Prospects for American Judaism
Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal
by Dana Evan Kaplan
Columbia University Press, 446 pp., $34.50
This is but one reflection of an undeniable reality. With the exception of a number of Orthodox communities and a few other bright spots in or just off the mainstream of Jewish religious life, American Judaism is in precipitous decline. Not only is enrollment in non-Orthodox Jewish religious educational programs down, so is synagogue affiliation. Philanthropic giving in the religious sector of the Jewish community is also declining. For rabbis, Jewish educators, and communal leaders, it is a difficult moment. Jews are flourishing in America, but organized, institutional Judaism is in deep trouble, particularly after the recent economic crisis.
Why is this happening? Can anything be done to remedy the situation or are today’s non-Orthodox synagogues on the same path to obsolescence as the Jewish labor unions of a century ago or the old Borsht Belt resorts? Are Day Schools the answer or should the broader Jewish community concentrate on welcoming and retaining the ever growing mixed married population? Can Jewish communal and institutional efforts really do anything to control long-term American, Jewish, and global historical processes? Before one attempts to address these questions, as Dana Kaplan does in his new book, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal, one needs to know how we arrived at this historical moment.
Jacob Rader Marcus, the greatest American Jewish historian of the twentieth century, described the religion of colonial American Jews as “the Orthodoxy of salutary neglect.” The German Jews who began arriving in ever increasing numbers after the War of 1812 were generally no more enthusiastic about practicing Judaism than were their Sephardic predecessors. The Eastern European immigrants who came next were people whose ties to a God-fearing, learning-based, mitzvah-driven Judaism were already frayed by the time they set sail for America and, for the most part, only continued to weaken after their arrival. The return of hundreds of thousands of their essentially secular children and grandchildren to the synagogue in suburbia after World War II was an anomaly. As Kaplan observes, in the post-war period “the emphasis was … on affiliation rather than participation or theological commitment.”