Anxiety Amid Success For American Jewish Community


The American Jewish community, whose success and security are unparalleled in Jewish history, is nevertheless veined with anxiety, conflict and even fear.

There are perceived external threats, in the ancient and still-stirring monster of anti-Semitism, and in the fear that other Americans may turn against Israel and, in the process, against American Jews.

Perhaps more ominously, there is deep concern about the very future of America's 5.5 million Jews. The birth rate is low. Intermarriage has been rising, with more than half of Jews wed since 1985 marrying non-Jews. Only 28 percent of the children of those marriages are being raised as Jews.

"The current pattern probably means there will be net losses to the core Jewish population in the next generation," says a report last year by the Council of Jewish Federations.

There is conflict about ways to approach these things, sometimes muted, sometimes sharply stated.

Yet there are in American Jewish life deep wells of vitality and fresh spirituality, and there are new attempts to move out of the magnetic field between the poles of the Holocaust and Israel to vivify and reshape Jewishness, the culture, and Judaism, the religion, in the pluralistic American setting.

"American Jews are more troubled, more worried than at any time since World War II," says Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, speaking of recent incidents of real or perceived anti-Semitism:

* After a week of tension last August between blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights section of New York City, during which a black youth was accidentally killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew, a Hasidic Jewish student was killed on the street by blacks in apparent retaliation -- "simply because he was a Jew," says Mr. Foxman.

* A black professor, Leonard Jeffries Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department at the City College of New York, in a speech last summer accused Jews of financing the slave trade and accused Jews and Italian-Americans in Hollywood of denigrating blacks in movies.

* Some campus newspapers, including those at Duke, Northwestern and Cornell, accepted an advertisement denying the existence of mass-extermination gas chambers at Nazi death camps.

* President Bush has been challenged by David Duke of Louisiana, a former Ku Klux Klan official, and Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative columnist, for the Republican presidential nomination. There were times when the remarks of Mr. Duke and Mr. Buchanan "would have made them non-persons," Mr. Foxman said. "This is new and frightening."

Mr. Duke's earlier expressed admiration of the Nazis has been well-documented. Mr. Buchanan's views, perhaps less well-known, are still controversial; he denies being anti-Semitic. Before the Persian Gulf war, which Mr. Buchanan opposed, he said, "There are only two groups that are beating the drums right now for war in the Middle East, and that is the Israeli defense ministry and its amen corner in the United States."

* In September, Mr. Bush denounced "powerful political forces" for opposing his request to delay consideration of $10 billion in housing loan guarantees Israel had asked for to settle refugees from the former Soviet Union. In attacking the pro-Israel lobby and its friends in Congress (who then acceded to his request), the president was trying to force the Israelis to stop settling Jews in the occupied territories as the United States sought to set up Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Hearing complaints that included allegations of anti-Semitism and alarmed by some anti-Semitic responses the White House was getting in Mr. Bush's support, the president apologized to American Jewish leaders.

The Israeli connection touched one of the tender nerves of American Jewry. Repeatedly there have been fears that American Jews' support for Israel would arouse hostility on the part of other Americans. Such fears were voiced at the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and when Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew, was caught spying for Israel in 1985.

But Americans blamed the Arab states, not Israel and the Jews, for the embargo. And the Pollard case incited no perceptible surge of the "double loyalty" charge -- the allegation that Jews cannot be both supporters of Israel and good Americans.

"Since the 1940s, the polls have shown that the general American support for Israel is very strong. There has been no basic change in that support," said Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. "Of course, on particular events there can be swings of opinion."

It might seem strange that a group of Americans generally so successful should feel menaced. Jews have been broadly accepted, though not quite entirely, into the national life.

"At the moment there is no important disadvantage in being Jewish in America," says Rabbi Emeritus Leonard Beerman of the Reform Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.

There are eight Jewish senators and 33 Jewish members of the House of Representatives. Jews or people of Jewish heritage are presidents of Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Dartmouth -- Ivy League universities where within living memory restrictive quotas were enforced on the number of Jews admitted. Jews are prominent in education, communications, law, the sciences, medicine and other aspects of American culture far out of proportion to their numbers. There are poor Jews, of course, but Jews as a whole have higher incomes than any other identifiable group in America.

By all objective measurements, anti-Semitism in America has gone way down, said David M. Gordis, director of the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, "yet to the questions regularly asked of Jews, 'Is anti-Semitism a problem for you?' the answer is always overwhelmingly 'Yes.' "

"The reluctance of Jews to accept evidence that anti-Semitism has declined," writes Hoover Institution scholar Seymour Martin Lipset, "is striking testimony to the long-term effects of historical experience and collective memory."

The Jews have the oldest continuous history of any people on Earth, a story of triumphs alternating with disasters. The slavery in Egypt, the annihilation of the Jews of northern Israel by the Assyrians in 720 B.C., the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 597 B.C., the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the dispersal of the Jews all were precursors to 1,700 years of persecution, rootlessness and pogroms after Christianity captured the Roman Empire.

And then the Holocaust, in which Hitler's Nazi regime murdered 6 million European Jews, a third of the world's total.

Until 25 or 30 years ago, American Jews pressed their concerns quietly, behind the scenes. "It seems that a certain kind of caution and restraint is built into our psyches. . . . We want not to be so assertive as to lose contact with potential allies," says Neil C. Sandberg, director of the Los Angeles Pacific Rim Institute of the American Jewish Committee.

The admonition from one Jew to another -- "Sha, sha," (be still, don't cause trouble) -- is deep in Jewish folklore and of use in a thousand jokes that strike back at tormentors by turning humor against oneself. A bitter example, told by a rabbi:

Two Jews are lined up to be shot by Nazis. They are blindfolded. One Jew complains the blindfold is too tight. "Sha, sha," the other says. "You want to cause trouble?"

But, increasingly secure in America, Jews became increasingly vocal about such issues as the separation of church and state, anti-Semitism and Israel. After Israel's victory in the the Six-Day War of 1967, Mr. Sandberg says, "Our discussions moved from behind the scenes to public demonstrations.

That's not sufficient, argues Harvard Law School professor and defense lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz. American Jews are "not assertive or pushy enough" in defense of Jewish interests at home and abroad, he wrote in his best seller "Chutzpah."

"We still seem fearful of offending the 'real' Americans -- in the face of the reality that we are no longer guests in someone else's America," Mr. Dershowitz wrote.

Mr. Dershowitz is only one of many American Jews concerned about the future of American Jewry.

"Acceptance is the great double-edged sword of American Jewish life," says Mr. Singer of the American Jewish Committee. "We are accepted, so there is intermarriage. Yet this becomes the great challenge of American Jewish life -- the possibility of being hugged out of existence."

Others are more blunt. "We're losing them like crazy," says Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen of the Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles.

Of the 5.5 million people in America who say they (and their children) are Jewish, 4.4 million identify themselves as Jews by religion and 1.1 million claim Jewishness but have no religion. An additional 1.3 million are of Jewish descent but have another religion. While 52 percent of Jews since 1985 have married non-Jews, before 1965 only 11 percent had.

Even for Jews who call themselves religious, affiliation with a synagogue or any Jewish organization is down.

And, according to many rabbis, the religious content of American Judaism is thin.

The worry about the future of the Jews -- as old as the first Jew, the patriarch Abraham, who feared he would die without a child by his wife, Sarah -- has been expressed many times in modern America.

"Slowly, the ground is slipping out from under American Jewish life," writer Irving Howe said in 1984. "A Yiddish culture which has virtually disappeared; a Jewish socialism which is mostly memory; a Zionism to which some give lip service but very few follow to its logical conclusion of emigration to Israel; a liberalism weakened and diluted; a religious practice indulged in with lukewarm formalism and little genuine faith; an institutional life increasingly top-heavy and dominated by the wealthy."

Even as many Jews fall away and are dispersed into the general American population, others are looking for the roots of their religious and ethnic heritage.

Those looking for the religious revival of Judaism find numerous sources of hope.

One is the growth of Jewish day schools, from 80 in the nation after World War II to 800 now. One is the growth of havurot -- groups of families that meet outside the synagogue to celebrate the holidays and to develop a deeper sense of what it means to be Jewish.

Another is the growth of feminism in Judaism. Since the ordination of the first female rabbi in Reform Judaism in 1972, women have become rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations.

About 41 percent of religious Jewish households prefer the theologically and liturgically liberal Reform Judaism; about 40 percent the more traditional Conservative movement; about 7 percent the various branches of Orthodoxy and not quite 2 percent Reconstructionist Judaism. The rest say they are "just Jewish," "traditional" or "miscellaneous," according to the most recent survey by the Council of Jewish Federations.

"Feminism is a potentially revolutionary movement that can transform Judaism as we know it," argues Rabbi Laura Geller, executive director of the Pacific Southwest region of the liberal American Jewish Congress, adding that theology is more important in American Judaism now than ever before.

What feminism can do to the traditionally male-centered Jewish theology, she explains, is raise new questions of spirituality, questions of "how you speak to God, who is not only the transcendent God experienced at Mt. Sinai through thunder and lightning, but also the God we experience in the intimate moments of our daily life."

Another attempt to rekindle Judaism is being addressed by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder of the School for Traditional Jewish Meditation, which fosters spirituality based on traditional Jewish mysticism.

Yet another source of Jewish renewal lies in the Orthodox movement, which though small, has new springs of vitality.

The new rabbi of the fully observant B'nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, 42-year-old Daniel Landes, is trying to instill the new Orthodox dynamism in his venerable congregation. The median age of the members was 75 two months ago; the median age of the 30 new families he has brought in is 28. Many of the new ones are Baal Teshuvah, or "renewal" members -- Jews who are newly Orthodox or newly committed Orthodox.

"They are seeking the notion of the sacred, an ordered life, warmth and the richness of tradition," Rabbi Landes says. And they are finding it, he believes, in strict observance of the Sabbath -- by not driving, not turning on lights, not using the telephone, following the dietary laws, adhering to the strictures of family law and studying the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Talmud, the vast rabbinical commentary upon it.

Rabbi Landes is confident of the strength of the Orthodox movement.

"We have a high birth rate, a great retention of members, enthusiastic young members -- the Orthodox Club at Princeton has 40 members -- and the thriving Baal Teshuvah movement," he says.

Whether the Orthodox can withstand the pull of assimilation into the larger American culture is a question some of them answer with serene confidence but others, over the long run, question, as they question the future of Judaism and Jewishness itself.

"There are two concentric circles in American Jewish life," says Orthodox Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen. "One is getting stronger, the other weaker.

"Those who are observant are more observant than their parents were. . . . Everybody is being not just kosher but superkosher. This is a small, tightly knit group . . . very pro-Israel, very chauvinistic in terms of Jewishness.

"The larger group," Rabbi Cohen says, "is strongly assimilated -- into American life. The overwhelming majority of Jews are less intensively Jewish, less intensively Zionist, than they used to be, not so concerned with maintaining Jewish life into the future."

Rabbi Omer-Man thinks that "we may lose 60 to 70 percent of our community, leaving a stronger and more spiritual core."

Anthony Day writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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