by Daniel Kieval
I recently heard a lecture by J. J. Goldberg, senior columnist for The Forward, about the current state of American Judaism and its relationship to Israel. Goldberg spoke about intermarriage and what he termed the “Seinfeld effect,” in which the national popularity of Jewish figures such as Jerry Seinfeld (or, these days, Jon Stewart) leads children of interfaith (or secular Jewish) parents to embrace the Jewish side of their identity. He also argued, like Peter Beinart in a much-discussed article earlier this year, that the right-wing position of major American Jewish organizations toward Israel has the opposite impact on these mostly liberal young people, turning them off of Judaism completely—we could call this the “AIPAC effect.” AIPAC, popularly referred to as the “Israel lobby,” has drawn criticism from liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, for its policy of supporting the decisions of the Israeli government no matter what and condemning anyone who publicly criticizes those decisions.
According to Goldberg, about half of all American Jews marry non-Jews; if you work out the math, that means that for every three marriages that involve a Jewish person, only one is between two Jews. Therefore, about two-thirds of American children who have at least one Jewish parent grow up with some other tradition in addition to Judaism, whether that means another religion, a different ethnic background, or simply a strong secularism. Even many children with two Jewish parents inherit some disconnectedness from Jewish culture and tradition. These children will not be “Jewish by default,” but will need to actively choose to explore their Jewish identity as they get older if they are to keep it at all.
For this reason, says Goldberg, the way Jews and Judaism are perceived in the United States will largely determine the fate of the American Jewish community. Create a positive image, attract many of these independent-minded youth, and the community will grow and flourish. Create a negative one, and the community will diminish until only the much smaller group of religiously committed Jews remains. The Jewish community’s concern, then, should be to ensure that liberal, uncommitted young people see Judaism as appealing and in line with their own values. While Jews continue to be well-liked by Americans as a whole, some worry that the association of Judaism with AIPAC’s right-wing stance on Israel is gradually eroding the ability of the Jewish community to connect to this generation.
Goldberg is partially right. As much as the American Jewish establishment might not appreciate the realization that it does not speak to or for the majority of American Jews, in the long run this truth could be beneficial. It will force Jewish organizations to pay attention to the ways in which people do and do not feel connected to Judaism, and to find new ways of reaching out to those who are more distant. Perhaps it will also lead to the creation of a new relationship with Israel, one that strongly supports the Jewish state without alienating the liberal majority of American Jews.
However, merely making Judaism more attractive and relatable is not enough. Jewish religion and culture are overflowing with substance, from spirituality to social and environmental justice to history, literature, and music. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations must tap into this vast reservoir of tradition and teach that Judaism is more than just a glitzy bar-mitzvah party or an Israel fair serving microwaved falafel on paper plates. Seinfeld and AIPAC may represent opposing front lines in the struggle for young Jews’ hearts, but they are only the beginning; they cannot be the whole struggle. In short, if American Jewish leaders are going to bring more people to the doorway of Judaism, as they should, they must also ensure that there is something worthwhile on the other side.