R eading your recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which you blame the growing alienation between Israel and the Diaspora on Israeli settlements and Israel’s status as a quasi-theocracy, my overwhelming reaction was shock that you were the author. Let me explain.

I had just returned from Berlin, where I attended the opening of a new Lakewood kollel and a ceremony at the German foreign ministry honoring Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu for his long involvement with the Berlin Jewish community, in particular with the Rabbinerseminar, a rabbinical seminary. The Berlin Orthodox community is the strongest in Germany, and perhaps in all of Central Europe.

The establishment of a yeshivah in Berlin was the start of a dynamic postwar Orthodox community. Today the community boasts a school system from nursery school through high school with hundreds of students, the Rabbinerseminar, which has placed rabbis in 15 communities to date, and now a kollel. Without the ongoing support of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, none of these institutions would have come into being or be able to sustain themselves.

I can only surmise that you have been acting through the Foundation on the insight or intuition, if you will, that without a strong Jewish education, there is no basis for a self-sustaining Jewish community. Only such an education can provide its youth with a sense that being Jewish is important, indeed the most important thing about them. That belief has sustained Jewish life throughout the millennia.

NOW, LET US APPLY YOUR insight to the question you addressed: the shocking drop of Diaspora Jewish support for the State of Israel. If we are honest about why already a decade ago half of American Jews under the age of 35 told pollsters that the destruction of the state would not constitute a personal tragedy for them, the answer is not hard to find: Being Jewish is not very important to them. To Jews for whom being Jewish is central to their self-identity, the fate of the Jews of Israel — nearly half of those in the world — will always be uppermost in their consciousness. And that includes the anti-Zionist Jews of Satmar.

For decades, American Jewry has failed to provide its young with the education your foundation is providing young Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. As a consequence, few non-Orthodox youth attach much importance to their Judaism.

The most recent Pew study of American Jews found that a certain sense of humor and particular ethnic cuisine rank far above any Jewish practice or belief in terms of what they value about being Jewish. The willingness of Jews over the millennia to risk — and often lose — their very lives for the sake of their religion must strike the modern American Jew as both inexplicable and foolish. One does not sacrifice one’s life for gefilte fish, not even for a good Jackie Mason routine.

The utter failure to convince young Jews that being Jewish is an incomparable privilege, as well as a responsibility, is reflected in the demographic death cycle in which American Jewry now finds itself. The Conservative movement has been hemorrhaging over 10 percent of its membership per decade for a quarter century. In 1971, a plurality — 41 percent — of American Jews were affiliated with the Conservative movement. Today that figure is 18 percent, and only 11 percent of those are under 30.

Rick Jacobs, head of the American Reform movement, admitted at the 2013 Reform convention that 80 percent of Reform youth are lost by the time they reach college. The only two growing sectors of American Jewry are the Orthodox and the nonaffiliated, albeit for opposite reasons.

The lack of importance non-Orthodox American Jews attach to their Judaism is reflected in the high rate of intermarriage. Only if one views one’s Judaism as the defining element of one’s identity does it make sense to confine one’s marital choices to a fellow Jew. Today, four out of every five marriages involving a non-Orthodox Jew are intermarriages, which reflects the low degree of importance that non-Orthodox Jews attach to their Judaism.

The other crucial factors in the rapid demographic decline of American Jewry — late or no marriage and low fertility rates — are further reflective of the low level of importance American Jews attach to their Jewishness. Where there is nothing that one views as giving meaning and purpose to life such that one is eager to pass it on to another generation, the desire to marry and bring children into the world diminishes accordingly. And for young American Jews, Judaism is not that something.

NOW, LET US TURN to your description of Israel as a semi-theocracy. Given your frequent visits to Israel, I have no doubt that you recognize that description as wildly overblown, as was your characterization of various features of Israeli life. For instance, you wrote that there is no place for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall. In point of fact, there is an area designated for such worship that is many times in size any imaginable need.

It is true that Judaism plays a formal role in Israeli national life that has no parallel in the United States, and that the Chief Rabbinate maintains a large degree of control over matters of personal status. The author of that system was none other than David Ben-Gurion, who was called many things over a long career, but I doubt theocrat was one of them.

Why did the Old Man create a Chief Rabbinate? Because he recognized that Judaism would be the glue holding together people who arrived in Palestine or the fledgling State of Israel from over 100 countries. And in order to serve as a glue, Judaism had to have some objective content. It could not merely be what any person born of a Jewish mother declares it to be.

In addition, Ben-Gurion sought to establish the continuity between the ancient inhabitants of the Land of Israel and their modern descendants. As he famously told the Peel Commission when challenged as to the basis of Jewish claims to the Land, the “The [British] Mandate is not our Bible. The Bible is our mandate.”

Among the enumerated goals of Israel’s Education Act of 1953 were: to “teach Torat Yisrael and the history of the Jewish People... to know Jewish tradition.” Talmud, Biblical archaeology, and Tanach were all integral parts of a curriculum designed to create a sense of attachment to the historical people of Israel.

For Ben-Gurion, the Kotel would have served as the clearest symbol of Jewish continuity. And he would have been appalled at the desire of some to turn it into a site for whatever is avant-garde in the ritual observance of any group of Jews.

HOW HAS BEN-GURION’S VISION worked out? Admittedly not in the existence of a Jewishly knowledgeable secular public, though observance of basic mitzvos, even among those who define themselves as secular, is far higher in Israel than in the United States.

Yet Israeli Jews plainly feel themselves part of the historic Jewish People to a degree unimaginable in the United States. That was seen in the 2014 Gaza War in letters left behind by secular soldiers to be opened in case they did not return, in which they described their pride in having given their lives for the Jewish People (even before their homeland and country). Israeli Jews, even excluding the religious population, have by far the highest fertility rates in the developed world. Despite facing constant threats unparalleled in the world, there is something that they want to pass on to the next generation, a chain of Jewish existence that they wish to perpetuate.

Perhaps most surprising, every survey of the Israeli Jewish public over the past decade reveals Israeli Jews describing themselves as moving closer to religious observance and eager to learn more. No organization making Torah learning available to the secular public has ever returned empty-handed.

And when secular Israelis do seek to learn more, it is almost always to their most religious neighbors that they turn. First, because the latter are eager to share their knowledge of Torah. And second, because they understand that if they wish to experience the passion and determination that made Jewish survival possible, it is most likely to be found among the chareidim.

Around the turn of the millennium, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak contemplated offering the Palestinians sovereignty over the Kotel, Yair Sheleg wrote in Ha’aretz that chareidi students bent over their Gemara do more for the state than they would in the army, for they remain the last source of unalloyed Jewish identity. In other words, they remain the most concrete reminder of ancestors for whom remaining Jewish was far more precious than gold or silver.

Is the Chief Rabbinate greatly respected? Hardly. Is the chareidi public much beloved? Again, not so much. But each in its own way has helped Israeli Jews understand, as their Diaspora brethren do not, the secret of our survival as a people.

Wherever Jews have felt being Jewish to be the greatest privilege and the Torah as interpreted by the Sages thousands of years ago to be our most precious possession, they have survived and flourished as a people.

And by contrast, whenever Judaism has been reduced to nothing more than the personal opinions of those born Jewish, and admission to the Jewish People cheapened by pro forma conversions, Judaism has ceased to flourish and eventually withered away. “Whatever you want me to be, that’s what I’ll be,” has not proven to be a definition of Judaism that can command the allegiance of the next generation.

But you already know that, Mr. Lauder, as your educational work throughout Eastern and Central Europe makes clear.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 705. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com