What might the future have in store for the religion and
by Howard Greenstein
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
may only pray that the best is yet to be.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.