Civilization in Decline

Over the course of this year's high holy days, I sat through four sermons by two different rabbis at two different congregations. These sermons left me deeply frustrated. Each one predicated a plea for greater communal participation and affiliation on the premise that Judaism and the American synagogue are in decline and that Jews and Israel are under threat from anti-Semites and the many enemies of the Jewish state. These declensionist arguments reduce demographic and cultural trends in Jewish (and American) life to a binary of better-then and worse-now and obscure historical and contemporary homogeneity in the American Jewish community. While this doom-and-gloom portrayal provides a foreboding backdrop against which to inspire popular engagement, it is an ahistorical interpretation that precludes possibilities by narrowly defining the engaged Jew as religious, affiliated, and Zionist.  

The narrative of Jewish decline, translated to a line graph, maps a trajectory upwards throughout the 20th century until, as one sermon posited, a rise in "skepticism" and secularism correlated with a fall in Jewish identification. As my mother succinctly put it, "I remember hearing that sermon when I was ten years old." That was 1961, in the midst of an era that Jews now point to as the definitive highpoint of synagogue affiliation and participation in Jewish communal life. Decline is a weary argument, one that historians of American Jews spent the last quarter of the 20th century challenging with a narrative of synthesis:

Over and over again for 350 years one finds that Jews in America rose to meet the challenges both internal and external that threatened Jewish continuity—sometimes, paradoxically, by promoting radical disconstinuities. Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing American Judaism in an attempt to make it more appealing, more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.
— Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (Yale University Press, 2004), p. xiv

Historians in the 21st century have gone even farther to complicate neat stories of ascent and descent, arguing that the preservation of Judaism and Jewish identity was always an ambivalent and contested undertaking [1]. To argue for decline is to look back into the past and ignore the many varied ways that Jews have historically engaged with their religion and peoplehood; since 1654 American Jews have splintered off the Reform and Conservative movements, imbued socialist politics with a distinctly Yiddish culture, rejected the synagogue in favor of small havurot and lay-led minyans, and revived a distinctly Jewish politics for the 21st century in the form of social justice programs like Jewish Voices for Peace and Repair the World. That many people no longer identify as Jewish does not detract from the strength and vitality of the community that remains.

And yes, it's true that there has been a decline. But is it really so serious, so worthy of alarmist sermons? A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, did indicate a decline in Americans who identify as "Jewish by religion" (as opposed to by birth or a sense of shared peoplehood). This decline was measured, however, as a percentage of the total US population. In terms of raw numbers, there seem to be more Jews by religion now (4.2 million) than there were in 1957 (3.9 million) when the best comparative data was last collected. In the past 20 years, the Jewish share of the adult population of the U.S. has remained fairly stable [2]. I couldn't find good data on synagogue affiliation, but if we can accept that there is a connection between interest in Jewish education and rates of Jewish identification or affiliation, there's also not much bad news when it comes to enrollment in Jewish studies courses in American universities. A 2014 survey of members of the Association for Jewish Studies revealed that almost 50% of university professors who responded indicated that their enrollments have stayed the same over the past three years [3]. Yes, there are still 30% of respondents reporting declining enrollment, and yes, declines outnumbered increases 7% to 4%, but as Historian Jonathan Sarna noted in his Presidential Address to the 2014 AJS Conference, "That is not exactly an indication of imminent catastrophe." [4]

So, we are not where we were in the heyday of the mid-twentieth century--but I think that's a good thing. Yes, an estimated 60% of Jews belonged to a synagogue in the late 1950s [5], but the 1950s were also a time of stultifying conformity, racism, and male chauvinism. It's a difficult decade to romanticize. Instead of looking backwards with nostalgia, I urge anyone trying to write an inspiring high holidays sermon to see the particularities of the present and, when turning to the past, to evoke the enduring beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish practice that has ensured our continuity for 5775+ years. 

Shana tova.

[1] Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005). 

[2] See Chapter 1: Population Estimates in: Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. October 1, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[3] Steven M. Cohen, Profiling the Jewish Studies Profession in North America: Highlights from the Survey of AJS Members. July 15, 2015. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[4] Jonathan Sarna, AJS 2014 Presidential Address. December 14, 2014. Accessed September 24, 2015.

[5] Jack Wertheimer, "The American Synagogue: Recent Issues and Trends," American Jewish Year Book (2005), p. 10.