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Why The Continuum?

Why The Continuum?

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

What are you Jews so worried about?

That might be the question posed by an outsider looking in and wondering why the organized Jewish community, across the denominational spectrum, is so concerned about Jewish continuity.

On its face, American Jewry has never seen better days, with institutional, organizational, political and even spiritual life evidently thriving. All the ingredients are here: Myriad affiliation opportunities, an unprecedented level of freedom to identify and practice, and a comfort level second to none outside of Israel.

But take a look at the American Jewish Committee’s recent survey of American Jewish attitudes, released last month. Your reaction will vary based on a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty point of view.

Exactly half of the 914 Jews surveyed said being Jewish is “very important” in their lives. Taken together with the 36 percent who said Judaism was “fairly important,” the vast majority of respondents gave a positive answer to the question, as opposed to the 13 percent who said Judaism is “not very important” or the 1 percent who weren’t sure.

If the poll is accurate (pollsters know that many respondents tend to say what they think the pollster wants to hear on sensitive questions like this) Jewish demographers are left to ponder whether they should be thrilled that only one seventh of American Jews couldn’t care less about Judaism, or lament that only half feel firmly attached, while a third are marginal.

What response might the children of that 36 percent give if they are contacted for a future survey?

It’s easy to lay the blame for growing Jewish disaffection on the high rate of intermarriage.

By and large, we’re quick to assume that once two Jews stand under the chuppah they are almost guaranteed a Jewish future for their descendants.

But run through the list of alumni from your Jewish day school, summer camp or even Israel year-program and you’ll likely find, as I have, that a handful have “dropped out” of affiliated life, either marrying out or giving up Jewish practice, perhaps out of anger and frustration with its perceived shortcomings, or simply because their level of enthusiasm hasn’t kept pace with their busy lives.

So just as continuity-minded Jewish organizations worry about children of intermarried families choosing the non-Jewish parent’s religion, or no religion, so should they worry about children of wholly Jewish families, even those who regularly attend synagogues, go to Jewish camps and attend Jewish day schools.

Easily the biggest cause of frustration among affiliated Jews with young children, particularly if they are Orthodox or Conservative, is the ever-increasing financial cost. While yeshiva or day school tuition is by far the heaviest burden, summer camp, synagogue dues, the cost of kosher food, bar and bat mitzvahs, and various ritual costs all eat away at a middle class paycheck. And if you’re not wealthy and haven’t been saving for it for years, try planning a trip to Israel without maxing out your credit limit.

Even as the economy worsens, members of my post-baby boom generation will, for the most part, shoulder that burden, if not out of belief then in many cases for the sake of our parents and the sacrifices they made to give us those experiences.

In large part, many parents who sent their kids to yeshiva in the middle and late 20th century were able to do so because they themselves went to public schools, or small yeshivas with low tuition, and their families were able to use the bulk of their income to start a business or invest in the higher education to enter high-income professions.

As things stand now, a large chunk of modern Orthodox families will try valiantly to pass affiliated life, including full-time Jewish education, to their children, but fail. Those children, hearing their parents constantly complain to each other about the sacrifices they make, will simply decide it’s not worth the struggle. Their exposure to fictional pop-culture families with less complicated lives will inevitably lure them to secularism or minimalist Judaism.

That is entirely their prerogative, but it’s a sad, some might say unnecessary, outcome.

Another segment, hopefully larger, will successfully imbue in their kids the joys and rewards of Jewish spirituality and community and convince them that the struggle is worthwhile; that a trip to Israel is better than one to the Virgin Islands, and that rituals like fasting, building a sukkah or lighting a menorah are not obligations imposed on them but a joyous means of connecting with three millennia of heritage and history.

It’s tempting to look for quick fixes, but it’s just as unrealistic to expect day schools, synagogues and others to slash their prices to fire-sale levels as it is to expect some magical funding source to come along and subsidize everything.

The inflation of expenses outpacing the average rise in income is not unique to Jewish life, but is a fact of life in the world, and perhaps in America we’re luckier than most in the ability of most of us to weather the storm.

This blog is about that storm, and many other conditions, some obvious and others beneath the surface that affect our future as Jews in America. Your insights are welcome. Please send feedback to

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