This survey of the Jewish population confirms what many have feared. Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, especially urban, educated and wealthier Jews. The trend has been established for some time. Jews are increasingly more concerned with fashion and how they look, mimicking the larger culture. Intermarriages are increasing at alarming rates. Athletic events are a bigger draw than synagogue attendance. Being part of the larger secular culture trumps Jewish identity and customs. There is concern in the Jewish community about the beginning of the end of Judaism as people seem to be walking away from it.
This is NOT the Pew study of 2013, but the imagined results of a study that could have been done in 167 B.C.E. in Alexandria, Judea or Antioch. Many Jews willingly and enthusiastically assimilated and adopted the majority culture offered by the Seleucid (Greek) Empire. Those who were determined to preserve Jewish tradition and life were forced to accept Greek gods and practices. We know how the story goes – a small group of rebels led by the Maccabees rise up to defend the faith and the few are victorious over the many! Judaism survives, Happy Hanukkah!
In 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story by Thomas B. Morgan entitled “The Vanishing American Jew.” Morgan predicted that assimilation, low birth rates, and intermarriage, would result in the disappearance of the American Jew by the end of the 20th century. In 2013, we’re still here. Where is Look magazine?
This is the story of our people. Changing times and conditions present different challenges for us. Sometimes we are challenged by evil rulers who seek to destroy us, and sometimes the challenges come from within when the Jewish people are uncertain about how to adapt to changing sociological and cultural conditions. The number of Jews in the world varies from century to century – it dips, it grows, depending on the conditions we find ourselves in.
The report of the demise of Judaism in the 21st century is exaggerated. Our history is a strong indication that we will meet the challenges of modernity and learn how to thrive in a secular, global and more tolerant society while maintaining our Jewish way of life.
As in previous times, it will not be easy. We will continue to lose Jews to assimilation, intermarriage and indifference. It will take strength and will to survive; not the strength and will of the Maccabees, rather the strength and will of our minds, our creativity, and our ability to adapt.
The challenge for the American Jewish community should not be underestimated. As we approach Hanukkah next week, I want to leave you with two thoughts.
First, as I wrote last week, I believe peoplehood is a necessary condition of the Jews. There is so much we have to offer as a people, and it is worth learning, understanding, living, and preserving. However, I also believe the religious aspect of Judaism is essential. The two are inextricably linked. And while I believe each Jewish family needs to decide how to express the religious aspect of being Jewish, the reality is that throughout our history, the Jewish communities and people who have survived are the ones who relinquished neither Torah nor observance of mitzvot. That is one of the messages of Hanukkah. I believe it is possible to successfully embrace Torah and patterns of Jewish living in a modern, secular world, and it will take strength and will.
Second, next week we will celebrate “Thanksgivukkah.” I love this because it demonstrates that we are capable of blending both cultures where appropriate. This is the only time this will happen in our lifetime, and we should make the most of it. There are all sorts of fun ideas on the Internet. This is a great opportunity to find some one-time rituals, activities and conversations that you can integrate into your Thanksgivukkah meal next Thursday. It is an opportunity to celebrate, be creative and have meaningful conversations about what it means to be Jewish in America today!