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A Portrait of a Typical — And Typically Diverse — American Jewish Community

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 1996

There is much discussion within the organized Jewish community in the U.S. about "Jewish continuity." There is a fear that, with the majority of American Jews unaffiliated with any Jewish religious body, and a religious inter-marriage rate of over 50%, that the American Jewish population will suffer a steady decline.  

In Israel there are calls to help "rescue" American Jews from what appears, to Israelis, to be the "perils" of the free, open and pluralistic American society. The Jerusalem Post (Feb. 10, 1996) reports that, "The rescue operations of the Jewish people are not yet over, according to the Interministerial Committee for Israel-Diaspora Relations. The committee, chaired by Minister Without Portfolio Yehuda Amital, convened...to discuss what Israel can do for the Jewish people. Whereas rescue efforts since World War II have focused largely on physical survival, those required today are in the realm of the spiritual, the committee agreed."  

At the same time, a study by the World Jewish Congress indicates that world Jewry is "becoming an endangered species." Jews are "a people in a crisis of spirit and identity," losing their identity through intermarriage and cultural assimilation, the report said.  

The prescription for this alleged problem which is coming from many Jewish organizations is not that of calling for a spiritual renewal with emphasis upon religious and ethical values but, instead, a stress on identification with Israel. In this connection, a campaign is mounting to send as many American Jewish teenagers to Israel for month-long visits as possible. There, it is argued, they will be put in touch with their "Jewish roots."  

Continuing Debate

Within Reform Judaism there is a continuing debate between those who seek an insular community moving back toward Orthodoxy and those who wish to fulfill the vision of an earlier Reform movement which sought to make Judaism a religion of universal values at home in America rather than a tribal faith confined to one ethnic group and focused on Israel.  

Something of this division can be seen in recent news of turmoil concerning the question of intermarriage. Howard Metzenbaum, the former senator from Ohio, resigned from the board of Reform Judaism’s governing body in January in protest over the movement’s new policy of discouraging interfaith couples from educating their children in both Jewish schools and those of another religion. He wrote to Union of American Hebrew Congregation (UAHC) officials that, "I’m aghast. All my life I have felt that as a Reform Jew, there was a welcome mat out to those who wanted to join us. Now I find that for those families that are intermarried, we are not opening our arms to try and be helpful, rather we are saying: Do it our way or Judaism rejects you."  

The question of rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages is another hotly debated issues within Reform Judaism. David Belin, a member of the executive committee of the board of the UAHC, says that it should be made easier for Reform rabbis to perform a wedding ceremony for an interfaith couple. Mr. Belin, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, points out that 75% of Reform Jews supported rabbinic officiation at intermarriages while the Central Conference of American Rabbis, since 1973, has officially recommended against such officiation while still recognizing the autonomy of rabbis in making the decision to conduct such marriages. Mr. Belin advocates a "neutral position," recognizing a rabbi’s right "to determine on the basis of his or her own conscience whether or not to officiate, free from any outside pressure."  

Given all of these divergent currents, the question of what a typical American Jewish community is like, what are its values and hopes for the future, is difficult to answer with any degree of certainty.  

Midwestern City

In a thoughtful new book, The American Jew: Voices From An American Jewish Community, Dan and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok permit one hundred men and women in a typical midwestern city, identified only as "Metropolis," to speak for themselves. From the Orthodox rabbi to the teenage summer camper, from the Auschwitz survivor to the 18-year-old debutante, a fascinating collection of self-portraits is presented. Included as well are interviews with converts to Judaism, non-religious Jews, and non-Jews looking in on the Jewish community.

The city in which the interviews took place is located in a large metropolitan area of about two million people. The Jewish community within the metropolis is composed of about 40,000 members. The authors deliberately chose not to identify the American city so as to provide a degree of anonymity. They have also changed the names of those who were interviewed as well as those of the institutions mentioned in the book.  

The qualifications of Dan and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbot to prepare such a study are impressive. Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbot is a widely published scholar in Judaism and is a fellow of the Academy of Jewish Philosophy. He currently teaches at the University of Kent, Canterbury, England, and is a visiting professor at the universities of Middlesex and Wales. Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok was until recently the principal of West Heath School in England and is the author of A Short History of Judaism, Jewish and Christian Mysticism and A Popular Dictionary of Judaism.  

The traditionalist rabbi tells the authors that, "The present picture shows a lot of enthusiasm for Jewish life. The younger generation seems to want to know more and understand more. At the same time, there’s a lot of apathy and a lot of indifference while simultaneously there’s a lot of potential enthusiasm. The cause is Americanization. We Jews fought for Americanization, and we got it up to a great point, and now we’re realizing the consequences...mixed marriages and a lack of observance. We live in a society that emphasizes autonomy and individual choice. It’s not too hot on nationalism or ethnic identity or religious beliefs.... We have sympathies for choice and for rights, but religiously, it’s very difficult. So we’re hit by both sides. While Americanization is taking place, there are still residual feelings of guilt, puzzlement and bewilderment. We’re carrying around a lot of unresolved Jewish baggage. We want to retain our identity, but at the same time we live in a culture which says you must participate in the mainstream. Yes, it’s difficult."  

Interfaith Marriage

The rabbi of a Reform temple portrayed his congregation as wanting its rabbi to perform interfaith marriages even "in a church on Saturday with a priest." He also pointed to a hesitation of the part of his congregation to be self-critical: "Jews are very uncomfortable saying or thinking anything negative about their community. It’s a lack of security. They feel as if they’re being disloyal. They believe they’re playing into the hands of some real or imagined enemy. I’ll give you an example. I was invited to speak to the Sisterhood of another congregation, Temple Shalom, on the topic of women in Judaism. There we were in this large chapel in this affluent temple with probably fifty or sixty wealthy Jewish women, very nicely dressed. I tried to be entertaining and non-frightening.... I was trying to point out in a subtle way that women have a secondary role in the Jewish community. I said they ought to be more assertive. One of the women said, ‘Don’t you think what you’re saying is dangerous? That it helps our enemies?’ And I looked at her and thought, ’I am in the chapel of the richest synagogue in Metropolis with a bunch of Jewish women. Yasir Arafat can’t hear us. What are they worried about?’"  

Repeatedly the authors hear reports of various forms of intolerance within the Jewish community. Open criticism of Israel, they found, is harshly dealt with. A former rabbi, whose father had been a rabbi who studied in the rabbinical school in Berlin and had been the rabbi in Heidelberg, reported that, "In my High Holiday services I criticized Israel — it was my death warrant. They tried to get rid of me. Then it was suggested that maybe the right thing would be for me to resign, but I said, ‘No thanks.’ Then I was given a two year contract, but less than a year later it was made clear that it would not be renewed. So I had a year to find another position."  

The director of the Jewish Community Center was a woman whose religious background was, she said, "a little unusual." She did not know that she was Jewish until she was 25 years old. But, she said, "I don’t think of myself as a convert at all, and I’m resentful when I’m labeled as such. Frankly it’s something that shocks me about the Jewish community here. Until I came here, I was never closely involved in the community even though I went to synagogue regularly. I had a stereotype of what a Jew is — that is liberal and tolerant of everyone and everything. We’re intolerant of everyone and everything. We’re intolerant of the very religious; we’re intolerant of the Reform — they’re not Jewish enough; the very religious are embarrassing; the Hasids are even more embarrassing; the West Side are the poor Jews that no one really wants to associate with; the East Side are the hotshots with the jewels and the minks; everyone hates the Russians; nothing is more despicable than a convert. The things that I have heard come out of people’s mouths! People say things that absolutely blow my mind."  

"Lapsed Convert"

A woman referred to by the authors as "the lapsed convert," described the manner in which the Jewish community acted with regard to her conversion. She says that, "I converted because his parents made it a condition of our marriage. They said they’d disinherit him if I didn’t....I was raised a Presbyterian ...His family insisted, absolutely insisted on a Jewish wedding. And if we were to have a Jewish wedding, then I had to convert. There was no option. To be fair, Joe found it as bewildering as I did. He knew nothing about Judaism. He’d had a Bar Mitzvah in Temple, but he’d simply learned the reading from a tape recorder. But even if he knew nothing, I — as a convert — had to know everything....To begin with, I went along with it. I wanted to please his folks. But it was a bummer from the start. I had an awful interview with the rabbi. Without exactly saying so, he made it quite clear he couldn’t understand why a boy like Joe would want to get involved with a little tramp like me. My parents aren’t rich and Joe was going to be a doctor; he deserved a Jewish girl. I mean, if I could have produced a Jewish mother out of the woodwork, then I’d have been welcomed with open arms, but as it was...Well, I’m afraid the Jewish community wants its children to marry its own. There’s a real racist edge to it. Every week we had to go to Temple....My family’s Presbyterian. And there, if any stranger comes to church, they’re thrilled to have them: ‘Come right in — have a cup of coffee!’ But because of the accident of my birth, the Jews just didn’t want me."  

A Catholic member of the Metropolis Catholic-Jewish dialogue told of his active participation in this effort to improve inter-faith relations, but said that a stumbling block was the demand of some Jewish participants that no criticism of Israel be permitted. He notes that, "I finally came to realize, after about six years, that we weren’t engaged in interfaith discussion such as we’ve tried to have with Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans. With the Jews it was a political discussion. In my mind the Anti-Defamation League (which sponsored the dialogue) was trying to place Catholics in a position where they would pressure their Church to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel....Without exception, I considered all the people at those meetings to be very good friends. I know the American Jewish community has some moral commitment to stand in a unified, solid phalanx about Israel, no matter what is done there. The feeling is they cannot afford to appear to be divided publicly...I think the attitude of the Jewish community is unfortunate because it undermines credibility...I think there are two important things: firstly is the continuation of good relations between Catholics and Jews; secondly, we should not give any openings for pot-shots by the true anti-Semites — and there are some. So whatever I say, I don’t go public about the ADL, and I don’t write letters to the newspapers on these matters. You see, I’m talking like the Jews now!"  

Zionist Activities

Even those Jews in Metropolis who are deeply involved in Zionist activities, have dramatically altered their own definition of what a "Zionist" is. In their view, it is not necessarily someone who chooses to emigrate to Israel. The leaders of Hadassah states: "My dad was always a Zionist....When he was a young man, he was in a Zionist club in Poland. When I was young, I became a Young Judea leader....We used to get a lot of material from national Hadassah about Israel and about Zionism. Many years ago the focus of Young Judea was to get us to make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel, but that wasn’t always perceived too well. A lot of parents don’t want their kids to be pressured to live in Israel, and they had to modify the program. Now it’s just educational...I’d never want myself to live in Israel...I don’t feel that that’s where I would be at home. It’s just a different way of life....I have cousins in Israel who have been here to visit and they live on the West Bank. They carry a gun. They’re in the most dangerous place and we’ve begged them to come and live here. They loved it here, but they wouldn’t dream of leaving their country. That’s their country, this is my country..."  

The increasing rate of interfaith marriage poses a number of interesting dilemmas for such individuals in the Jewish community as the mohel, who performs ritual circumcision. One mohel, a rabbi, told the authors: "What do I do if the mother isn’t Jewish? Provided they are intending to raise the child as Jewish, I do a circumcision with the presumption of a conversion. So I get calls from Mrs. Lisa O’Brien, and I say to myself, ‘Good! That’s a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and I know what I am dealing with. The kid is Jewish.’ The problem comes when the father’s name is Goldberg and the mother is called Christina; then I know I’ve got to bring a Rabbinical court along. We hope in that case that the child will continue and, when he gets to Bar Mitzvah age, he will go to a ritual bath for conversion....I have to say the Reform rabbis are very understanding about it all. I would say 50 percent of the people who call me, one parent is not Jewish. So in 25 percent of the cases the mother is not Jewish and some sort of conversion of the child is needed. I feel that if I do this right, and I don’t cause more conflict between the religions, we have a chance maybe later of the non-Jewish parent being comfortable in raising her child as a Jew."  

A number of Jewish residents of Metropolis expressed their concerns about the future of Jewish identity in America. One, referred to as the "community patriarch," who financially supported the Orthodox yeshivas for boys and girls, provided this assessment: "I am aware that the environment of the United States is so powerful that unless the Jewish people created an intense atmosphere for themselves, it would be difficult to sustain themselves. A religious person can be involved in the secular world, but in order to sustain himself, he must have a strong anchor or background....I know you have to make a choice: you either have to be intensely Jewish and be tough about it, or you disappear as a Jew...The estrangement among Jews is growing. The Reform Jewish group, for example, is offering different kinds of definitions of who is Jewish. The contact between the Reform Jewish element and the rest is very limited. Instead of ‘We are One’ a correct motto would be, ‘We are growing apart’....There’s a simultaneous thing going on — the general groups of the Jewish community are diminishing and falling away while the Orthodox groups are growing..."  

Israel-Centered Education

The attempt to create an Israel-centered Jewish education in the Orthodox day schools of Metropolis was criticized by a man identified as "the photographer." He said: "In my divorce settlement there was a court order that the kids would continue to go to the Golda Meir School...It really grates on me to go into a school to see not only the American flag but also the Israeli flag. I don’t think growing up Jewish has to mean one is a member of that group too. I believe that the strength of the American way of life lies in public schools and in people mixing from all different backgrounds. My experience with formal Judaism is that it tends to be very isolating. It’s meant to be. Assimilated is the worst thing to be...My main problem is I think formal religions...tend to separate people into us and them. I really don’t like that. As a result of their school, my children don’t know any kids who aren’t Jewish....I believe in the melting pot theory of American society. I think it’s good to have Passover and to be Jewish and to learn Hebrew, but you should also know that there are a lot other ways of doing things."  

The Jewish education received by many of those with whom the Cohn-Sherboks spoke was widely criticized. One respondent, referred to as "the non-conformist," said: "I was born and raised in Metropolis and my family are third generation Temple Shalom on both sides. I was given a good Reform Temple upbringing, and I was confirmed there. You really want me to tell you what I learned at Temple Shalom? I learned that there was something morally wrong with chewing gum...and that’s about it. By the way, I was valedictorian of my class! What I got from Temple Shalom was roughly the equivalent of spiritual bankruptcy. It was definitely not a positive experience. It was serving a jail sentence. There was nothing taught about the belief system. What I learned at religion school was about Jewish baseball players. They were trying to secularize religion....Many years later, when I was in Korea and I was faced with trying to deal with death, I realized I had absolutely no spiritual underpinnings at all. Judaism was for me at that time bereft of anything. I went to talk to the Catholic priest, not because I wanted to become a Catholic, but because what I found in Judaism was matzoh-ball soup and lox and bagel...That was Temple Shalom."  

Another member of Temple Shalom, a convert who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, says that she finds the temple "very non-spiritual, and I do have a difficult time with that. All the sermons are social action or political. We don’t talk about God. There are a million places in this city where I could hear about social action, but there aren’t many places where I can get spirituality. The prayers are very rote. I want more about God..."  

Dialogue Is Difficult

A professor of theology at the University of Metropolis, a Presbyterian active in interfaith relations, laments that, "About interfaith dialogue...it has become increasingly difficult...There’s a great deal of touchiness and antagonism going on...In terms of dialogue with Jews, it’s very difficult not to talk about the Middle East. I have found American Jews to be much more conservative and toeing-the-line for Israel than Israelis are. I’ve been able to talk with Israelis about problems such as the Arabs in the occupied Territories and negotiations and so on without any problem. But American Jews, the minute you get into that area they hear you as being anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic is the next step. That’s unfortunate and it’s a change....It’s just difficult to talk. I do a lot more keeping my mouth shut than I used to..."  

The Cohn-Sherboks spent four months speaking to more than one hundred residents of Metropolis in their attempt to paint a picture of a typical American Jewish community. These men and women speak for themselves and portray a widely diverse community, one which is attempting to come to grips with the challenge of the religiously diverse American society and to maintain, in varying degrees, a sense of their own Jewish identity. The community is far from united in its attitudes and beliefs. Indeed, diversity may be its dominant characteristic, as is an undercurrent of insecurity and intolerance.  

Those who worry about the future of Judaism in America would do well to read this book and ponder the insights of the participants. "The aim of this study," the authors write, "is to provide a snapshot of American Jewry in the 1990s....As will be seen, the Jewish population of Metropolis is made up of a wide variety of sub-groups representing the major divisions of contemporary American Jewry: the Jewish institutions of Metropolis are typical of those in other cities, and the voices of the Metropolitan Jewish community could be heard throughout the United States."  

In pursuit of this "snapshot" the authors have provided us with a notable service. They have presented no assessment of their own of the data they have collected. It is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, and these are likely to be as diverse as the voices captured within these pages. •  

THE AMERICAN JEW: VOICES FROM AN AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY by Dan and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 360 Pages, $19.99.

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