T

he theme of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is “We Need to Talk.” In particular, according to the GA press release, the delegates would like to speak about the religious monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and political issues of a religious nature.

All that talk, which will be taking place October 22–24 in Tel Aviv, seems designed to be mostly one way — a monologue and not a dialogue. In the list of speakers, there is not one who is likely to explain to the delegates why traditional Israelis, like Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, have no interest in changing the status of the Kosel. At the last GA in Israel, there was at least a debate about the Kosel in which Women For the Wall’s Ronit Peskin participated. This year there is no one filling that slot. 

The handful or less of chareidi speakers are either past masters at receiving large amounts of Federation or Jewish Agency funding or consigned to peripheral panels. In either case, the GA organizers can be sure they are not going to use their time to say anything that will rub the convention delegates the wrong way. In particular, they are unlikely to explain why Israeli Jews are ever less interested in what their American brethren have to say.

The call for dialogue is based on the premise that members of a nation must keep the lines of communication open. But the problem is that many Israeli Jews find it hard to believe that American Jews still consider themselves members of one people, or even care about their fellow Jews in Israel very much. Already a decade ago, 50 percent of American Jews under 35 reported that they would not consider the demise of Israel to be a “personal tragedy,” and less than half of that age cohort think that Jews around the world have some special responsibility for one another.

From 1885–2005, Federation giving to Israel dropped by two-thirds, and from 1989–2005, the percentage of American Jews who consider support for Israel to be an important aspect of being Jewish declined from 73 percent to 57 percent, according to sociologist Steven Cohen.

Only a smidgen of the vast gifts of Jewish philanthropists go to Jewish causes. A 2003 study of $5.3 billion in gifts by Jewish mega-givers found that only 6.6 percent went to anything Jewish. And the number of Jewish households contributing to Federations dropped by one-third in a single decade, from 1990–2000.

Having lost any sense of Jewish peoplehood, American Jewry feels no need to be well-informed about Israel or her security situation. Support for Israel has “shriveled,” writes retired Reform rabbi Clifford Librach. “Our people know precious little about Israel and care less and less.” An overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews view the Iranian nuclear program as a mortal threat and opposed the Obama administration’s Iran deal. Yet American Jews, ever loyal to the Democratic Party, supported the Iran deal at a rate twice that of the general American public — 48 percent to 22 percent — as reported by Jewish News Syndicate editor Jonathan Tobin.

In his May convocation address to Hebrew Union College graduates, novelist Michael Chabon not only ridiculed endogamy as “a ghetto of two,” but launched into an extended attack on Israeli checkpoints in Judea and Samaria. And if those checkpoints were removed, as Chabon advocated, what would happen to the Jews of Israel? What, one chafed to ask, does Chabon remember the prelude to Operation Defensive Shield, during which 137 Israelis (the proportional equivalent of over 50,000 Americans) were killed in the single month of March 2001? Yet Chabon received a rousing ovation from most — not all — of the future Reform leaders and clergy. Nor were those who invited him willing to dissociate themselves from his words.

Do the Conservative rabbinical students who chose to make a birthday party in a Ramallah bar festooned with PLO posters calling for the murder of Jews, as reported by Daniel Gordis, a scion of one the Conservative movement’s leading families, have room in their memory banks for the bloodstained hands of those who murdered and ripped apart the bodies of two Israeli reservists who made a wrong turn into the same Ramallah in which they celebrated?

 

THERE IS A SECOND reason that Israeli Jews show little inclination to heed the religious prescriptions of North American non-Orthodox Jewry. The loss of any sense of Jewish peoplehood is a direct outgrowth of the universal ethics and progressive politics that most American Jews have been taught is the essence of Judaism.

From a universalistic perspective, particular concern with one’s fellow Jews is atavistic and hearkens back to some far-gone tribal age. The Judaism of American Jews is such thin gruel, so trivial that it can provide no basis of shared identity. According to a recent Pew survey a certain ironic sense of humor and a taste for gefilte fish rank ahead of any particular Jewish practice or belief as the mainstays of Jewish identity.

To quote Librach again: “Our flocks are non-observant. They know little of Jewish history, less of Jewish religious behavior, almost none have any comfort with Hebrew, and they are not ‘keeping a Jewish home’ — which is to say they do not light Shabbat candles or welcome Shabbat or Yom Tov with a family meal, their observance of Chanukah for a few years is a brief X-mas driving pediatric priority at best, and the Passover Seder is a big meal with scant ritual, and such efforts as a succah… are all alien.”

Israeli Jews are shocked to discover that most Reform clergy perform intermarriages, often together with clergy of other faiths. But one thing they do understand: The non-Orthodox part of American Jewry is simply disappearing due to a combination of astronomical rates of intermarriage, late or no marriage, and few children. As a consequence, there are already many more Jewish children growing up in Orthodox households than in Reform or Conservative households.

Close to half of American Jews (45 percent) in the most recent Pew survey describe themselves as alienated from all organized religion, and a quarter classify themselves as atheists. “By the age of 13,” admits Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement’s congregational branch, “we have lost 80 percent of our kids.” Or, as Librach puts it, the abandonment of Jewish peoplehood “has proven fatal. We are presiding over a funeral.”

 

THERE IS INDEED a conversation to be had with North American Jewry. But it does not start with the Kosel. If heterodox congregants, and even more so the nearly half of American Jews affiliated with no congregation, do not pray back home in North America, why should they care about where the entrance to the rarely used egalitarian section is located?

The real conversation that we need to have is something like this: How can we reattach Jews to the Jewish story? How can we help them believe in a unique Jewish mission that depends on the continued existence of the Jewish People? That is something about which both Torah Jews and Israeli Jews, who locate themselves in the long history of the Jewish People and risk their lives to ensure the collective existence of the Jewish people, would have a lot to say. But that discussion is nowhere on the agenda of the GA.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 731. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com