I was privileged to be in attendance at the Union for Reform Judaism’s 74th General Assembly in Boston the beginning of December. Known as our Biennial, the gathering brought together almost 6000 Jews representing our Reform movement for five days of learning and connection and action and community. With the overarching theme of “Reimagining Jewish Life and daily themes of Diversity,” “Innovation,” “Action,” “Faith,” and “Community,” I found myself blessed with a treasure of opportunities. As I return to Milwaukee, let me share just one.
Jonathan Sarna is professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis. The dean of American Jewish historians with his most recent book Lincoln and the Jews: A History, I grabbed the opportunity to learn with him in a session entitled “Wondering Jews in a Changing America.” With all the troubling changes going on in American life these last many months, I also hoped for some bits of light.
Dr. Sarna began by looking at three of the 2016 presidential candidates and their grandchildren as three models of Jewish life for the future: Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, and Donald Trump. He pointed out that Sanders was definitely Jewish but his grandchildren were definitely not Jewish. Then he noted that Clinton’s daughter married someone Jewish; Chelsea Clinton did not convert and she and her husband are raising their children in both religions. Finally, Trump’s daughter converted and married someone Jewish and they are raising their children as Jews. And he asked, “What will be the model that will work as the intermarriage rate approaches 70%?” He then examined three issues pointing out how impossible to predict in any straight line what American Jewish life would be like in fifty years (imagine how difficult it would have been to predict American Jewish life of the 1980s in the 1930s). To complicate matters further, I am writing these words from memory and may well get some of Dr. Sarna’s facts and figures and statements wrong.
At one time, the Jewish vote was split evenly between the two major political parties. But in 1928, the Jewish vote heavily went to the Democratic candidate, Al Smith. That has held true since, except for the elections of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. In the last election, some 24% of the Jewish vote went for Trump. Is there a change taking place? Will Jews become, once again, a voting bloc that evenly splits its vote.
And voting is also a reflection of changing demographics in America and the growth of Orthodox Judaism, especially more right-wing Orthodoxy. The reality is that the more right wing you are, the more kids you seem to have. At one time, only 10% of America’s Jews were Orthodox. Today, the number of Orthodox kids under 18 approaches 27% with the number of Orthodox kids under 18 in New York City at 61%. Demography can become destiny. Add to that the number of Jews who came to the States from the former Soviet Union and from Israel and one can see the political change taking place. The number of Orthodox Jews in the Trump administration represents a sea change. Furthermore, we know that the greatest success story in American Jewish life is that of Chabad.
Chabad did not even exist here in the United States before 1940. Their success is in their audacious hospitality, their technological expertise, their fundraising, their top down approach, and their presence everywhere. And that is connected with a changing larger Jewish world.
Finally, if memory serves me correctly, Dr. Sarna suggested that we Jews who invented globalism with Jews living everywhere (that is, of course, diaspora), have now become a two nation religion. We live either in the United States or in Israel. Throw in North America and some of the European countries and that embraces over 90% of all Jews. In fact, if it has not already, the number of Jews in Israel will shortly surpass the number here in the United States. And the city with the largest Jewish population is no longer New York City but Tel Aviv. That makes Judaism a First World religion. That is wonderful for Jews—at the moment comfortable and not threatened. Meanwhile, Christianity and Islam and Hinduism are truly global religions. I still remember the old Life classic book on World Religions with Judaism as part of the picture. In terms of places where we live, we can no longer make that claim. While it is good for Jews to be in First World countries, that means that most people around the world have no experience with Jews. They see Jews only as rich and as First World. Thus, it becomes easier to conflate Judaism with Americanism and it becomes even easier to see how anti- Americanism conflates with antisemitism. On the flip side, as we Jews have less and less contact with folks living in Third World countries, we can become more self-centered and selfish and unable to identify with others. Add to that the distance between us and Israelis. Some 50% of American Jews identify as progressive; just 8% of Israelis do so. That, too, is a bridge that must be built again. So one of Dr. Sarna’s conclusions—just as we have created Birthright trips help American Jews understand Israelis, so must we also create Birthright trips in reverse, to help Israelis understand us.
As for future predictions, the only one I offer now is that the 75th General Assembly of the URJ will take place in Chicago December 11-15, 2019. At that Biennial, I hope that many of you will join me.