Ten days have passed since I last wrote to you. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah- The Ten Days of Repentance. We’re supposed to begin the Jewish New Year in the kind of introspection and soul searching that moves us to change our ways. That’s a very different way of greeting the New Year than New Year’s Eve celebrations of the civil calendar.
On Rosh Hashanah my first letter to you was about education, and rekindling our reverence for learning, secular and religious. My second letter to you was about identity, and recognizing that today we are all Jews by choice who need to actively affirm our Jewish identity lest it slip away. I don’t know if you’d had an opportunity to reflect on these letters over the past ten days, but if not…you can find them on our website!
On this sacred evening when we gather together as a community, I would like to talk to you about… community. The community you belong to that we call Am Yisrael or K’lal Yisrael. You might consider this something of a “State of the Union” of the Jewish People.
A preliminary word on what constitutes community. A recent survey showed that the average 18- to 35-year-old has 237 Facebook friends. Does that sound about right? Would you consider those friends your community?
When this same survey asked how many of these Facebook friends you could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.
A true friend, rather than an acquaintance, even a good acquaintance, is precisely someone who “has your back” in a crisis. And a true community is made up of people you can count on to look after you in time of need.
That’s what Jews do. Our motto, you might say, has always been the Talmudic dictum, “kol yisrael aravin zeh b’zeh—all Israel is responsible one for another.” That’s why American Jews led the charge to free the Jews of the former Soviet Union. That’s why Israel has welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the globe, and airlifted penniless Jews from Yemen and Iraq and most recently, Ethiopia. That’s why in every community they settled Jews established a synagogue, then a cemetery, and then a Free Aid Society to help those in need.
In my last letter I talked about how Jews are both an ethnic group and religion at the same time. As Mordecai Kaplan put it, being a Jew is belonging as much as believing.
Now a few words about how your community is doing. In the spring I wrote a column called “Where We Live: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” It received quite a bit of comment. I pointed out that the far reaching Jewish dispersion is dramatically shrinking. Today over 12 million of the 14 million Jews in the world live in just two countries, Israel and America. Not a single city outside of these two, except Paris, even has a Jewish population over 250,000.
Put that in perspective. Before the Holocaust Poland alone had 3 million Jews, the Former Soviet Union, 2 million, Romania, Germany and Hungary more than a half million each. There were more than 9.5 million Jews in Europe; today barely a million. And it is sobering to remember that the world Jewish population in 1933 was 15.3 million. Eighty years later we have still not replaced our pre-Holocaust numbers.
And now add to the mix the fact that the number of Jews in America is on the decline. We have barely the same number of Jews in our community today as we did in 1950, and since then the US population has increased by 65%. That means we’re now about 2% of the population, and getting smaller, and getting older.
So let’s stop and ask ourselves why. Why in the most prosperous nation on earth, with unprecedented religious freedom, and with a flowering of Jewish culture and a profusion of Jewish institutions? As nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthhammer rather bluntly put it some years ago:
How does a community decimate itself in the benign conditions of the Unites States? Easy: low fertility and endemic intermarriage.”
I know this is a sensitive subject, so let me tread carefully. And I know that I am dealing with quite a few statistics in this letter, but they are important, and they are eye opening. Eye-opener #1: American Jews have the lowest fertility rate of any ethnic group in the country. We are not anywhere near close to replacing our numbers. That would require a rate of 2.1. The national average in our community is 1.8. Among non-orthodox Jews it is 1.4.
Eye Opener #2: Fifty years ago there were 540,000 Jewish children in after school synagogue religious schools. Today there are 240,000.
Eye-opener #3: Half of all marriages in the Jewish community today involve a spouse who is not Jewish at the time of the marriage. Less than a third (28%) of the children of intermarriage are being raised as Jews. Less than a quarter of the children of intermarriage will marry Jews themselves. Of the 5.5 million people who identify as Jews in this country, some 2 million live in a household that does not identify itself as Jewish. 60% of Jews under 40 live in such a household.
We have wonderful examples of interfaith families making the commitment to raise their children Jewish right here at Adas Emuno. We celebrate that, but we need to face the fact that it is the exception to the rule. Put another way, for every one interfaith family that makes that decision, two will not.
Now here is where it gets personal, and I’m going to try not to get emotional.
I know you are in a relationship, or may be in a relationship with someone from another faith.
I know you may be in love or may fall in love with this wonderful person.
I know you may get married.
If he/she is your soul-mate, you will have my blessing.
What will break my heart is not your falling in love with another human being, be they of a different faith; that is preposterous. Love is beautiful, and we need more of it.
What will break my heart is if, as a result, you abandon Judaism.
What will break my heart is if you turn your back on your family, and your faith, and your people.
I pray that you will have a Jewish wedding.
I pray you will be blessed with Jewish children. At least 2.1 of them! (We have plenty of space for them in our hearts, and in our religious school.)
I pray that the bonds of love are never broken.
Make no mistake about it, we are all profoundly grateful to be living in the greatest country in the world. The doors of assimilation are wide open to a place of dignity, equality and security. We are walking right through those doors. For us as individuals- who can say anything bad. But for us as a community, as Krauthhammer puts it,
assimilation is a disaster for Jews as a collective [people] with a memory, a language, a tradition, a liturgy, a history, a faith, a patrimony that will all perish as a result.
Could it be that the only remaining significant Jewish community in the world outside Israel will quietly wither away in two or three more generations?
Will a small, orthodox and ultra-orthodox core be all that’s left?
Will the seduction of assimilation accomplish what the assault of anti-Semitism never could? Will we succumb to self-inflicted wounds?
The Ten Tribes really did disappear from history. As did the great Persian Jewish community. As did the great Spanish Jewish community. As did the great Polish Jewish history. They disappeared from annihilation, or expulsion. The American Jewish community would be the first to disappear from assimilation.
That would be deeply sad and deeply disconcerting.
Sad that in the place we could finally be free, as Jews, we opted not to be.
Sad, because this country has and can continue to greatly benefit from what American Jews have contributed, as Jews.
Disconcerting, because that would leave only Israel, and as wonderful as the Jewish State may be, to put all our Jewish eggs in one basket, so to speak, is probably not wise for many different reasons.
You are old enough to appreciate the harsh demographic realities facing our community. I have not hid them from you. So what message do I want to convey to you, the next generation, today?
To paraphrase President Kennedy: “Ask not what your community can do for you. Ask what you can do for your community.”
Yes, even if you are a tween, teen, or twenty-something…you are not too young to give to your community. What institution or initiative in the place you call home could benefit from your involvement? Is it your synagogue youth group or college Hillel? Is it a gap year in Israel, or a Birthright trip to Israel? Is it a Birthright Alumni program or a Jewish summer camp? Is it a young Jewish leadership circle or a young Jewish professionals’ network? Is it the JCC or ADL? Is it J-Date or J-Street?
One of these groups will be a better place because of you. You may not be able to change the world, but you might just be able to affect your corner of it.
Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
The Talmud reminds us: “You are not required to finish the task; neither are you free to desist from it.”
And remember this too: despite the doom and gloom of our waning numbers, this is still, arguably, the greatest time in our history to be a Jew. Imagine that for 2000 years there was no Jewish homeland, and then, in the lifetime of many in this room, 65 years ago, modern Israel rose from the ashes of Jewish history.
And what a state it is: Jewish, democratic, vibrant, entrepreneurial. In a bad neighborhood; for sure. Problems internal and external; no doubt about it. But Israel is a miracle by the Mediterranean. Our miracle.
And the American Jewish community in which you live is still a great one. There is more Jewish learning, more Jewish activism, and more Jewish influence than in any diaspora Jewish community in history.
Israel. America. In the ashes of the Holocaust, two amazing Jewish centers… waiting for you!
President Kennedy said in his great Inaugural address “the torch has been passed to a new generation…”
You, dear children, are now the torch bearers. You are the precious link between a hundred Jewish generations past, and a hundred more to come.
Don’t let the light go out. Keep the flame burning as surely as the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, above me.
Find your place. Find your community.
You are young. You are good looking (very). You are hard-working (most of the time). You are searching. You have a bright future. We need you. We love you.
Thank you for listening. Only one more letter to go… Shana tova…