Jewish High Holy Days arrive as American Jews confront challenges to their future

Posted: Friday, September 26, 2003

A once-a-decade study of American Judaism released this month found Jews are better-educated and wealthier than the average American and have reached the highest levels of professional achievement.

So why was the study greeted with dread?

Because in the interviews with thousands of Jews, asking everything from how they pray to who they marry, another picture emerged as well of a religion whose teachings are followed by fewer and fewer people.

The Jewish High Holy Days begin Friday night as American Jews confront daunting challenges to the survival of their community, with many abandoning the traditions that define their faith.


''We are going to become a people without a critical mass that can't perpetuate itself,'' said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, Calif.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that Jews have too few children to replace losses in the population and continue to marry non-Jews at high rates, with only about a third of the children of intermarried couples being raised Jewish.

The report did find evidence of some positive trends, such as increased enrollment in full-time Jewish day schools and college-level Jewish studies courses. But the study also found a growing alienation between Jews who are active in religious life and those who aren't.

The unaffiliated are less likely by far to have close Jewish friends, donate to Jewish causes and feel emotionally attached to Israel, making it harder to draw them back into the fold.

''They are spinning in very different directions, living very different kinds of lives,'' said Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Many of the problems facing Judaism are similar to those troubling other American religions, Wertheimer said.

Like many Christians, a significant number of Jews turn to their faith only for major life events such as weddings and funerals. Fewer than half of the 5.2 million U.S. Jews belong to a synagogue, the survey found.

When the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins Friday night, followed by the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, at sundown Oct. 5, synagogues will fill with worshippers, but most will not return until next year.

At the same time, rabbis like ministers and priests have experienced a loss of status. As Jews became more educated and skeptical of authority, they often turned to religious thinkers other than local clergy as experts on faith.

Synagogues, meanwhile, have focused intensely on shoring up membership and finances, expecting rabbis in some cases to act more like business managers than spiritual leaders, Wertheimer said. As a result, job satisfaction for rabbis plummeted and many seminarians in the 1990s decided not to lead congregations when they graduated.

But among the most vexing issues is intermarriage.

The survey estimated that Jews over the last two decades have been marrying non-Jews at a rate of between 40 percent and 50 percent. Jewish leaders remain divided over whether resources are better spent on persuading intermarried couples to become more observant or supporting Jews who already are.

Schulweis, during Rosh Hashana services, will ask congregants to become ''mentors'' to non-Jewish spouses of interfaith marriages and invite them to convert. Jews generally do not proselytize, making his approach unusual and likely to draw criticism.

''I think intermarriage is a symptom of a malaise that lies with an inability to convince Jews themselves of the treasure and the power and the wisdom that exists within the tradition,'' said Schulweis, whose synagogue is affiliated with the Conservative movement. ''This is oddly enough one of the ways you awaken the passivity of many Jews. You introduce a sense of purpose and meaning.''

Several major Jewish charities are working on pursuing these goals but it is unclear how much money they will have to do so in the years ahead.

Since the mid-1980s, many of the wealthiest American Jewish donors have been bypassing major Jewish social service agencies like United Jewish Communities, creating their own family-run foundations instead.

The number of these independent philanthropies has skyrocketed, distributing more than $2 billion last year, said Mark Charendoff, head of the Jewish Funders Network, which advises many of the foundations.

Many donate to non-Jewish, as well as Jewish, causes.

''When I was growing up, Jewish giving meant giving to an organization that had the word Jew or Israel in it's title,'' Charendoff said. ''I think for young philanthropists today, Jewish giving is a reflection of giving to something that reflects their Jewish values.''

The insecurity many American Jews feel has roots outside the community as well, with anti-Semitism rising overseas, violence wracking the Mideast, and terrorists threatening the United States. The American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, is working with law enforcement to create a terror alert system for Jewish organizations nationwide.

Still, most Jewish leaders insist it is wrong to say the entire community is in crisis.

Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee's expert on contemporary Jewish life, acknowledged the survey ''demonstrated real weaknesses'' but said it also showed many Jews have ''energized their Jewish life and have more opportunity to do so than any other time in American Jewish history.''

''The narrative of assimilation coexists with one of Jews who are very committed and very involved Jewishly,'' Bayme said. ''I would just not take one story without the other.''

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