The sense of belonging to the Jewish people in these times of fluid and multiple identities is challenged by its margins and the demographic developments occurring especially in the United States, the largest Jewish community outside Israel. The middle, in between the Orthodox and Jews of other denominations and of ‘no religion,’ including the Conservative and Reform streams, were probably the main contributor to today’s Jewish strength. But, in recent decades, this pillar of Jewish life has been in significant decline.
In the New York area, more than 65 percent of Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised in Orthodox homes, mainly in ultra-Orthodox families. According to Prof. Steven Cohen: the portion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox children in the U.S. exceeds 27 percent. Today, only 10 to 12 percent of U.S. Jewry is Orthodox, but this new demographic trend shows that the number is quickly rising as a result of high birthrates, in counter distinction to the late marriage and small families in the other streams.
At the other end of the spectrum we see less and less Jewish engagement. Judaism is becoming more significant in non-Jewish environments, but Jewish belonging in the next generations of mixed families is not guaranteed. Their youth are distancing. They are less inspired by their own roots and often over simplify the challenges faced by Israel. Many are attracted to anti-Israel groups on campuses and elsewhere.
The middle is shrinking. Some are moving toward the Modern Orthodox community, but more are sliding out slowly. The general American society is much more open and hospitable to Jews than ever before and this creates competing identification opportunities.
The significant contributions the Modern Orthodox make to the Jewish community, and to Jewish influence generally, is a great asset today. But still, more than two thirds of the Orthodox are Haredi, and they are not particularly engaged in the established Jewish organizational system, and in the general American society. This poses an urgent need for intervention.
Every Jew who cares should echo the call President Reuven Rivlin made to the North American Haredi spiritual leadership to encourage their constituents to participate in Jewish American life and the broader American society. Rivlin, in his opening remarks at JPPI’s 2017 Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, expressed his worry that the ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t yet grasp that their growth comes with an increased shouldering of the larger burden of responsibility for Jewish wellbeing.
This era of globalization contributes greatly to making the identity and identification paradigm one of choice. This creates a critical challenge for Israel and the North American Jewish leadership to invest more in the middle in order to mitigate its dwindling. The papers in this publication show the importance of creating a life-cycle strategy, starting with enhanced post b’nei mitzvah Jewish engagement opportunities.
These hard truths are discussed with an action-oriented approach in two papers, one prepared at JPPI by two prominent American Jewish scholars, Professors Sylvia Barack-Fishman and Steven M. Cohen. The other paper published here on the same subject was written by Prof. Barack-Fishman and JPPI’s Senior Fellow Dr. Shlomo Fischer. I would like to thank them all for their effort and also Prof. Uzi Rebhun, also a JPPI Senior Fellow, whose input and support was invaluable.