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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What might the future have in store for the religion and its followers?
by Howard Greenstein

Whatever the future holds for American Judaism, no analysis or prognosis can ignore two decisive factors. One of them is the rapidly aging population of the American Jewish community. American Jews face an alarmingly low birth rate. Whether the explanation may be attributed to greater sexual freedom, fewer and later marriages, more divorces or lower fertility, the trend implies a sharply declining Jewish population in the future. Continuing low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a corresponding decline in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for young people.

Quantity may not be as crucial as quality, but certain basic components of community well-being, such as education, social services for youth, families and the elderly, defense agencies, support for Israel and cultural vitality, all depend upon a certain critical mass in numbers. It may not require six million Jews to ensure a spiritual vitality in America, but it will not be sustained by half that number or less. Essential operations of religious and cultural institutions require certain minimal levels of funding and active participation, and those levels in turn depend upon a crucial base of constituents. The closing of synagogues in smaller communities across the country for lack of adequate memberships demonstrates the malady brought on by demographic change and shrinking numbers.

In contrast to falling birth rates and an aging population, the future of Jewish life in America is also likely to reflect a significant increase in the number of non-Jews converting to Judaism. If Judaism has forever been shaped and guided by the cultural conditioning of Jews who maintained it, the contours of Judaism will inevitably change to reflect the experience of many people who became Jews by choice and not by birth. Perceptions about Jewish history, Jewish holidays and Jewish life cycle ceremonies will obviously be different for those individuals without any Jewish ancestors than for those with such roots. Educational assumptions and curricula cannot be the same for children with one set of grandparents who are Jewish and another set who are not. The notion of Jewish “peoplehood” will obviously evoke different associations for Jews by birth and Jews by choice.

The likely outcome then for Jews in America is that in the future Judaism will reflect much more a spiritual character than an ethnic one. Even though the cultural component remains a powerful ingredient in Jewish identity, Judaism is becoming for most Jews far more a religious association. Even for Jews by birth, ethnicity is much less significant than it was for the earlier immigrant generations.

Although the ties that bind Jews to Israel cuts across all generational lines, they are far less binding among younger Jews. Barely 20% of all American Jews have ever visited Israel, and the vast majority of those are older people. Though contributions to Jewish cultural causes still approaches earlier levels of giving, older generations are far more generous than younger ones. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the new generation of American Jews does not share the memories and experiences of recent climactic turning points in Jewish history. For most of them, the Holocaust is an event of the distant past, like the Civil War might be for all older Americans. It is even difficult for almost all of them to remember a world in which there never was a Jewish state.

In most cases, Judaism is for them a matter of celebrating holidays and festivals, including a menorah on Chanukah, a seder on Passover and maybe fasting on Yom Kippur, and an occasional Sabbath experience. It includes the observance of life cycle events from b’rit milah (circumcision) and baby naming to bar/bat mitzvah to marriage and death. These are essentially religious acts, if not directly inspired by spiritual ideals, then at least respectful of them. This new generation of American Jews may not all choose the synagogue as the venue for their Jewish activity and instead may opt for smaller fellowships and/or study groups, but they will think of themselves largely as another faith community on the American landscape.

The attempt to define the meaning and significance of Judaism for any given generation is an extremely risky venture. Even if it reflects the prevailing trends of the time, it will always be subject to change. How future events and circumstances will alter the analysis and prognosis just completed belongs entirely in the realm of speculation. It would be foolish to pretend that previous patterns of change are entirely useless in forecasting future ones, but it would also be futile to chart precisely the course that Jewish life is likely to follow.

We may only pray that the best is yet to be.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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