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

American Judaism in the 21st Century: Can It Meet the Challenge of Our Marketplace of Religious Ideas?

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2000

In recent days, a subject which has attracted the increasing attention of the organized American Jewish community is that of "continuity." With approximately 50 percent of younger American Jews marrying non-Jews, there is a fear that American Jews will, in the future, disappear into the larger society.  

An important way to stem this tide of assimilation, a number of Jewish leaders have concluded, is to tie young American Jews ever closer to Israel.  

In 1998, a group of philanthropists, led by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, announced the creation of "Birthright Israel," a $300 million fund that would totally support first-time travel to Israel by Jews aged 15 to 26.  

The New York Times described the plan as "an attempt to rebuild religious identity among young Jews...The assumption behind Birthright Israel is that even a spring break spent in Israel can form a connection to Judaism for young people who have little or no affiliation with a synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The program is also an effort to mend the fraying ties among American Jews. Trips to Israel could also be a means of consolidating support for the Jewish state."  

Rite of Passage  

Michael Steinhardt, a Wall Street money manager, said that Israel "is the cement that can bind the Jewish community together. It is my hope that over time, 10 or 15 years perhaps, a Birthright trip can develop into a tradition analogous to that of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Our hope is that a trip to Israel will be another rite of passage of Jewish life."  

Mr. Steinhardt, a self-proclaimed atheist, said that, "Israel has frankly—through my life and for much of my life—been a substitute for theology. I have lived an important part of my Jewishness through association with Israel rather than through adherence to a religious law or substantial observance."  

At the time the "Birthright" program was announced, ties to Israel had been waning for some time. A study conducted by Hebrew University sociologist Steven Cohen found that while faith in God, ritual observance, and religious commitment appeared to be stable, only 20 percent of those surveyed think it is essential to support Israel. Visiting Israel at least once is considered essential to being a good Jew by only 13 percent. "Israel attachment" by Jews 55 and older was 46 percent; among those 25 to 34 it dropped to 23 percent. Steve Doochin, a United Jewish appeal fund-raiser from New York, told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that, "Israel has not been on our agenda of late. Israel is just not on the fund-raising screen for a lot of the donors I have."  

In January 2000, 6,000 young Jewish college students from the U.S., Canada and a number of other countries were flown to Israel. The "Birthright" program was described by The Washington Post as "nothing less than a $210 million marketing campaign to sell Jewishness to Jews."  

An Option  

Richard Joel, president of Hillel, the college campus Jewish organization, said: "This is the first Jewish generation where being a Jew is an option and not a condition. If we can get Jews to feel comfortable with their Jewishness and proud of it, they will make more of their lives Jewish-flavored."  

The rising rate of intermarriage is a symptoms of Jewish success in America, analysts say. "Victimization is historical now," Joel declared. "The Holocaust is history, not memory. Anti-Semitism is not a defining experience of every Jew."  

Criticism of the program has been widespread. "Providing vast sums of money to youngsters, including many from affluent homes, for 10-day junkets without requiring any form of commitment is demeaning to Israel," said Isi Leibler, the chairman of the board of the World Jewish Congress. "It is inconceivable that a 10-day trip can be the jump-off point for creating newly committed Jews."  

Naomi Blumenthal, a member of the opposition Likud Party, who chairs the Israeli parliament's committee on immigration and diaspora affairs, said the government was throwing money at the wrong people for the wrong purpose.  

"It bothers me that huge sums are being spent to bring young people here for free, while children in poor Israeli towns cannot afford a class trip," she said. "The main goal of the project is not immigration to Israel but strengthening Jewish communities abroad. That's not the thrust of the State of Israel."  

What Is Lacking  

Challenging the "Birthright Israel" program, Dr. Andrew Glick, professor of anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, declares that this "is emblematic of what is lacking in Jewish American life today. Projects of this kind perpetuate the self-deprecating concept of America as just another part of `Diaspora' and of Jewish Americans as a tangential and historically inconsequential population. Why should young Jewish Americans, indoctrinated by programs of this kind to think of Israel as the proper focus of their loyalty and attention, conclude that their foremost concern should be the fate of the Jewish American community?"  

Dr. Glick notes that, "We are not living in a vaguely defined no-person's-land called `the Diaspora.' We are in America, and our destiny is here. Jewish Americans, religious and secular alike, are the principal heirs of a 1,500 year European Jewish history and legacy, and, for better or worse, it has fallen mainly on us to maintain, extend and appropriately interpret that legacy for the society in which we live.,.We are Jewish Americans, not Israelis, and our foremost goal should be to endow our young people with pride in their Jewish-American identity and determination to preserve it."  

In Dr. Glick's view, "Rather than sending students to Israel or anywhere else, we might do well to invest more of our resources in educating Jewish Americans of all ages in our European-Jewish and Jewish-American history, and in the meaning and purpose of Jewish identity in the American context. Cultural pride and self-respect, personal commitment and communal unity will grow best in foundations provided by solid understanding of our own past and our place in the world. For most Jewish Americans of every age that place is America, and we would do well to recognize and act on it."  

Enthusiasm Growing  

Despite such criticism, the enthusiasm over the "Birthright Israel" program is growing. In April, it was announced that 76 Jewish federations, representing 83 percent of the North American Jewish community, have signed letters of support for the "Birthright" program and their new umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities, is on its way to becoming a partner in "Birthright."  

Young people who traveled to Israel in January have expressed their support for the program. Whether they are being brought to Judaism by the "Birthright" program or to an identification with Israeli nationalism is, however, a question which should be of concern to those who are now promoting this program. Consider Gabriel Stern, 19, a Duke University student from Long Island, New York who described himself as an atheist.  

"My parents always impressed upon me that I'm Jewish, but I have never really bought into it," he said. "But after going to Masada, seeing that my people were there 2,000 years ago, touching the stone, it hits home. There"s a passion here. People my age are walking around with guns, defending their country, all with a purpose. In Long Island, the biggest problem is what I`m going to wear the next day."  

It is fanciful to think that Jewish "continuity" in America can be promoted by trips to Israel and efforts to tie young American Jews to that country. This enterprise has little to do with religious identity and belief in a free, diverse society. It is as if the Episcopal or Presbyterian churches, declining in membership, sought to tie young people closer to their denominational identity by sending them on trips to England and Scotland, where those communions began. It completely ignores the spiritual dimension and the fact that American society represents an open marketplace of religious ideas in which an individual`s religious identity is based not on birth but on individual choices.  

New Religious Landscape  

Larry Witham, religion editor of The Washington Times, notes that Americans are now in the midst of a new religious landscape: "In an era when loyalty to doctrines and denominations has waned, a new American behavior called spiritual seeking has surged. Its quarry is personal experience, the sacred, the soul."  

A recent report, "The Next American Spirituality," done by pollster George Gallup, Jr. reveals Americans' spiritual thoughts and activities over a 24-hour period. One third had a roller-coaster day of spiritual highs and lows. Thirty percent felt "indescribable joy" during their day. Nearly 40 percent had opened a Bible, and 60 percent had felt part of God's plan. Yet the biggest response was to the word "spiritual." Nearly 80 percent expressed a desire to "experience spiritual growth."  

Mr. Gallup says that embrace of the "S" word over the "R" word should not come as a surprise. For several decades now, most Americans have said that religion will decline. Now more than ever, 80 percent agree that "an individual should arrives at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue."  

Until the 1960s, the spiritual was found by "dwelling" in a religion, but now the operative word is "seeking," says sociologist Robert Wuthnow. He says the search pays off only when it ends in "practice-oriented spirituality"—a routine of either study, prayer, worship or service.  


The new spirituality has moved American religion away "from what is beyond us to what is within us," Mr. Gallup says. It has little use for doctrine, and picks and chooses from various Scriptures. It is as likely to quote from Lao Tzu and Bob Dylan as from Moses or Jesus.  

Political scientist James Reichley, who attends a Presbyterian church, thinks people have turned away from doctrinal religion and toward spirituality to feel more comfortable in a diverse society. "I think it's a reaction to pluralism," Mr. Reichley says. "It's a way of transcending the diversity of America."  

Boston University sociologist Peter Berger, a Lutheran layman, has called this "the age of credulity." The walls that once defined traditions and creeds, he argues, are now breached by, among other things, growing rates of interfaith marriage. The borderlines of denominations have blurred, and denominational "switching" is becoming more common.  

The little told story of today's American teenagers may be how religious or spiritual they are. "We're witnessing a new revival of religion," says Conrad Cherry, director of the Center for Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University/Purdue University. In a new Newsweek poll of teenagers, 78 percent said their religion was important to them, but only half said they attended services regularly, a figure that has declined since the 1970s. Newsweek reports that, "Rather than seek absolute truths in doctrine, they cross denominational boundaries, savvy consumers in the broader marketplace of belief systems. Many describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious...In place of strict adherence to doctrine, many teens embrace a spirit of eclecticism and a suspicion of absolute truths."  

Equally Valid Truths  

A 1999 poll of teenagers by the religious researcher George Barna found that more than half of the teenagers polled agreed with the statement, "All religious faiths teach equally valid truths," Newsweek notes that, "Many of the teenagers who are picking and choosing are the children of mixed marriages, a growing slice of the American population. About half of all Jews, for example, now marry outside the religion; the figure for Catholics is nearing 50 percent. For these teens, the religious smorgasbord begins at home."  

The fact is that this generation of Americans, both Jews and others, has new spiritual needs which are not being met by established religious institutions, in particular by bodies which have substituted Jewish ethnicity and concern for Israel and Middle East politics for God and religious faith. Jews, they should be reminded, were not called upon to worship themselves.  

Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, who directs the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, has written a thoughtful new book, Finding A Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue. He states that, "I have met thousands of Jews who care deeply about being Jewish and about their spirituality. I have come to the conclusion that synagogues were not acting as the places in which spiritual needs were being fulfilled for our generation. If the synagogues were not doing their job, then people will pursue their spirituality elsewhere, both in secular and non-secular areas."  

Meaning In Life  

While previous generations of Jews were concerned about questions relating to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which revolved around a survivalist agenda, this generation, says Rabbi Schwartz, "is no longer motivated by those same things. Instead, they are about matters of membership, meaning in life, spirituality and God. We, as Jewish leaders, have to follow the new priorities...Baby boomers are classic religious shoppers. No one, in general, seems to be committed to just one religion anymore...We no longer need to stick with the tribe, if you will, because the outside world is no longer threatening to us or our religion...We need to move away from the definition of inclusivity we operate under. Our agenda cannot be just ethnically focused. People are in search for a meaning and a purpose."  

Rabbi Schwartz reports: "I encounter more and more Jews today who are engaged in a spiritual search...They experiment with alternative religious disciplines, from meditation to yoga to a variety of Eastern religious ashrams or fellowship houses...Some of these Jewish seekers find their way to a local synagogue. Most leave, convinced that the religion of their childhood is incapable of meeting their need for spirituality...Unless synagogues begin to ask themselves questions about what they can do to speak to the Jews who have not yet walked through their doors, the Jewish community will continue to dwindle and decline."  

Stephen J. Whitfield, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, argues that, "...if Jewish life is to prevail and prosper here, it will not be through the vicissitudes of memory alone, or the fear of others, or invocations of the Holocaust, or the emotional connection to Israel. However necessary such concerns and gestures are, in themselves they are insufficient. What will matter is not what Jews fear or remember but what they affirm, not what their ancestors died for but what they and their descendants might want to live for."  

American Experience  

In a new book, In Search Of American Jewish Culture, Whitfield describes the uniqueness of the American experiences: "Even as freedom of worship was formally guaranteed, modern civil society inevitably defined religion in a way that altered a Judaism that had previously been transmitted as practice more than a theology, as a codes more than doctrines. Jews were promised freedom of religion, but what most were not quite entitled to enjoy was the freedom to define religion in a way that owed nothing to the prevailing conception in Christendom. In the U.S. a society that was Christian coexisted with a state that was not. Because no church was established, religion was encouraged to be voluntaristic. Its exercise was so free under the First Amendment that an American is also virtually free from religion. The yearning to flee from an established church could easily become a desire to flee from any church. Which meant that, like other faiths in the New World, historic Judaism had to persuade (or even please) its adherents. It could not command fealty. And when rejection of Judaism imposed little if any social or moral penalties, to mend it seemed the only way not to end it."  

Many Jews have historically feared freedom, especially those within the religious establishment.  

When Jews were granted political and religious freedom in Europe, many rabbis lamented these trends and the challenge to their own authority in the once-isolated Jewish communities. Shortly before 1832, Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg (now Bratislava), in what was then the autonomous Hungarian Kingdom in the Austrian Empire, addressed a message to Vienna in Austria proper, where Jews had already been granted considerable individual rights. He lamented the fact that since the Jewish congregation in Vienna lost its powers to punish offenders, the Jews there have become lax in matters of religious observance. He declared: "Here in Pressburg, when I am told that a Jewish shopkeeper dared to open his shop during the Lesser Holidays, I immediately sent a policeman to imprison him."  

Loss of Credal Uniformity  

Jacob David Willowski, the prominent Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to the U.S. in 1903, quickly perceived that the problem bedeviling faith was the loss of credal uniformity. America was "where groups with varying viewpoints and opinions came to be settled," he complained, "and no one recognizes any authority." Another Orthodox rabbi, Israel Meir Ha-Kohen Kagan, even preferred tsarist autocracy to Western freedom, and advised against mass emigration: "Whoever wishes to live properly before God must not settle in these countries."  

Professor Israel Shahak, in his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, points out that the "most important fact of Jewish existence before the advent of the modern state was: observance of the religious laws of Judaism, as well as their inculcation through education, were enforced on Jews by physical coercion, from which one could only escape by conversion to the religion of the majority, amounting in the circumstances to a social break and for that reason very impracticable, except during a religious crisis. However, since the modern state had come into existence, the Jewish community lost its powers to punish or intimidate the individual Jew. The bounds of one of the most closed of `closed societies'...were snapped."  

Sadly, Shahak writes, "a great many present-day Jews are nostalgic for that world, their lost paradise, the comfortable closed society from which they were not so much liberated as expelled."  

Unique Challenge

The American experience provides a unique challenge to those who seek to promote an ethnocentric and nationalistic brand of Judaism, rather than the universal Judaism of the prophets. In A History Of The Jews, Paul Johnson writes that, "America was, from the start, unlike any Jewry elsewhere. In Europe and Afro-Asia, where religious barriers were universal in some form, the Jews always had to negotiate or have imposed upon them a special status. This obliged them to form specific and usually legally defined communities, wherever they settled. To a greater or lesser extent, all these Jewish communities were self-governing, even though the actual condition of the Jews might be miserable and perilous. In Poland, under the monarchy, the Jews enjoyed a kind of home rule, governing themselves through the Councils of the Lands, which their wealthier members elected. They were taxed more heavily than the surrounding Poles and had no real right of self-defense, but otherwise ran their own affairs. To a less pronounced extent this was true of every Jewish settlement in Continental Europe. The Jews always ran their own schools, courts, hospitals and social services. They appointed and paid their own officials, rabbis, judges, slaughterers, circumcisers, schoolteachers, bakers and cleaners. They had their own shops. Wherever they were, the Jews formed tiny states within states."  

This pattern was completely broken in America. "In North America it was quite different," Johnson writes, "even before the U.S. attained independence. With the virtual absence of religious-determined law, there was no reason why Jews should operate a separate legal system, except on matters which could be seen merely as internal religious discipline. Since all religious groups had virtually equal rights, there was no point in constituting itself into a separate community. All could participate in a common society. Hence from the start, the Jews in America were not organized on communal but congregational lines, like the other churches...American Jews did not belong to `the Jewish community` as they did in Europe. They belonged to a particular synagogue. It might be Sephardi or Ashkenazi; or, of the latter, it might be German, English, Dutch, Polish, all of them differing on small ritual points. Protestant groups were divided on comparable lines. Hence a Jew went to `his' synagogue, just as a Protestant went to `his' church. In other respects, both Jew and Protestant were part of the general citizenry, in which they merged as secular units. Thus for the first time, Jews, without in any way renouncing their religion, began to achieve integration."  

New In History  

In the book Jews And The New American Scene, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, set forth the manner in which America was something genuinely new in history: "Almost every country with the exception of the U.S. and the now-deceased Soviet Union is a historically defined nation united by a common history, not a political doctrine. Though immigrants may acquire citizenship almost everywhere, the meaning of being English, French, German or Russian is  
predominantly a birthright status. As a new nation legitimated by a revolutionary ideology, America differed from all these other countries, and the meaning of being an American was different...As the self-conscious center of liberal revolutions from 1776 into the 20th century, the U.S has been open to new citizens who are willing to accept the creed."  

Edward Tiryakian, in an essay on "American Religious Exceptionalism," points out that, "...Jews in America have not been marginalized...by virtue of their religion...there has been no historical ghetto experience, no pogroms. In fact, because of a deep-structure affinity of Calvinist Puritans for Judaism, it is in America that Jews have increasingly found full societal and cultural participation and acceptance, symbolized by widespread acceptance in recent years of the term `Judeo-Christian.'"  

If by "Jewish survival" and "continuity," those who express dismay with "assimilation" mean they fear an end to an isolated and separated Jewish community with only limited contacts with the non-Jewish world, they arc correct in their assessment. From their point of view and value system, they are right to be alarmed.  

Judaism As a Religion  

But if by "Jewish survival" and "continuity" we mean the perpetuation of Judaism as a religion, such concern is misplaced and, beyond this, is not only counterproductive but may make Judaism even more difficult to successfully present in America's marketplace of religious ideas and beliefs. In recent years, for example, there has been a dramatic decline in membership in Mainline Protestant churches—yet there has been no wringing of hands about "Presbyterian survival" or "Methodist continuity."  

If many Jews are alienated from Judaism—and fewer Jews are members of congregations or attend religious services than is true of members of other religious groups in the U.S.—it is necessary to explore the reasons for this situation.  

Part of the reason for this decline may be the spiritual vacuum which exists in much of organized Judaism. All too often, Jewish "ethnicity" and identification with Israel has replaced religion. Because religion has been placed in the background and "ethnicity" and Israel in the forefront—just as the newly initiated "Birthright" program continues to do—many Jews seeking religion and spirituality have found it in other sectors. The Guru of a prominent Buddhist movement once came to the U.S. to find out why a majority of his members in this country were of Jewish background.  

Demographer Stephen Bayme says that the criticism of American Judaism as spiritually arid is "a legitimate criticism." He states: "The Jewish community has to take itself more seriously as a spiritual community...The notion of Judaism as addressing where religion can play a role in our consciousness... What we don't transmit is that this is an incredibly rich heritage that has much to say about personal ethics, about relationships, about personal meaning."  

"Ethnicity" Cannot Be Preserved  

It should be clear by now that "ethnicity" cannot be preserved in the American society, for Jews or anyone else, lest we find America a Balkanized country. The doomsday rhetoric we now hear from the groups providing a variety of programs, including "Birthright," to further Jewish "continuity" is largely irrelevant. Somehow, they never considered trying the advancement of a religious faith. Their efforts, write Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, are "often tautological: Jews would be better and stronger Jews if only they would be better and stronger Jews."  

Those who believe that Jewish identity in America can be perpetuated through anything by religious identification and faith have misread the situation in which Americans will live in the 21st century. Brandeis University's Stephen J. Whitfield declares that, "There is simply no longer a serious way of being Jewish—and of living within Jewish culture—without Judaism. As the various secular bases of Jewish life have vanished or have been discredited, religion alone remains standing. Indeed its staying power and its enduring appeal are extraordinary....As an ancient people...Jews have...exhibited a curious duality. Their ethical monotheism can be traced to the most distant origins, and yet the high levels of education that catapulted them to social success also gave them an antidote to what can be impugned as superstition. The result is that the people responsible for imagining the deity their neighbors worship have generally shown little faith in faith"  

Advancing A Religious Case  

Dr. Whitfield concludes that, "As an ethnic group, Jewry can erect little if any defense against assimilationist pressures. As an ethnic group, its customs will seem increasingly quaint and replaceable...As an ethnic group, Jews cannot make an incontestable moral case for survival...A religious case, however, can be advanced from within the tradition, and therefore American Jewry can be saved—if at all—on faith alone.,.What makes Jews different is, finally and fundamentally, only Judaism. As discrimination disappears and love of America is fully reciprocated, what is there to live for but an am olam, an eternal Israel? Christians no longer make it something to die for, and merely to dissent from their belief in the Resurrection hardly makes for an impregnable rationale for Jewish identity. The Jew in the pew is pivotal. `Take religion out,' Mordecai Kaplan warned in 1934, and Jewish civilization `becomes an empty shell.' It is therefore possible to envision a simplified future, when a precise definition will be possible: a Jew is someone who subscribes to Judaism. Period."  

The dilemma of a lack of Jewish spirituality and attention to the basic questions religion addresses is not new. In the final chapter of American Judaism, Nathan Glazer wrote that Jews believed that "religion should keep in step with science, psychotherapy, and liberal politics, and that as long as it does so it is doing its job." Religion also mattered for the sake of "Jewish self-respect—a kind of adjunct to the defense agencies engaged in fighting anti-Semitism." Finally, Judaism functions to preserve Jews as an intact unit, "a kind of adjunct to the work of the Zionist groups." But Glazer could locate little "spiritual experience." In his assessment, worldliness dwarfed encounters with the supernatural. One in five American Jews (or about 1.1 million) answered "none"' to a question, posed in l990, about religious identification. In more recent polls, when Americans were asked about the place of religion in their lives, 55 percent tell pollsters that it is "very important." Only 30 percent of Jews say so. Although only 14 percent of Americans say that religion plays no role in their lives, the Jewish percentage is 35.  

Spiritual Vacuum  

Rather than address the great spiritual vacuum within American Judaism, those who are most concerned about the question of "continuity" have taken an entirely different path, promoting the very "ethnicity" and attachment to Israel which has produced the vacuum itself. Thus, philanthropist Charles Bronfman, key sponsor of the "Birthright" program, declares: "I'm trying to make Jews. You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish, but I think you're losing a lot—losing the kind of feeling you have when you know throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have."  

In the 21st century, all Jews in America will, in reality, by "Jews by choice." They will not choose Judaism because of DNA, or attachment to Israel, or concern about anti-Semitism. Most will choose to be Jews for positive—not negative—reasons. If Judaism responds to the religious and spiritual search which is now taking place, particularly within the younger generation, its future in our open society is assured. If, on the other hand, it seeks to alienate young people from the American society, to isolate them, to make them feel guilty about enjoying and pursuing the fruits of freedom, to promote the idea that their real attachments are elsewhere, it is doomed to failure.  

The Real Challenge  

This, then, is the real challenge before us. Thus far, the inward turn and the crisis mentality of those who prefer to speak of "continuity" than of what Judaism has to offer to its adherents indicate a lack of understanding of the religious challenge of contemporary American life. No problem will be ever be addressed if it is not properly diagnosed, and the organized Jewish community, afraid to confront its own shortcomings and failures, appears incapable of such a diagnosis.

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