Israel: the new Jewish shtetl

by Brian on January 23, 2017

in In the News,The Old Country

Hebrew Union College Professor Steven M. Cohen published an essay last month with some startling conclusions about Jewish demography.

Reviewing figures compiled by the Pew Research Center over the past half century, he writes in The Forward that the number of Orthodox Jews in America has quadrupled in just two generations – with 79,000 “grandparents” (ages 56-73) living today but over 340,000 “children” (ages 0-17).

Among the non-Orthodox, by contrast, the number – while still greater overall – is trending downward: the current grandparent generation comes to 1.48 million Jews while the youngest is just 920,000.

Even more striking, the fraction of the American Jewish population that defines itself as Orthodox now stands at 27 percent among the “children,” compared with just 5 percent among the oldest generation.

To be fair, the total percentage of Jews who consider themselves Orthodox in the U.S. remains at 10 percent, the same as Pew says it was forty years earlier.

Cohen’s analysis, nevertheless, raises questions about what the Jewish Diaspora will look like in the coming decades. Will it be predominantly Orthodox, as Cohen is suggesting? Are we returning to the all-Orthodox demographics of the Eastern European shtetl?

The shtetl, tellingly, represents a powerful example of how the arrow of history never flies predictably straight and why Orthodoxy’s ascendancy is anything but assured.

That’s because shtetl life wasn’t Orthodox as we know it today – indeed, the terms “Orthodox” and “Reform” hadn’t yet been coined. Rather, everyone basically led an observant lifestyle because, well, that’s just what you did in communities closed off, either by choice or by outside restrictions, to the wider world.

Then along came the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the doors swung open to Jews to participate in non-Jewish society. What happened? Jews fled their communities and halacha (Jewish Law) as fast as they could, until we get to where we are today, with a 71 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox in America, and where the fastest growing group among Millennials is the “nones” (those who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”).

Diaspora Jewish organizations have for years been obsessed with “maintenance,” pulling out all the stops at their disposal to stem that tide. Controversial Israeli initiatives like Mosaic United have jumped into the fray as well.

They will never succeed.

Because here’s the thing: assimilation into a welcoming wider society is absolutely natural, utterly inevitable and totally unstoppable. It’s happened to every other religious community that comes in contact with the West; there’s no reason the Jews should be any different.

If that’s the case, we need to accept and embrace the changing nature of the Jewish Diaspora and stop vilifying people for simply doing what’s normal under the circumstances – including dating and marrying outside the faith. That means opening up whole heartedly to non-Jewish partners, reconsidering patrilineal descent for all Jews and easing conversion for those who want it.

Israel, by contrast, represents the next iteration of the classic Jewish shtetl. While that’s a description the country’s Zionist founders would be loath to hear, think about it: the shtetl thrived because it was a cloistered society where everyone was Jewish.

Isn’t that what Israel is today?

(I’m not discounting Israel’s 20 percent of non-Jewish citizens, but intermarriage between the communities is so small, it doesn’t play into the Jewish State’s demographic future.)

Back in the European shtetl, other than a few scholars and community leaders, most Jews didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about the nuances of keeping kosher or what was or was not permissible on Shabbat. They did what their neighbors did; observed how their parents and grandparents observed.

Israel has taken that concept and secularized it. Most Israelis don’t think a whole lot about what it means to be Jewish or whether their children will marry out. They just live their lives as Jews – or rather as Israelis.

Citizenship has replaced Jewish Law as the defining attribute of the new Jewish shtetl. Halacha has been transformed into nationality without observance. And that’s just as natural, inevitable and unstoppable as assimilation in the West.

It’s not without its downsides. Secular Israelis have forgotten too much of their Jewish heritage. (Non-coercive programs to reverse that trend are certainly welcome.)

Nor is it black and white. Not everyone in Israel is secular – indeed, the same demographic direction among the Orthodox in America is happening in Israel too.

To be clear, neither the new Jewish shtetl in Israel nor the open Jewish Diaspora in the West is somehow “better” than the other. My wife and I opted for the shtetl; most of our friends and family did not. No one was “right” or “wrong.”

That does put the two communities on somewhat of a collision course. But they can learn from and help each other.

Shtetl Israelis would benefit from more exposure to the pluralism and universalism that defines the majority of Judaism in the Diaspora. And Diaspora Jews should keep sending their kids on Taglit-Birthright programs to get a concentrated kick of what modern shtetl Judaism feels like.

Ironically, the way some Orthodox groups are trying to keep their Jewish character today is by recreating an idealized version of the European shtetl of 200 years ago.

It won’t work: the dual pulls of western assimilation and Israeli nationalism are too strong and, over time, will break down even the strongest walls. Demography is not destiny. The Orthodox surge Cohen describes is not sustainable.

Those looking for an authentic shtetl would be better off taking the plunge into the real thing: modern Israel.

I went back to the shtetl originally over at The Jerusalem Post.

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