The Jewists

There is something that we can learn from Muslims.

The recent Pew research study – A Portrait of Jewish Americans – created quite a stir across our world for its findings and implications. Whenever such reports are published, it unleashes paroxysms of panic over its iterations of the obvious.

Intermarriage is now up to 58%. One-third of Jews profess no religion, and for most of those who do, their Jewishness is largely ethnic. Those brief highlights shouldn’t obscure other findings buried in the weeds of the report. Some conclusions produced widespread chuckles, to wit: the survey showed that 1% of ultra-Orthodox Jews have holiday trees every December 25, along with 4% of the Modern Orthodox. Really? How exactly are these Jews of Lakewood, Boro Park and Teaneck disposing of their trees without the neighbors noticing? Or, 76% of the ultra-Orthodox “avoid handling money on Shabbos,” while 81% of the Modern Orthodox don’t handle money. Is this a problem in the Haredi world? Are the Haredim more inclined to carry their wallets with them on Shabbos? Are there shteiblach where, if you get an aliya, you have to pay for it on the spot, in cash?

Some of the questions asked were vague to the point of meaninglessness: “do you keep kosher in the home?” According to the survey, a full 17% of the Modern Orthodox do not, and 2% of Haredim do not, both incredible – but what was the question? A meaningful question would have been “do you keep kosher all the time or only in the home?” Another weird finding: 15% of Orthodox Jews attend non-Jewish religious services a few times a year. Really? Are so many religious Jews hedging their bets and chapping a mass every now and then? Obviously there were people pretending to be Orthodox who weren’t; conversely, many say they are “Reform” but just mean they are not observant.

Some numbers don’t add up at all. Orthodox Jews are literally stuck at the figure of 10% of the population. Yet, everyone concedes that our numbers have grown significantly in the last 30-40 years – and we still can’t break the 10% barrier. Why not? Certainly, we are always under-counted, people are not completely honest in these surveys, and something else: there are many non-Jews who are counted in the study. The dark secret of these surveys is that the real number of Jews is sharply inflated by counting anyone who claims any Jewish blood, even if they are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. The chickens of intermarriage have come home to roost.

The real crisis as documented by the survey, a surprise only to those who haven’t paid attention for the last fifty years, is that overwhelmingly Jews define themselves ethnically rather than religiously. Jewishness is an ethnicity, so it makes no difference whether one’s father is Jewish, one’s mother is Jewish, one had a Jewish grandfather, or he/she just feels Jewish. To most Jews, and to the world at large, halacha doesn’t matter at all. You get to choose your own identity or identities.

Intermarriage has been devastating to the Jewish people. It has attempted to re-shape Jewish identity even as it has ravaged the Jewish home. Of the more than six million people identified as Jews in the survey, it would not shock if close to two million of them were not Jews according to Jewish law but retain – if they do – some ethnic attachment to the Jewish people. Many of them even celebrate their Jewish connection, and their existence has engendered the Jewish parlor game of: “Is he/she a Jew, a member of the tribe?” There is even a website that scores putative Jews on their Jewishness, played mostly for laughs, but still taken seriously by the professional Jewish scorekeepers. Some embrace the successful (Ryan Braun, the Hebrew hammer, past baseball MVP, son of an Israeli Jew!) and distance themselves from the scandalous (Ryan Braun, substance abuser, suspended from baseball, son of a Catholic mother and raised a Catholic!) He was in, but now is officially out of the tribe.

How should we refer to the almost two million people in the United States who claim a Jewish identity but are not Jews? It is here that we can learn from the Muslims.

Muslims are creative, inspired, and are such proficient marketers that they have a good scam going. Whenever they want to distance themselves from Muslims behaving poorly (hijacking, stabbing, rioting, beheading, car bombing, suicide bombing, general terror, etc.) they say the perpetrator is not a Muslim, but an “Islamist.” Islamist. It is a term of very recent vintage, and most convenient. There is no need for hand-wringing, soul-searching, or denunciations of the evildoers by Islamic religious or political figures. They need only say that those terrorists are not Muslims, but Islamists, and have absolutely nothing to do with the true Muslims of the world.

Why can’t Jews do the same? These non-Jews according to halacha are actually “Jewists, ” not Jews. They have some tepid connection to the Jewish people and religion but are not Jews. And we should to our list of Jewists our own share of miscreants, not as violent as the Muslims (sorry, the Islamists), but embarrassing to us nonetheless. So, henceforth, Jews who steal, murder, cheat, lie, molest, double-park or otherwise bring shame upon us are not real Jews. They are Jewists. A real Jew would not behave that way. Any rabbi who does any of those misdeeds – or kidnaps, tortures, defends pedophiles or sermonizes too long – is not a rabbi but a rabbist, a Jewist rabbist. Take all the Jewish politicians who have had “women” problems in the last few years (Weiner, Spitzer, ex-San Diego Mayor Filner): Jewists, all of them! In one fell swoop, Jews can lose our angst, guilt, and shame over Jews behaving badly. They are Jewists, not Jews! We never again have to berate ourselves with such painful questions as: “how can a Jew (or rabbi) behave that way?!” It is because they are not Jews but Jewists acting Jewistically (sometimes with excessive compassion that blinds them to the illegality of their conduct). Problem solved.

If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, we cannot wish away all the scoundrels and malefactors listed above, nor can we dismiss their Jewist co-religionists. These Jewists – people who are not Jewish usually through no fault of their own – are living, breathing, and walking reminders of the assimilation, intermarriage, and secularization that has devastated the Jewish people (mostly) outside the Torah world, and shows no signs of subsiding.

In fact, the opposite is true. The saddest aspect of the study is that things have to get worse. While professional Jews measure Jewish identity by such indices as support for Israel, political clout, and donations to Jewish organizations, looming over our heads is the reality that these individuals – however fine they might be – are lost to the Jewish people. Most Jewists are lost.

I could tow the party line and tell you that if we did X or Y we would save every soul, but I don’t believe it. There is a snowball effect; intermarriage breeds more intermarriage and assimilation breeds more assimilation. That they left has little to do with us, and if they come back, that too has little to do with us. Not nothing, but little, and what we can do we should do because every soul is precious and a world in itself. But it is America, more than anything else, the land of freedom and opportunity that has swept away the souls of Jews. It is one of the bitter ironies of Jewish history: we have better prevailed in the struggle for Jewish identity in times of persecution than in times of freedom. G-d’s gift to the Jewish people after a millennium of persecution in Europe – the capacity to serve Him faithfully in the freedom and prosperity of the United States – has, for most Jews, been squandered.

The good news is also obvious. The Orthodox world is growing and prospering. Our population is increasing – Orthodox Jews average 4.1 children, non-Orthodox far less than 2 – our levels of observance are increasing, and our retention rate is relatively high. Who could have guessed? The secret to Jewish continuity is Torah and mitzvot. Big shock! Sending children to Yeshiva keeps them Jewish. Who knew?? The Orthodox world is not perfect today, but when was it ever? All people have free choice. But the trends are favorable. In the survey, four times as many Jews thought remembering the Holocaust was more essential to being Jewish than observing Jewish law, and twice as many thought having a good sense of humor was more essential to being Jewish than observing Jewish law. Sure…

Our Sages compared the Torah to water – “water is Torah” (Masechet Bava Kamma 17a) – because water is the vehicle for sustenance as well as the symbol and instrumentality of rebirth. If we drink the living waters of Torah, we live; it is as simple as that. Will this message be heard by our brothers and sisters? I hope so, but it doesn’t appear that they have as yet drawn the same conclusions. They will send kids to Israel for ten days hoping the crash course in Jewish identity endures,  increase their social action and work for more inclusivity, etc. – anything but Torah observance. “Success” is defined as marrying a Jew, which, however viewed, is a very low bar.

But to withstand the deluge of assimilation requires more than even Torah and Mitzvot; it requires the capacity to stand alone against the tide – like a Noach or an Avraham or the other giants of our history. It requires knowing when to join and when to separate, and having the inner strength to serve G-d whose commandments transcend the popularity and morals of any particular generation.

That is the secret to our survival as Jews, and not as Jewists. And those are the ideas and values we impart to our children that will ensure the Jewish future as G-d envisioned it when He formed our nation, gave us the Torah and marched us to the Land of Israel.


9 responses to “The Jewists

  1. sad..I live in a rural area and work hard to retain my Jewish identity

  2. I suggest that major Jewish organizations should publicly condemn crooked Jews, like Bernard Madoff, who harmed the reputation of Jews everywhere. These condemnations should be attended by many newspaper reporters and television news reporters.

    I also suggest that major Orthodox Judaism organizations like: NCYI, OU, the Vaad HaRabonim of Queens, and Agudath Israel should publicly condemn crooked Jews like Bernard Madoff, even though Bernard Madoff was never Orthodox (or even close) because millions of our Gentile neighbors and less educated Jews make no distinctions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

    I further suggest that major Orthodox Judaism organizations: NCYI, OU, the Vaad HaRabonim of Queens, and Agudath Israel should publicly ban Jewish thieves like Bernard Madoff from attending their synagogues, even though he would never attend an Orthodox synagogue even if he were free, and even though his prison confinement makes synagogue attendance impossible for him.

    What is the reason behind these unusual suggestions? We must ensure that EVERYONE clearly understands that the bad Jews (like Bernard Madoff) DO NOT represent Jews and DO NOT represent Judaism. “EVERYONE” includes our Gentile neighbors and our impressionable young children and our businessmen who may feel tempted to commit unethical behavior.

  3. Well, I don’t think there is one major organization that didn’t condemn Madoff, and rightly so.

  4. Another wonderful piece by Rabbi P.

    While the Pew survey has many flaws in its implementation, there are other ways to take stock of Jewish Americans. One less ambiguous way to measure is with synagogue membership. While this is not much help in defining who is really a Jew, it does show a strong indicator of committment-level. Plus, we’re dealing with hard numbers, not vague questions that require survey participants to answer accurately. Nowadays, most Orthodox-affiliated Jewish Americans are at least somewhat Torah-observant, and, I would think, halachically Jewish as well. Here is just such a study:

    I found this study revelatory regarding Jewish Americans. By this survey, fully 20% of Jewish Americans affiliate Orthodox, exceeding the numbers of Conservative and Reform affiliates. Plus, since this survey suggests that 50% of Jewish Americans are unnaffiliated, there may be more Torah Jews than affiliation indicates. While most would assume that unnaffiliated means unobservant, I disagree. My personal experience is that Torah Jews do not usually join a synagogue until they have children, or at the very least until they are married. In my salad days, I attended a Shabbat morning minyan at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, where each week, about 1000 young Orthodox Jews assembled to pray. I would bet that few of them, if any, were paid-up members of any local synagogue (I know for sure that I was not!). Add to that the thousands of Torah observant Jews in colleges and universities who have no need to affiliate with a community synagogue, and those unable to afford synagogue membership, and the picture of the unnaffiliated Jewish American changes dramatically. So, I would guess that a third, or perhaps even one half of the unnafiliated Jews in America could be Torah observant. My take-away is that, while we may be loosing tens of thousands of Jews to assimilation every year, our high retention and birth rates are indeed having an impact. The future of Jews in America is one of increasing Torah observance, if also a smaller demographic. Of course, history has taught the Jewish Nation not become too comfortable anywhere in the diapora, so our future is ultimately in Eretz Israel, not America.

  5. Rabbi:
    You wrote: “The Orthodox world is growing and prospering. Our population is increasing – Orthodox Jews average 4.1 children, non-Orthodox far less than 2 – our levels of observance are increasing, and our retention rate is relatively high. ”

    But, at least according to Alan Brill’s article on the Pew Repoert (Jewish Standard, October 4), “Seventeen percent of 20-somethings have left Orthodoxy so far, but a whopping 43 percent of millennials and Gen Xers are gone and these younger generations were raised after the triumphal rise of a more committed Orthodoxy.”

    That’s a high retention rate? That’s good news? If 43% of our kids are leaving orthodoxy, our schools should close up shop.

    • 43% is a wild exaggeration! It just does not accord with the reality of the world in which I live and work, nor that of my colleagues. There is a drop-out rate; always has been. Even in the wilderness there were Jews who dropped out (even disappeared, like Korach and his cohorts). But to think that the rate is remotely close to 43% is disconnected from reality. It also does not weigh several factors: many “dropouts” (college) return; some people described as Orthodox simply belong to Orthodox shuls but are not necessarily observant (especially outside the NY area); the undercounted Haredi world also has a dropout rate, but lower still.
      I do agree with this: “if 43% of our kids are leaving orthodoxy, our schools should close up shop.” And parents should start parenting better.
      But have no fear. The numbers are ridiculous, and not just by Teaneck standards.

      • Rabbi: I am curious as to why you conclude that, outside the NY area, Orthodox shuls have many non-observant members. I would agree that this was the case in the previous generation(s), but nowadays, non-observant synagogue members have little tolerance for non-egalitarian ritual policies if they are egalitarian in their outlook. I think the days of non-Torah Jews, in any large numbers, joining Orthodox shuls are behind us. Especially so outside the NY area, where Orthodox shuls are harder to find. Unless, of course, you include Chabad. Then the picture is completely different, although formal membership is not always a feature of Chabad shuls.

      • Rabbi:

        I am, for better or worse, a regular reader of your posts. In a post entitled A Three-Ply Cord” on October 12, 2012, you wrote:

        “A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.”

        That was unpublished and hence not evidentiary. The Pew study seems to document this phenomenon and should not be surprising. What to do is a much bigger topic. Keep up the good work.

  6. The issue of retention is, I think, more serious than many are willing to acknowledge. It pops up in the blog entry that was noted above on this site; and is noted in the Pew report too. The picture is concerning if one looks at the rise of interest among younger “frum” jews in going to schools other than YU. U Maryland is an example. The focus on what is happening at the level of Orthodox Jews in their 20s and 30s who wait to get married — living on the UWS … or in major hip metropolitan communities (Chicago, Boston, LA, Miami etc.) as they pursue academic training or early professional lives and live as singles … is where the real problem lies. Too many are just going through the motions up to this point, doing what is expected, but are not really invested in what they have been doing or what they have been taught, Surely, this set if issues does not apply to a 22 year old YU grad who marries, goes to grad school, and settles in a religious suburb community.