American Judaism is in crisis. But it isn’t the crisis that mainstream American Jewish leaders would have you believe. It is at once much better and much worse.
The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.
Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged.
They have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes, at best matching their existing modern liberal values (but adding nothing beyond what they already know), and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day. Who can blame these Jews for disengaging from Judaism?
This is the legacy of American Judaism in the 21st century — a Judaism that has been undersold and watered down. It is a Judaism where those who know its beauty are often unable or unwilling to connect to the larger Jewish community, and those on the front lines of the welcome wagon to Judaism have little skill or facility with Jewish texts to elucidate the beauty to others. People want deep meaning and connection, but they move through life thinking of Judaism’s contribution to the world as “Seinfeld” and guilt. Many would be shocked to find out that Judaism has vigorous debates about the most central existential problems facing people today.
Elie Kaunfer, “The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, The Jewish Week (7 April 2010), 1, 12.