Voting with Their Feet
By Moran Peled | 29/10/2009
Moran Peled set out on a journey in the tracks of the waning numbers of Jews in the large Diaspora communities: the United States, France, Brazil, Argentina. Peled returned with the conclusion of the importance of formulating a new and consensual definition of who is a Jew and what is assimilation
"What is interesting," says Asher Ostrin, "is the existence of the phenomenon of postassimilation. Until now, assimilation was regarded as a final phenomenon. Today, you see entire communities that actually assimilated, without anyone Jewishly active among them, and now they are returning to Judaism. We want Jews who do not identify as Jews to identify as Jews"
Dr. Erik Cohen, a sociologist in the Bar-Ilan University School of Education, an expert on Jewish education and Diaspora Jewish education: "Thirty-year-olds in France don't get married today. A people must reproduce itself, a people is not a school or an idea. If there are no children, the entity disappears. The society of unmarrieds is characterized by two traits linked to the phenomenon of assimilation: a very high percentage of the people who define themselves as universalists are unmarried; 80 percent of those who maintain a spousal relationship without the official stamp of marriage do not live with Jews"
Yonatan Ariel, who formerly headed the Jewish educational system in England, attempts to explain the phenomenon of assimilation as one influenced by the cultural character of the English population as a whole: "If the Jewish culture does not allow integration within it, due to its rejection of anything new, conservatism, and archaism, and if the surrounding society is willing to accept you with open arms - and we're not speaking of immoral people - then why not integrate into it?"
Assimilation and Jewish Identity
A food importer wanted to check with the manager of a Tel Aviv supermarket the possibilities of marketing gefilte fish produced in the United States. The manager's answer, even though he spoke only about Israelis, could easily reflect the numerical relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel: "Every day a person who likes gefilte fish dies, and two who eat hummous are born." The worrisome statistics do indeed teach of a constant decline in the numbers of "gefilte fish eaters": while the number of Jews in Israel is on the rise, due to natural increase and aliyah, Diaspora Jewry is continually shrinking. The numbers say that in 1950 the Jewish population in Israel numbered a million, and in 2000, about 4.9 million. The number of Jews in the Diaspora at the end of the Second World War was estimated at 10.4 million; in 1960 their number had shrunken to 10.2 million, and in 2000 the number of Jews there stood at 8.3 million (the figures are taken from Sergio Della Pergola, Uzi Rebhun, and Mark Tolts, "Prospecting the Jewish Future: Population Projections, 2000-2080," American Jewish Year Book - 2000 [American Jewish Committee: New York], pp. 104-5). One of the main factors in the decrease of the number of Jews, in addition to negative natural increase (more deaths than births) and immigration to Israel, is assimilation.
"Assimilation" is a problematic term. Presumably, everyone agrees that the word has a negative connotation and that the Jewish people must fight the phenomenon that it represents. But opinions differ on just what is assimilation, resulting from the different answers given to the question of "Who is a Jew." When the question of "Who is a Jew" arises, we are actually asking what is the most essential component of Jewishness, without which assimilation will increase, and whose bolstering will prevent the latter. Various researchers and intellectuals perceive this basic Jewish component differently, which necessarily leads them to adopt differing stances regarding assimilation. Accordingly, the definition of the problem of assimilation and the proposed solutions are a function of the different conceptions regarding Jewish identity.
The United States: Half a Million Jews Disappeared
The number of Jews in the United States has remained constant over the past forty years: about 5.5 million, or 5,700,000 today, as estimated by the demographer Prof. Sergio Della Pergola. Negative natural increase and assimilation detracted from the number, and immigration from the Soviet Union (and afterwards, from the FSI) and from Israel added to it. Many are inclined to define assimilation in the United States as a decline in Jewish intensity. Steven Cohen, a professor of Jewish sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, does not agree with this statement. "A decline in Jewish intensity is not assimilation," Cohen says. "The connection to Judaism is expressed in different ways: some support Israel, but don't light [Sabbath] candles; some don't send their children to a Jewish school, but choose to live in a neighborhood in which the public school empties out on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you are a Jew and all of your friends are Jews, then, in sociological terms, you are a Jew; only the third generation of intermarriages are no longer Jews. There is a story about a Jewish banker who converted to Christianity, Arnold Kahn, who went for a walk with his hunchbacked friend. When they went past a synagogue, he said: 'You know that I was a Jew once." His friend answered: "Yes, and I was once a hunchback, too.'"
In his article "Jewish Identity Research in the United States," that was published a new years ago, Cohen presented the complexity of the phenomenon of assimilation in the United States. The article describes the Jewish community's successful integration in the country beginning in the 1970s. This refers to their impressive economic and political success, aid to Soviet Jewry, influence on American foreign policy regarding Israel, a considerable rise in philanthropic activity, and in the growth of Jewish educational institutions from all the streams. In contrast with what is usually thought, there are indications of a rise in religious intensity among American Jewry. In practice, today there is more involvement in religious institutions, on all levels. The Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements are growing stronger, and the number of their members has risen.
The other side, however, of the Jewish success in America is the worrisome statistic of intermarriage: 41 percent of the Jews currently married are intermarried. Cohen argues: "Mixed marriages are one of the central components of the attenuation of the ethnic dimension in the United States. The ethnic aspect is very important. It includes friendship between Jews, Jewish neighborhoods, commitment to the community, to Israel, and to Jewish symbols." Statistics attesting to the weakening of the ethnic dimension do not relate solely to intermarriages. The data indicate that while 57 percent of those in the 55-64 year old age group belong to two or more Jewish organizations, among the 35-44 age group only 34 percent belong to these organizations. An additional expression of the ethnic weakening, "the most critical, possibly even more critical than the problem of intermarriage, is the fact that there are fewer Jews than in the past whose closest friends are Jews. A comprehensive analysis shows that the numbers plummet from 60 percent among the 55-64 age group to only 34 percent among those between the ages of 35-44" ("Jewish Identity Research in the United States").
Thus, according to Cohen, efforts need not be invested specifically in directly preventing intermarriage: "This is like telling doctors to treat only dying people. We have to care for people's health from their birth, and not only at the end of their lives. Assimilation is the end of a process that we have to prevent at its inception." The solution put forth by Cohen is to strengthen the ties between Jews in the United States, "by investing efforts and money in cultural institutions and educational institutions, the building of social capital between Jews, mutual aid between communities, the existence of political activity, such as support for Israel, and the creation of a magnificent Jewish culture wherever Jews live."
Obviously, not everyone agrees with the solution proposed by Cohen, who defines the communal-cultural bond between Jews as playing a central role in the establishment of Jewish identity. I heard criticism of his conception by one of the rabbis most active against assimilation in the Diaspora, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin: "For me, Sholem Aleichem is Jewish culture, and so are Ahad Ha-Am and Bialik, But I would give more weight to deeper Jewish roots. I can't say, for example, that Jewish Communists, who brought about the revolution in the USSR, are part of Jewish culture. You yourself cannot compare something that exists for 4,000 years with something from this decade."
According to Riskin, who was rabbi of one of the leading congregations in New York before his position of rabbi of the settlement of Efrat, the prime emphasis has to be on the strengthening of communal life of a religious nature: "What we see in America is an internal Holocaust; I use the word 'Holocaust' because the palace is burning and Nero is fiddling. Therefore, only drastic measures will prevent assimilation: the possibility of creating a galut [exile], a country within a country, in which the educational system, and even the daily calendar and agenda, will be based on Jewish culture and on the Hebrew calendar."
To this end Riskin (who came to Israel from the United States in 1983) established the Strauss-Amiel Program for Practical Rabbinics, that trains rabbis to lead communities and serve as spiritual leadership in the Diaspora. The program's graduates serve in communities in, among other countries, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Britain, the United States, and Canada. "I send abroad rabbis who have outreach skills," Riskin says. "A rabbi abroad is the community's spiritual leader. The synagogue must be accessible to the community, and the rabbi must serve as a bridge between the religious Jew and the nonreligious one."
The Federation of Independent States: No One Knows Numbers
The impression is gained of just how complex is the question of "Who is a Jew"in the former USSR, and the connection between it and the phenomenon of assimilation. While according to the official statistics ("Prospecting the Jewish Future," pp. 104-5), there were 435,000 Jews in the FIS in 2002, the Joint Distribution Committee, that deals with the establishment and strengthening of Jewish communities there, insists on the uncertainty concerning the number of Jews. "No one knows, or can determine, how many Jews there are in the former Soviet Union," says Asher Ostrin, the director of the Russian department. "I estimate there are around a million. There are all kinds of questions about the methodology used in the surveys, and there are all kinds of Jews who have not yet identified as Jews."
The Joint is flexible in the attempt to define who is a Jew and who is eligible for the services of the Jewish community. Aryeh Dubov, who is in charge of special programs in the Russian department: "The Joint doesn't rule: this one is a Jew, and that one is a non-Jew. What they say in the communities themselves is more important for us. We take a pluralistic approach, and we support the Jewish people. We aren't interested in lessening the number of the Jewish people." Asher Ostrin: "Assimilation is how you define a Jew in the community itself."
This approach is understandable in light of the situation that reigned in the USSR during Soviet rule. During the time of Soviet rule (until the opening of the USSR's gates in 1991 during Gorbachev's time) Jews had to conceal their Jewishness, and one certainly could not speak in terms of a "Jewish community." Dubov explains: "There were populations of Jews, but there were no established communities for several generations. Now they are building the communities from anew. This will take about a generation, until people become accustomed to the fact that there is a community, it is possible to make contact with the community, and that the community gives you something at all. For very many years they had no choice but to assimilate. They were prisoners of the Soviet policy, and today they're free. There are a few who managed to observe Judaism because they were strong, but many were not successful in maintaining Jewish life."
Behind the stance of the Joint is the moral conception that demands responsibility for the fate of the Jews, but it seems that those who subscribe to it fall into a trap. Asher Ostrin does not deny that the criteria for Jewishness were and remained the halakhic criteria, but he doesn't want these criteria to be the only measure. This is because he thinks that too strict criteria will do what the demographers do: deprive those who might yet belong to Judaism the chance to do so. "What is interesting," he says, "is the existence of the phenomenon of postassimilation. Until now, assimilation was regarded as a final phenomenon. Today, you see entire communities that actually assimilated, without anyone Jewishly active among them, and now they are returning to Judaism. We want Jews who do not identify as Jews to identify as Jews." But will the blurring of Jewish identity and the blurring of the question of what is assimilation help to prevent assimilation? Will this be able to take the credit for lost Jews returning to the bosom of Judaism? Or, perhaps, as a result of this people who will think themselves Jews will be deceived: they will make aliyah to Israel, and discover the difference between a Jew according to the halakhah and a Jew according to feeling?
Indeed, the question of aliyah to Israel is not far from the minds of Jews in the former Soviet Union. Characteristically, most are close to Israel . "Every Jew there has a relative in Israel," says Dubov. "Israel has become, not only a prominent part of their identity, but also something personal and living, something that you know well, because you receive letters and visit. The social chaos in the former Soviet Union arouses in many Jews the thought of making aliyah to Israel, and this also influences their identity."
France: Universalism Might Lead to Loss
For close to thirty years, the Jewish community in France has numbered about half a million (at present, the number stands at 570,000). This is a not inconsiderable achievement, since immigration from France to Israel, the United States, and Canada has continued throughout this entire period. This can be explained by the relatively high fertility of French-Jewish couples. Intermarriages in France are estimated now at about 30 percent, which indicates an increase in intermarriage of 30 percent, as compared to the period 14 years ago (when intermarriage stood at 24 percent). These statistics, however, are misleading. In today's France, the phenomenon of unmarried people is very widespread. Only 59 percent of Jewish heads of households are married. Thus, in practice, in 18 percent of the households one of the couple is not Jewish, and in only some 40 percent both spouses are Jewish.
Dr. Erik Cohen, a sociologist in the Bar-Ilan University School of Education, an expert on Jewish education and Diaspora Jewish education: "Thirty-year-olds in France don't get married today. A people must reproduce itself, a people is not a school or an idea. If there are no children, the entity disappears. The society of unmarrieds is characterized by two traits linked to the phenomenon of assimilation: a very high percentage of the people who define themselves as universalists are unmarried; 80 percent of those who maintain a spousal relationship without the official stamp of marriage do not live with Jews."
Universalism is the most prominent trait of French Jewry, and is also what is liable to lead to its loss. Dr. Cohen: "French Jewry is the first Jewry to enter history possessing equal rights. The French Revolution absolutely recognized the Jews as citizens. Civil rights are universal rights, an idea which is very deeply rooted in the French-Jewish consciousness. But this has a price: the Jews had to waive the collective dimension of their religion. That is to say, the Jewish dimension was removed from the street. For example, in France a Jew must marry in a civil wedding, and only afterwards can he give his marriage a religious seal of approval, by turning to a rabbi. Until recently you couldn't walk in the street with a kippah, since everyone, not just Jews, conceal the religious dimension and externalize their universal dimension."
As a Jew of French origin, Cohen himself is influenced by French universalism. In his opinion, when universalism is perceived from a Jewish perspective, it also has a very positive side. He quotes Emmanuel Levinas, who saw in Judaism a clearly universalist aspect that originates in an awareness of great responsibility to humankind. Cohen has his own opinion about Jewish universalism: "There is a mystical teaching called the 'breaking of the vessels,' which can be translated into the deepest understanding of what is concealed behind the Galut. Every Jew wishes to go in all four directions, to gather up the sparks in the entire world. Judaism's special universalism demands that this continue. A person lives in the Diaspora and because of a Jewish process wants to make aliyah. He takes his leave of his homeland in order to come to Israel. He arrives in Israel, and is called a Frenchman. Actually, he is the possessor of the French spark in Israeli society. In order to acquire the spark, you have to enter the soul of the land where you are. This is assimilation, but not in the sense that I marry a non-Jewess, rather in the sense that I adopt the special spark that exists in this country. There are some who are confused and so greatly want to gather up this spark that they marry non-Jews."
Great Britain: Hypocrisy as a Central Factor Leading to Assimilation
At present 285,000 Jews live in Great Britain, about 200,000 of them in London. In 1950 the number of Jews in Great Britain was about 450,000. It is extremely difficult to explain this difference, other than by massive assimilation. Concurring with this, the level of intermarriage in Great Britain is similar to that in the United States: among young people to the age of 35, 45 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women are in a continuing relationship with non-Jewish partners.
Yonatan Ariel, who formerly headed the Jewish educational system in England, attempts to explain the phenomenon of assimilation as one influenced by the cultural character of the English population as a whole: "If the Jewish culture does not allow integration within it, due to its rejection of anything new, conservatism, and archaism, and if the surrounding society is willing to accept you with open arms - and we're not speaking of immoral people - then why not integrate into it?" Ariel directs his criticism against the Jewish community itself, whose hypocritical attitude to religion, he argues, is the central factor leading to assimilation. The source of this hypocrisy (or as Ariel puts it, the Happy Hypocrite trait) is the general British attitude to religion. Great Britain has an official religion and church (Anglicanism). It is customary for the British to belong to the church, without attending services. British Jews adopted this way of thinking, and most belong to synagogues that are unsuitable for their way of life and worldview. This phenomenon necessarily gave birth to an entire public that takes no interest in religious rites that are void of content, and chooses the English identity.
But multiculturalism, that has become widespread in the past decade, has brought about a favorable change as regards the attitude to Judaism. Multiculturalism, that finds expression principally in London, is a result of the strengthening of the immigrant communities (mainly from the countries of the former British empire, such as India and Pakistan) and of the communities of foreign workers in the country. Additionally, it can also be attributed to the intensification of globalization in the entire Western world.
The rise of multiculturalism led many Jews in Great Britain to perceive their Judaism in a more flexible manner, that enables them to be connected. "If, in the past," Ariel relates, "a Jew in the House of Lords were to be asked, what does he do on Christmas, he would have given an evasive answer. Today, however, as part of the cultural pluralism approach and respect for ethnic differences among the country's citizens, a Jew holding a public position has no problem with admitting that he does not celebrate the Christian holiday at all." Multiculturalism has even trickled into Ariel's own perception of the phenomenon of assimilation. He is of the opinion that, instead of relating to Jewish identity as was customary until now, in terms of center and fringe, and to examine it by means of the question: "How Jewish are you?", we must adopt a pluralistic approach, and ask: "How are you Jewish?" This means that there is more than one meaning o Jewishness and to the loss of Jewish identity. "This is obvious in Jewish ceremonies, like funerals," he says, "when you see people that you would put in the outermost circle and the closest to assimilation, but nevertheless come."
Additional trends in the Jewish society in Great Britain offer a basis for some optimism in Ariel's assessment of the future of the community: close to 70 percent of the members of the Jewish community in England have a relative or close friend who lives in Israel, and a strong connection with Israel encourages a vital attitude to Judaism; additionally, Great Britain has a rich culture of Jewish youth movements, committees, charitable groups, and other organizations; more than 50 percent of the children study in Jewish day schools, 40 percent study in Jewish high schools, and the rest try to send their children to a school with a high concentration of Jews; additionally, there is also a limited number of universities in which many Jews study.
Argentina and Brazil: Jews and Non-Jews Reveal Indifference to Religion
The large Jewish communities in Latin America are concentrated in Argentina and Brazil. The Jewish community in Argentina numbers 195,000, and that in Brazil, 97,000. Similar to Israel and unlike the United States, the Jews in the two communities immigrated to their countries from Europe, North America, Turkey, and the Near East at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The difference between Argentina and Brazil relates to the centralization of the Jewish community. At present about 120,000 Argentinian Jews live in greater Buenos Aires (the capital and the surrounding towns), while the Brazilian Jewish community is dispersed: Sao Paulo (some 60,000 Jews), Rio de Janeiro (about 30,000), Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, and additional communities.
The Jewish community in Argentina is continually shrinking. In the 1950s it numbered about 320,000 Jews. Among the factors for this decrease are: immigration to Israel, the United States, and other Latin American communities; negative natural increase; and intermarriage. It should be recalled that the economic crisis from which Argentina has suffered during the past five years, and which was disastrous for the middle class, that includes most of the Jews, influences migration out of the country, but the dimensions of this migration have yet to be assessed. The cause of the intermarriage process, in both Brazil and Argentina, is the tremendous secularization among the population as a whole. When the entire society becomes secular, this increases the possibility of ties between Jews and non-Jews, on the basis of their shared apathy to religion.
It is mainly the private Jewish educational system that has mobilized for the struggle against assimilation in Latin America. The private Jewish schools were founded in Brazil and in Argentina during the 1960s, on the background of the decline in the educational level and the politicization (revolutionary activity) in the government schools. Prof. Haim Avni, from the Institute for Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University, explains: "The Jewish educational systems in Latin America are immeasurably more developed than those in the United States. There are very few Jewish secondary day schools in the United States, while in most of the Latin American communities the education system includes high school classes, up to the university. A high percentage of high-school age children (which is the decisive age for preventing assimilation) study in private Jewish schools." Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish schools in Latin America receive support from and maintain contact with the Jewish Education Department of the Jewish Agency. An additional trend that contributed to the struggle against assimilation is the strengthening of the Conservative movement, that began in the 1960s. This is due mainly to rabbis who are graduates of the Conservative rabbinical seminary (Seminario Rabinico) in Buenos Aires that was founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer.
Additionally, there is a phenomenon of Orthodox synagogues that declined until young people turned them into Conservative synagogues, and thereby attracting circles of the young to come back to them. A phenomenon of a return to Judaism has arisen within the last decade in all the communities in Latin America. The Habad movement is the leader in this, and is joined in the non-Ashkenazic communities by a phenomenon that in Israel is identified with Shas.
Israel as a Consciousness-Fashioning Factor
About ten years ago two American philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, founded the Taglit-Birthright program. They aimed to fight the phenomenon of assimilation in the Diaspora, mainly in the United States, by forging a bond between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. At the center of the program is a ten-day visit to Israel by young people 18-26 years of age, who had not been in the country before. The choice of Israel as a factor fashioning and defining Jewish identity proved to be an impressive success. Shimshon Shoshani, the former CEO of Taglit-Birthright: "We started out with the assumption that someone who has a formal Jewish foundation wants to belong to the Jewish people. We try to get those who are not committed or who do not belong to any of the streams, or to the community center. Our goal in the ten days here is to build a Jewish identity within the big study court called the State of Israel."
The Taglit-Birthright program is engaged in setting the project's goals and in establishing educational and logistic standards for the visit to Israel. In practice, responsibility for the visits is taken by about 25 different groups, that Taglit-Birthright employs as subcontractors. The project is financed by the State of Israel, a group of philanthropists, and the Jewish communities abroad. To now, tens of thousands of young Jews have arrived in Israel with Taglit-Birthright. A study conducted after the visit to Israel showed that approximately 84 percent of the participants keep in touch with other participants. Additional studies indicated a rise in the level of contact by the trip participants as regards Jews and the Jewish people. Gidi Mark, Taglit-Birthright's new CEO, tells of the experience of the trip: "In the groups that we put together, people don't say that they want to come to Israel because they're Jews, but for other reasons. Many of them have Jewish friends, but their friendship is not on the basis of being Jewish. People begin to cry at the events that we hold, because this is the place where they see the most Jews ever."
The Need for a National Discussion
More than anything else, intermarriage can define the essence of assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity. This phenomenon, however, does not suffice to clarify the nature of assimilation. By the same coin, it is not enough to define assimilation as the loss of Jewish intensiveness, as complete identification with the local culture, or as the adoption of a multicultural and universalist stance. What, then, is capable of, once and for all, defining assimilation? You could ask why it is so important to arrive at a uniform and clear definition of assimilation. The answer is: because the proliferation of conceptions as to what is assimilation necessarily leads to discouragement in contending with the phenomenon.
Accordingly, we can understand the extent to which assimilation is not detached from our lives here and now. This is because it is connected to the way in which each of us perceives Judaism or his Jewishness. There are as many solutions for assimilation as there are conceptions of "Who is a Jew" and "What it is to be a Jew." It seems that we need a profound discussion and debate on the question of Jewish identity. The more sides there are to the conversation - on condition that it will not be conducted solely in the narrow corridors of Orthodoxy - the greater its influence on the phenomenon of assimilation. I don't see any room here for optimism, but nor do we have any choice but to begin. Similar to the struggle between the religious and the secular in Israel, in which each of the involved parties will eventually be forced to reach a painful compromise and make concessions, so, too, regarding the solution to the problem of assimilation. The entire Jewish people will have to sit at the discussion table, in an attempt to decide which elements of its national and religious identity are less decisive, and which more.
Translated by Ed Levin