So which statistic surprised me? A statistic that, while overlooked by many, says much about the state of contemporary American Jewry. The Pew survey asked respondents to answer the following: What is essential to your sense of Jewishness? An astounding 73 percent of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust is essential. Put simply, for the majority of Jewish Americans, being Jewish does not mean believing in God, or keeping mitzvot, or caring about Israel; it means remembering the Holocaust.
Is the Holocaust truly a compelling enough reason to be Jewish? Is it enough of a reason to want to remain Jewish? To marry Jewish? To raise children as Jews? I think not.
Picture the typical twenty-something-year-old unaffiliated Jew. Will he really conclude that he cannot marry his non-Jewish girlfriend because six million of his people perished in the concentration camps? Is that a realistic expectation?
So much of secular Jewish education centers on Holocaust education, on Jewish suffering. Thus, it’s quite understandable why, according to the Pew study, young Jews are fleeing from Judaism, and that one of the fastest- growing segments of the Jewish population is the unaffiliated. What does Judaism offer these young people aside from sadness, grief, memorials and Holocaust museums? Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Holocaust memorials and museums are unimportant; what I am saying is that they do little to stem the tide of Jewish assimilation.
To be sure, there are periods in the Jewish calendar that commemorate sad, tragic events. In fact, as I write this piece, we are in the midst of Sefirah, a period of time when we mourn the premature death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. In a few weeks from now, we will relive the loss of the Batei Mikdash and enter a national period of mourning beginning with the Three Weeks and culminating in Tishah B’Av.
But overall, Judaism is a religion of hope, optimism and happiness. The essence of Jewish life is not the despair and anguish of the Holocaust but the hope, positivity and joy that permeate the teachings of the Torah and gave Jews over the millennia a genuine reason to be Jewish.
Martin Nachimson, “The Holocaust Jew”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 6.