communities did not tax commercial transactions, censor what Jews wrote on the outside, or punish members for lapses in individual or business morality, unlike synagogues in Amsterdam, London and Recife. Instead, like the neighboring churches, they confined their activities to their own sphere, disciplining some religiously wayward congregants with fines and loss of religious privileges but leaving commercial and civil disputes, even those that pitted one Jew against another, to the municipal authorities.”  

Diversity Not Uniformity  

The most striking feature of Jewish life in the colonial period, in Sarna’s view, “was its diversity — a feature that continued to characterize American Judaism long after the uniformity of colonial synagogue life was forgotten. Within every community, even within many individual families, a full gamut of religious observances and attitudes could be found, from deep piety to total indifference. ... While the private beliefs and practices defined Colonial Jews religiously and distinguished them from their Christian neighbors, social interactions in trade, on the street, and wherever else Jews and Christians gathered inevitably blurred these distinctions. The majority of American Jews resided in religiously pluralistic communities with people of diverse backgrounds and faiths, including many who had themselves experienced religious persecution. ... From the very beginning of Jewish settlement, Jews and Christians also fell in love and married ... Estimates of Jewish intermarriage in the colonial period range from 10 to 15 percent of all marriages ...”  

American Judaism adapted to its new environment and contributed to the pluralistic character of American religious life. “Whereas in so many other diaspora settings, Judaism stood alone in religious dissent,” Sarna points out, “Jews in America shared this status with members of other minority faiths — for example, Huguenots, Quakers and Baptists. ... The very term Jews used to define their community was influenced by American religious pluralism. If early on they were, in the Sephardic tradition, members of the Jewish or Portugese ‘nation,’ by the eve of the American Revolution they more commonly spoke of themselves as members of a ‘religious society’ on the model of parallel Christian religious societies, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers).”  

The American Revolution effected changes in law and in the relationship of religion to the state that transformed American Jewish life. “Already in the first decade and a half of American independence,” writes Sarna, “the parameters of religious liberty in the new nation steadily widened. New York, with its long tradition of de facto religious pluralism, became in 1777 the first state to extend the boundaries of ‘exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship to all mankind,’ whether Christian or not ...Virginia, in its 1785 Act for Religious Freedom (originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779), went even further, with a ringing declaration that ‘no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever ... but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.’ The Northwest Ordinance adopted by the Continental Congress in 1788, extended guarantees of freedom of worship and belief into the territories north of the Ohio River. Finally, the Federal Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791) outlawed religious tests ‘as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,’ and forbade Congress from making any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ ... The major American documents bearing on religious liberty do not mention Jews even once. Jews gained their religious rights ... as individuals along with everybody else ...”  

One Religion Among Many  

From the very beginning, Judaism was recognized as one religion among many in a society in which religious freedom was a founding principle. A gala parade marking the ratification of the Constitution was held in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788. “It presented,” Sarna reports, “marching together in one division, ‘the clergy of the different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews (probably Jacob R. Cohen), walking arm in arm.’ The famed physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, who witnessed the unprecedented spectacle, wrote that this first-ever ecumenical parade ‘was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new Constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”  

The correspondence between Jews and George Washington went even further in defining the place of Judaism in the new nation. In his response to a message from the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, Washington characterized the U.S. Government as one that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He described religious liberty, following Thomas Jefferson, as an inherent natural right, distinct from the indulgent religious “toleration” practiced by the British and much of enlightened Europe, where Jewish emancipation was so often linked with demands for Jewish “improvement.” Finally, echoing the language of the prophet Micah (4:4), he hinted that America might itself prove something of a Promised Land for Jews, a place where they would “merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; While every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be done to make him afraid.”  

Interfaith Good Will  

The level of interfaith good will can be seen in the 1788 appeal of the local Hebrew Society in Philadelphia to “their worthy fellow citizens of every religious denomination” to assist them in paying off large debts left over from the construction of their synagogue six years earlier. Sarna writes that, “Before the Revolution, Jews would reflexively have turned to their wealthy coreligionists with such a request, but now they sought the help of their Christian neighbors as well, knowing that local churches applied to the general public under similar circumstances. The printed appeal reflected ... a sense of shared identity and interests with the city’s other faiths. ... An impressive array of Christian dignitaries did subscribe, including Thomas Fitzsimmons, the city’s leading Catholic layman, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, its most prominent Lutheran minister.. . and Benjamin Franklin, who proudly assisted ‘all sects ... with subscriptions for building their new places of worship’ and apparently considered Jews no different from the others.”  
The Revolution not only expanded freedom, but challenged Judaism as well. “Far from being just another turn in Jews’ political wheel of fortune,” states Sarna, “it represented a massive cultural transformation. It challenged age-old traditions and demanded that revolutionary-era values be recognized within the synagogue’s portals. The problem that Jews grappled with in the decades following the revolution was whether Judaism as they knew it could be reconciled with freedom and democracy. Could the traditional synagogue-community structure that bound Jews together and promoted group survival also accommodate new political and cultural realities. In an effort to answer these questions affirmatively, each of America’s synagogues rewrote their constitutions. The very word ‘constitution’ is significant, for previously they had called their governing documents by the more traditional Jewish term of askamot (or haskamot), meaning agreements or covenants.”  

One observer described Judaism in Charleston in 1812 as being “strictly observed ... ameliorated with that social liberality which pervades the minds and manners of the inhabitants of civilized countries.” In a public toast in 1788, the Jews of Richmond declared America to be a beacon of hope for their persecuted brethren. “May the Israelites throughout the world,” they prayed, “enjoy the same religious rights and political advantages as their American brethren.” Myer Moses, a leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, in an 1806 lecture, described “free and independent” America as a “second Jerusalem” and a “promised land.”  

Efforts at Reform  

Efforts to reform Judaism and make it compatible with the values of the American society slowly began. Early in 1825, Isaac Harby, editor and essayist, became a leader of dissidents at Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston. He and his supporters advocated, among other things, an abbreviated service, prayers in English, a weekly sermon, and an end to traditional free-will offerings in the synagogue. When their petition was rejected, they created an independent Jewish religious society, the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit. It aimed to replace “blind observance of the ceremonial law” with “true piety ... the first great object of our Holy Religion.” In an 1826 appeal, the dissidents called for the discontinuance of “the observance of such ceremonies as partake strongly of bigotry; as owe their origin only to Rabbinical institutions; as are not embraced in the moral law of Moses; and in many instances are contrary to their spirit, to their beauty and sublimity and to that elevated piety and virtue which so richly distinguish them.”  

“Like many Protestants of the day,” Sarna writes “the Charleston reformers thus argued for changes that would, simultaneously, improve their faith and restore it to what they understood to be its pristine form, shorn of ‘foreign and unseemly ceremonies’ introduced by subsequent generations ... All over the U.S. in the early decades of the 19th century, Protestant Americans were abandoning the ‘established’ denominations in which they had been raised for ones that seemed to them more democratic, inspiring, and authentic; moving, for example, from Congregational, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches to those of the Methodists, Baptists and Disciples of Christ. Jews followed the same pattern ... In New York there were 2 synagogues in 1825, four in 1835, ten in 1845 and over 20 in 1855. By the Civil War every major American Jewish community had at least two synagogues and larger ones like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati had four or more.”  

A New American Judaism  

The result of all this, Sarna declares, “was nothing less than a new American Judaism — a Judaism that was diverse and pluralistic ... For the first time, American Jews could now choose from a number of congregations ... reflecting a range of rites, ideologies and regions of origin ... By the 1840s, the structure of the American Jewish community mirrored in organization the federalist pattern of the nation as a whole, balanced precariously between unity and diversity. American Judaism had likewise come to resemble the American religious pattern. Jews, many of them young, dissatisfied with the American Jewish ‘establishment,’ influenced by the world around them, and fearful that Judaism would not continue unless it changed, had produced a religious revolution that overthrew the synagogue-communities and replaced a monolithic Judaism with one that was much more democratic, free, diverse and competitive.”  

Of particular interest is Sarna’s extensive treatment of the development of American Reform Judaism. In his address to fellow reformers in Charleston in 1827, Isaac Cardozo warned that, “If we do not adapt things to the existing state of human feelings” then “our religion (will) suffer in the permanency of its sacred character and future usefulness and renown. Such rabbinical interpretations as have no support in reason or truth,” he predicted, would in the long run “fall of themselves.”  

The post-Civil War era, outside of the South, was a period of confident optimism in American Jewish life, Sarna notes that, “Liberal Jews and Protestants spoke warmly of universalism, at least 18 leading Jews joined other religious progressives in the Free Religious Association, and beginning in 1867 rabbis and ministers even occasionally traded pulpits. ... Isaac Mayer Wise predicted to his friends that within 50 years Judaism’s teachings would become ‘the common property of the American people.’ He pointed out that on a whole range of issues — Providence, the Supreme Being, justice, wisdom, universal goodness, the immortality of the soul, the sanctity of virtue, the perfectability of the human race, the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man — Jews, liberal Christians and rationalists all agreed. ... A liberal Jewish periodical entitled The New Era, initiated in 1870 by Rabbi Raphael De Cordoba Lewin, promised to ‘advance mankind in true religious knowledge and to unite all God’s children in a common bond of brotherhood.’”  

Plum Street Temple  

One of the most famous synagogues built during these years was the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati — today a National Historical Site. “The magnificent Moorish-style building,” writes Sarna, “was erected by Isaac Mayer Wise’s congregation, then the second largest in America. The building was designed by one of Cincinnati’s foremost architects, James Keys Wilson, and dedicated in 1866. Unlike the Newport synagogue a century before, which demurely concealed its identity on the outside and was only identifiably Jewish within, the Cincinnati synagogue proudly proclaimed its faith to the world. Its Moorish architecture was the Jewish answer to Gothic architecture and visibly identified the edifice as sacred Jewish space. Its location, just opposite the city’s leading Catholic and Unitarian churches and across from City Hall, announced that Judaism was no less a pillar of the city than the churches nearby. And by calling itself a ‘temple,’ complete with an organ, choir loft, and pews for mixed seating of men and women, it underscored Reform Judaism’s break with the past, its renunciation of any hope for messianic redemption. Rather than awaiting the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, local Jews now declared that their synagogue was to be a temple unto itself.”  

In 1873, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was established in Cincinnati and in 1875 the Union established Hebrew Union College, which turned out to be the first successful rabbinical school in American Jewish history.  

Pittsburgh Platform  

At a three day conference held just outside Pittsburgh in 1885, 18 rabbis, including such leading reformers as Isaac Mayer Wise and Kaufman Kohler, met in an attempt to formulate a “common platform” for Reform Judaism. The platform they adopted — later to be widely known as the Pittsburgh Platform — recognized other religions but insisted that, “Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea.” It declared that Reform Jews “accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Laws regulating “diet, priestly purity, and dress are altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state” and it declared their observance “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”  

The Platform rejected the idea that Jews were a nationality and rejected as well any hope for a return to Palestine: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”  

Continuing with the same emphasis on religion over peoplehood, point six defined Judaism as a “progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason,” and in a bow to traditionalists also expressed “the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past.” It allied Judaism with “the spirit of broad humanity of our age” and extended “the hand of fellowship” to “daughter religions of Judaism,” Christianity and Islam and “to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.”  

As the 19th century came to an end, and the mass immigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe began, the nature of American judaism was about to undergo dramatic changes. Dr. Sarna writes that while the efforts of Reform Judaism “worked to redefine, strengthen and revitalize Judaism among native-born and assimilating Jews, American Judaism was being drastically transformed by one of the largest waves of immigration in all of Jewish history. Some 2 million East European Jews from Russia, Romania, and Austria-Hungary (largely Galicia) landed on American shores between 1881 and 1914, part of an epochal migration during these years that redistributed the world Jewish population.”  

Opposed Immigration  

Eastern Europe’s leading Orthodox rabbis opposed immigration to America. In the absense of rabbinic authority, they feared, Jews would fall away from their faith, or worse, fall prey to the German “Reformers.” Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen of Radun, for example, advised Jews “not to settle” in America. He warned against tarrying “for the sake of riches in a land many of whose inhabitants have broken away from religion.” Rabbi Jacob David Willowski of Slutsk, on a visit to America to raise funds in 1900 was quoted as having rebuked America’s Orthodox Jews for continuing to live in a “trefa land” where “even the stones are impure.”  

“In Eastern Europe,” writes Sarna, “Jews understood that for all of the difficulties that they faced, religion defined them; it was an inescapable element of their peoplehood. They were taxed as Jews and drafted as Jews. Religious affiliation was stamped into their passports and noted on their official documents. When they were married or divorced it was done according to Jewish law, by rabbis authorized by the state. Indeed, the state recognized Judaism as a legitimate minority faith. Those who sought to observe Jewish laws and customs faced almost no difficulty in doing so, while those who sought to cast off Jewish identity entirely could not do so unless they converted. The situation in the U.S. was entirely different. Indeed, what made immigration so dangerous, from the perspective of traditional European Judaism, was that religion in America was a purely private and voluntary affair, totally outside of the state’s purview. Nobody forced Jews to specify their religion; they were taxed and drafted. as human beings only. When a Jew married or divorced in America, it was state law, not Jewish law, that governed the procedure; rabbinic involvement was optional ... As a result, Judaism proved easy enough to abandon, but, in the absence of state support, difficult to observe scrupulously.”  

During this period, Reform Jewish leaders abandoned their hope of becoming “Minhag America,” the Judaism practiced by all American Jews. Sarna notes that, “Central European Reform Jews and Eastern European Orthodox Jews stood at a considerable remove from one another, as if in two separate worlds. Modernity dominated the agenda of Classical Reform Judaism ... Rabbis Kaufmann Kohler and Emil G. Hirsch ... depicted the Judaism of earlier times as ‘primitive’ and they viewed their owm Judaism as the highest and most advanced form of all. ... They argued that moral conduct and social justice, rather than faith, laws and ritual practices, formed the essence of Judaism. What the Lord requires of man, they declared echoing the prophet Micah (6:8) was: ‘Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’ Prophetic Judaism, as this emphasis on universalism and social justice came to be called, stimulated a wide range of political and communal activities on the part of Classical Reform rabbis.”  

Changes in Reform Judaism  

As time when on, Reform Judaism began to change. A growing number of Jews from East European backgrounds were accepted at Hebrew Union College. In fact, some 70 percent of its students from 1904-29 were of East European descent. “The young Eastern European Jewish students were transformed by their immersion in the world of Reform Judaism,” Sarna declares, “but the change was by no means theirs alone. The cultural encounter transformed Reform Judaism as well, and it helped the two worlds of American Judaism become better acquainted with one another.”  

During the last third of the 19th century, calls to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, partly as a haven for persecuted Jews and partly as a means of revitalizing Jewish life around the world, began to gather momentum in the U.S. “Many East European Jews viewed Zionism in somewhat ... prosaic terms, as a response to anti- Semitism and an extension of the age-old longing to return to Zion ... As for Reform Jews, their commitment to universalism, their sense of patriotism and their privileging of religion over peoplehood led most of them to view Zionism as anathema, a negation of all that Jewish emancipation and enlightenment stood for.”  

But Reform Judaism slowly began to change, under the influence of Eastern European Jews as well as in response to the anti-Semitism which the large late 19th and early 20th century immigration had stimulated in parts of the U.S. New Guiding Principles for Reform Judaism were approved in 1937 at a rabbinical convention in Columbus, Ohio. Whereas classical Reform stressed that Judaism was a religion, the new document also spoke repeatedly of the “Jewish people,” as if to stress that Judaism embraced both ethnicity and faith. It described the “rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes” in positive and sympathetic terms. It “affirmed the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed hut also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”  

American Council for Judaism  

Describing the formation of the American Council for Judaism, Sarna writes: “In 1942, a group of Reform rabbis and laymen publicly broke with their Reform colleagues over the volatile Zionism issue, and they established ... the American Council for Judaism, which opposed a Jewish state and sought to restore Reform Judaism to its classical moorings. But the rearguard action, for all of the emotion that it engendered, served in the end mainly to underscore all of the transformation that the Columbus Platform exemplified. By World War II, Reform Judaism had ... reinvented itself, accommodating Zionism, a commitment to Jewish peoplehood and many traditional customs and ceremonies as well.”  

It was not only Reform Judaism which altered its nature in the latter part of the 20th century. The turn away from universalism to particularism was far broader: “Whereas during the l950s and l960s, universal causes like world peace, civil rights, interfaith relations and opposition to the war in Vietnam dominated the American Jewish agenda, subsequent decades saw greater emphasis on issues of particularistic Jewish concern ... Following the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent Jewish religious revival stimulated by the counterculture and the upheavals of the 1960s, themes like ‘Jewish renewal,’ ‘Jewish continuity,’ and ‘Jewish renaissance’ increasingly moved to the fore, Judaism .. .reevaluated its mission. By the end of the 20th century, many of the faithful focused less on the whole world than on the Jewish world ... Their ideology shifted from universalism to particularism or personalism.”  

But while Israel moved to the center of concern for many in the organized Jewish community, what American Jews meant by “Zionism” was far different from what Zionists in Israel envisioned. Even most American Jews who call themselves Zionists reject the notion that they are in “exile” in the United States and that all Jews should emigrate to Israel and that a “full” Jewish life can only be lived there, Professor Melvin Urofsky of Virginia Commonwealth University notes that, “The Zionism we have in the United States today, is the legacy of the Brandeis era in that it is widespread, does not contemplate aliya as a central tenet and supports. the Jewish community of the Holy Land. It is more philanthropic than ideological ... Immigrants learned ... as Louis D. Brandeis preached at them ... that they could be both good Americans and good Jews by being good Zionists. The Brandeisian form of Zionism, with its emphasis on American values succeeded brilliantly.”  

Israeli Interference  

Many American Jewish leaders who supported the establishment of Israel in 1948 nevertheless were concerned about the contempt for Jewish life outside of Israel expressed by Israel’s leaders, and their desire for a massive emigration of all Jews to the new state. In particular, they did not want Israel interfering with the “internal affairs” of the American Jewish community.  

An historic exchange in 1950 between the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, and Israel’s prime minister, David Ben Gurion, sought to allay these fears. The agreement stipulated that: “(1) Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, namely to the United States of America; (2) that the Government and people of Israel respect the integrity of Jewish life in the democratic countries and the right of Jewish communities to develop their indigenous social, economic and cultural aspirations, in accordance with their own needs and institutions; and (3) that Israel fully accepts the fact that the Jews of the United States do not live ‘in exile’ and that America is home for them.”  

What Professor Sarna overlooks is that whatever David Ben Gurion may have said in 1950, the fact is that ever since the State of Israel has persisted in promoting the idea that Jews living outside of its borders are indeed “in exile” and that all Jews should emigrate to the Jewish state. Israel’s current prime minister, Arial Sharon, repeatedly says that Israel “is the only place on Earth where Jews can live as Jews.” Former Israeli President Ezer Weizman, speaking to Jews in Germany in 1996, declared: “The place of Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives.” When he was prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, repeatedly urged American Jews to emigrate to Israel.  

Warnings Proven Correct  

The warnings which the American Council for Judaism issued in its early years have proven correct. In too many areas of Jewish life, the state of Israel has replaced God as the object of worship, surely a form of idolatry. Professor Sarna, while understanding this position, seems to refer to it as a viewpoint overtaken by events. In fact, it is very much alive today and is perhaps more relevant than it ever was.  

What of the future? “At the dawn of the 21st century,” writes Sarna, “no religious group in America is more number-conscious than Jews. Three times in three decades the Jewish community has sponsored expensive nationwide ‘population studies’ to gather data about itself. ... Two interrelated and highly contentious statistics count for Jews above all the rest; their absolute numbers in America and their rate of intermarriage ... have fostered anew the great fear that has accompanied Jews throughout their American sojourn: the fear that the melting pot would subsume them ...”  

The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey pegged the ten-year decline of Jewish population at about 5 percent, from 5.5 million to 5.2 million. This, however, is hardly unique.The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and Christian Science, among others, all declined far more over the second half of the 20th century. Still, Sarna notes, “The decline is nevertheless historic, marking the first time since colonial days that the total number of Jews in America has ever gone down. ... Intermarriage has cut into America’s Jewish population totals. The National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 uncovered 1,325,000 individuals whose grandparents had been Jewish but who now practice other religions ...”  

On the other hand, Jewish life is vibrant. University-based Jewish studies programs are proliferating. There are over 700 American institutions of higher learning in which Jewish civilization is taught. In 2003, the Association for Jewish Studies boasted 1600 members. By contrast, only about 12 positions had existed in the entire field in l945. “Despite dark talk in the American Jewish community about a crisis in Jewish ‘continuity,’ the American Jewish Yearbook reported in 1999, ‘American Jewish culture ... continues to flourish.’”  


Opposition to intermarriage, Sarna shows, may be futile. He writes that, “Acceptance of intermarriage on the part of Americans rose dramatically as the 20th century wound down. To oppose marriages betweeen men and women of different ethnicities, faiths and races seem to many people to be un-American and racist. These developments soon made themselves felt within the Jewish community. ... Support for in-group marriage as a value and religious norm seems endangered ... A 1985 survey of Reform Jewish leaders found that only a minority of them considered it ‘essential’ for a ‘good Jew’ to marry a Jew, while 30 percent of those who had themselves intermarried thought that this made ‘no difference’ at all. ...”  

There is both optimism and pessimism being expressed about the future. “Even as intermarriage and fertility statistics seem to portend a gloomy future for Judaism in America, other indicators give reasons for good cheer ... Jewish culture in all of its manifold forms continues to boom — theater, art, music, film, t.v., as well as all forms of print media. Jewish education too shows improvement at every level ... At one and the same time, then, American Judaism seems to be experiencing both revitalization and assimilation; it radiates optimism concerning the future of American Jewish life as well as bleak pessimism. Indeed, some scholars speak of a ‘bi-polar community,’ with certain parts of American Jewry ... deepening their Jewishness and others ... on an accelerated assimilatory course out of the Jewish community.”  

What is clear from all of this is the fact that in a free society, in an open marketplace of religious ideas, Judaism must fulfill the needs of its members or risk losing them to other faiths or to no religious affiliation at all. To think that a religion which is focused on a foreign country, Israel, and devotes so much of its time and energy to a discussion of Middle East politics, the need to marry within the faith, and the desperate desire for “continuity” can hold young people who are seeking spirituality and meaning in their lives is to misread reality. It is not American freedom which is the problem, it is the narrowness which has come to characterize so much of the Jewish community which is causing a loss of support.  

State of Confusion  

In Sarna’s view, American Jews appear to be in a state of confusion as they celebrate this 350th anniversary: “With so many questions and issues and tensions confronting them, it comes as no surprise that as they approach their 350th anniversary on American soil, Jews feel bewildered and uncertain. Should they focus on quality to enhance Judaism or focus on quantity to increase the number of Jews? Embrace intermarriage as an opportunity for outreach or condemn it as a disaster for offspring? Build religious bridges or fortify religious boundaries? Strengthen religious authority or promote religious autonomy? Harmonize Judaism with contemporary culture or uphold Jewish tradition against contemporary culture? Compromise for the sake of Jewish unity or stand firm for cherished Jewish principles?”  

To those who view Judaism’s future in America as being doomed, Sarna notes that, “History ... also suggests another possibility: that today, as so often before, American Jews will find creative ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism. With the help of visionary leaders, committed followers, and generous philanthropists, it may still he possible for the current ‘vanishing’ generation of American Jews to he succeeded by another ‘vanishing’ generation and then still another. ‘A nation dying for thousands of years,’ the great Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz once observed, ‘means a living nation. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew.’ His message, delivered to Jews agonizing over the loss of 6 million of their compatriots applies equally well today in the face of contemporary challenges to Jewish continuity. ‘If we are the last — let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days.’”  

Celebration of Freedom  

The fact is that 350 years of freedom of religion has shaped all of the religious groups in the United States and has challenged many of their customs and beliefs. If some groups succeed and others decline, it is not a criticism of American freedom and openness. Much of Judaism has adapted to American freedom, while enclaves remain which view freedom itself as the ultimate danger. While Jews in other places suffered because of their faith, Jews in America have been free for more than three centuries to practice their religion — or to alter it, adapt it, or abandon it. It is the celebration of that freedom to which we should turn our attention, and center our celebration. Jonathan Sarna has provided a notable contribution in telling the story of Judaism during America’s last 350 years. In a free society, as he concludes, Judaism’s future is in the hands of American Jews themselves. What they do with it, will determine what course that future takes.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.