The Decline of Ethnic Judaism in America & of Big Jewish Organizations

America loves your religious identity, it doesn’t care for your ethnic identity. If you want to have a Catholic school system in America, “That’s great, we respect your religious difference”. “Oh, you want to have a Presbyterian school, בסדר, we have one of those.” “Methodist school? Great!” “A Polish school? I don’t think so.” “Oh, you want to have a Catholic parish? Great.” “You want to have a Spanish-speaking school district? No way.” America is founded on religious difference and a tolerance for religious difference and a great, agitating inhospitability to ethnic difference. And so, as a result, the Jews who come from 1920-1960 to the United States have to figure out a way to do Jewish. And the way they do it is they cloak their ethnic experience in religious terms. The symbol of that is the social hall in the synagogue. You will never find a social hall in a synagogue in Eastern Europe, because it doesn’t make sense. A social hall is where you go to hang out with other Jews, because you can’t build a Jew club; America won’t let you do that.

Institutions like Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, UJA-Federation; any of these big organizations are outgrowths of that ethnic Jewish expression. And what we are facing in those organizations right now is a crisis in the decline of ethnic Judaism. That’s why Federation dollars go down, why the ADL is not as relevant, why young people are not so interested in the parochial concerns of Jews all around the world any more. This is one of the two master stories: the decline of ethnic Judaism.
The last gasp of this effort was the Richard Joel line of “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews”. That is the definition of ethnic Judaism: make a building on-campus, you’ll feel safe here because you won’t be tolerated anywhere else, and you’ll just hang out with other Jews.

When the majority of people who are not Orthodox in the United States intermarry, why would you have a building for Jews doing Jewish with other Jews? That doesn’t make sense.

Rabbi Daniel Smokler, “Jewish Enrichment”, Hillel Institute (Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life: St. Louis, 30 July 2013).