On May 5, 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story titled “The Vanishing American Jew,” written by Thomas Morgan. Look magazine at the time was the number two weekly magazine in America behind Life with millions of readers. The article explained why in all certainty there would no longer be any Jews in the United States in the 21st century. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of our death was greatly exaggerated. In fact, the Jewish people continue to thrive while Look magazine ended its run in 1971.
The article detailed four main points (remember, this was 1964):
Depending on how one looks at today’s data, the Look article may not have been too far off. Data suggests intermarriage rates continue to rise, children in those marriages may not be raised Jewish, birthrates are down, and with the United States population at over 320 million we are approximately 1.8% of the US population. Demographers, of course, have their own interpretation and the 2013 Pew Study on Jews in America also came to its own conclusions.
While at Jewish Federation meetings in Los Angeles last week, I had the opportunity to hear from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California who reflected on the article and shared his perspective on Jewish life. I found his words quite compelling and wanted to share them with you.
Rabbi Feinstein shared that the Look article included comments about the changing impact in various generations. The first generation of Jews in America would cling to the “old country ways,” both on a religious and cultural (food, recipes, language) level. The next generation was focused on acculturation into American society and ambivalent about their parent’s past. The third generation saw an uptick in remembering family roots and culture (the tremendous impact grandparents have on grandchildren). While the fourth generation basically abandons the family history, culture, language, and becomes fully Americanized.
Despite these generational shifts, Jews share great resilience – as a religion, a people, a culture, ethnic group, and whatever other words you wish to use.
Rabbi Feinstein shared the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a leading sage and disciple of Hillel during the time of the Second Temple and the primary contributor to Rabbinical Judaism, the Mishneh. After the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, Rabbi ben Zakkai could have been looked upon as the “last rabbi.” While the Jewish people mourned the loss of the Temple and were in great despair, Rabbi ben Zakkai decided that instead of waiting for the third Temple to be built, he saw the necessity to create new Jewish institutions outside of Jerusalem, as well as new ways of life for the Jewish people. Jewish resilience and creativity at its finest.
A “vanishing” people could not produce what we have. We have a vibrant community with leading rabbis, communal professionals and volunteer leaders. We have longstanding Jewish institutions, as well as creative new gateways and modes to express one’s Jewish self. In fact, we are watching a continued renaissance in Jewish life.
In my role, I ask myself how the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland can support and align itself with this spirited moment. I have worked hard in my 5+ years at the Jewish Federation to move us from being solely viewed as a fundraising organization. I believe our central role is to help craft an overall vision for our Jewish community – by convening others (at both the institutional and grassroots levels) and raising/allocating financial resources towards this renaissance. Our focus, and the communal conversation, can no longer be centered on “what is” – instead, our attention must be focused on “what ought to be.”
The Jewish Federation’s Governing Board has spent the past few months looking at potential priority funding areas based on varying stages of life. We will soon share those areas and seek program/service proposals to help create “what ought to be.” I am less concerned about the Jewish people “vanishing” and far more interested in engaging and involving Jews in any way that is meaningful to them.
In reality, Jews have made it in America. We have access, safety, political success, the State of Israel, freedom and liberty. Just look at the presidential race -- we have one Jewish candidate and two others with children who are married to Jews. The question for all of us becomes -- now what? How do we create and provide a sense of personal significance and meaning in Jewish life for generations to come?
As part of this conversation, I am excited to announce that the Portland Jewish community has been invited by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem to participate in an international "dialogue"on “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity.” The mission of JPPI is to ensure the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization by engaging in strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry. We will be coordinating opportunities for community members to participate in this dialogue. More information to come this spring.
This opportunity ties directly in to the Look article. We are in a “fluid” time in Jewish life – with changes all around us – social, cultural, technological, demographic, etc. We all recognize that Jewish life is not immune to these changes. How we respond – proactively – and create “what ought to be” will be the measure of our success.