The United States of America


1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution within the country?

For the last half-century, the Jews of the United States have represented the largest Jewish community in the world. This is likely to change in the not-too-distant future as it loses its hegemony to the State of Israel. However, it is far more difficult to answer the question as to how many Jews actually are in the community. Part of the difficulty lies with deciding who is a Jew. To what extent do you count as Jewish a person with one Jewish parent? The traditional answer is that you count them if that parent is the mother, but many in the American community consider themselves Jewish whose only Jewish parent is their father. Indeed the American Reform Jewish community has officially accepted such people as Jews. These and other questions, which we will not go into here, make it controversial to define a specific number of Jews. The officially accepted number is between 5.5 million and 6.1 million out of a total population of about 270 million.

Like many other Jewish communities, the American one has developed in a ‘layered’ manner, a result of different waves of immigrants. The earliest Jews in America, almost all of Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) background, started appearing with the early generations of European colonization. They mostly settled in the ports and towns of the eastern seaboard; by the time of the Revolution, in 1776, they numbered between 1500 and 2500. A large wave of immigrants arrived between the 1820s and the 1870s. Commonly called ‘the German wave,’ it in fact comprised Ashkenazi immigrants from all over Central Europe. They also started off on the East Coast, but soon began to penetrate westwards in search of economic opportunities. Some 200,000 immigrants came in these years, so that by 1880 the total Jewish population stood at around 280,000.

The 1880s saw the beginning of what was to become the dominant wave in the community: the huge Eastern European wave that would bring in millions over a few decades. By the time the United States closed down its open immigration policies in the mid-1920s, there were over 3.5 million Jews in the country. This community was further augmented, amidst enormous difficulties and great controversy, by many tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in the years immediately following World War II.

More recent groups of Jewish immigrants include some 250,000 Israeli Jews who have left Israel since the 1970s. It is not clear to what extent many of these can be considered permanent additions to the community since, more than any other element, many insist - even after many years - that they consider themselves temporary American residents, awaiting their return to Israel. For the moment, however, they are certainly a presence there. Two other identifiable groups are the former Soviet Jews, the estimation of whose numbers varies from 150,000 to more than double that, and some 30,000 Iranian Jews who arrived during the nineties, after the fall of the Shah. These represent only the largest, most identifiable units of immigration within the Jewish world. Plenty of other Jews from places as diverse as Syria, Latin America and South Africa can be found among the rich mosaic that makes up American Jewry.

Jews can be found all over the United States. Traditionally, for geographical reasons, most have established themselves in the east, and especially in New York, by far the largest ‘Jewish city’ in the world. This trend has been decreasing over the last generation, however. If, at most times from the late nineteenth century through to the 1960s, around half of American Jews lived in the New York metropolitan region, the situation subsequently began to change, and the number now rests at around a third. Over the last decades, Jews have generally moved south and west. California and Florida have each accumulated very large communities. Increasing numbers of Jews have moved out of the cities and into the suburbs, or even further out, causing an unprecedented dispersal of the population.

2. How can they be defined economically? What are their professions and occupations?

The general occupational pattern of Jewish life in the United States has provided a classic model of occupational development in the Western immigrant communities of the Jewish world. In the nineteenth century, until the large-scale Eastern European immigration, most Jews were small-scale trader, such as peddlers or small shopkeepers, before slowly working up the economic scale within the same sector. The late-nineteenth century immigrants, however, gravitated toward the slums and the sweatshops of the big cities, mainly becoming proletarianized in the process. The next generation started moving in one of the two classic economic directions of the second and third generation - business or the professions. The Jews have continued in these directions - and many others - over the last thirty or forty years. Large numbers of Jews have moved towards academia; others have gravitated towards communications and the arts, as newspaper journalists or in television or film.

3. What is the religious orientation of the Jewish community?

The religious orientation of the American Jewish community is highly diversified. It is also interesting in that, as opposed to many other communities in which modern forms of Judaism arose in time to challenge the hegemony of the dominant traditional form, the two dominant forms of Judaism before the mass immigration of the 1880s and 1890s were Reform and Conservative Judaism. The Central European immigration of the mid-nineteenth century created an impetus for religious innovation that placed its stamp on the community very early on. The Eastern European immigration created the basis for the rise of a strong Orthodox stream that has been present ever since. The immigration around the time of the Holocaust added strong Chassidic elements, and fortified a Haredi community that has claimed a voluble place within the community.

The only really ‘homegrown’ stream of American Judaism is the Reconstructionist movement, which broke off from Conservative Judaism in the 1930s.

Assessing which of these religious movements is currently healthier and growing would probably point to Haredi Judaism on the one hand and Reconstructionist Judaism on the other. Modern Orthodoxy has also undergone a considerable revival in recent years. In some ways, the two largest streams of Reform and Conservative Judaism seem to have been on the defensive in recent years.

One interesting trend is that increasing numbers of American Jews - following the influence of the general culture - are searching for meaning and spirituality in their lives. Many have the feeling that the established streams do not offer what they are looking for, and we see efforts by individuals in all of the different streams to open up and suggest answers for this dilemma. Congregations and streams that succeed in suggesting directions and answers are likely to became more attractive in coming years. Chavurot and non-denominational ‘renewal communities’ have attracted many in recent decades and may increase, providing a challenge for the more established movements in the near future.

Traditionally, Jewish community life in America has centered around the synagogue. However, despite the rise in synagogue membership in the last few years, it is clear that large numbers of Jews find synagogue Judaism foreign and alienating. This has led to an increasing number of people defining themselves as ‘cultural Jews’ or secular Jews. Institutional support for such definitions is not particularly strong yet, but seems likely to grow.

4. What Jewish educational and cultural life is there in the community?

Jewish education has become more popular in recent years, which is expressed in the rise of the Jewish day school. There are currently some 350 such schools in America, most of which are elementary. Most of these are Orthodox (perhaps 80%), but the trend is now growing much stronger in the non-Orthodox world as well. In the 1990s, some 25,000 students are estimated to have attended day schools, mainly in the framework of non-denominational community schools. Indeed, this trend has grown so strong that there is a significant shortage of teaching and administrative personnel within the community. The search for large-scale funding is on, in the realization that the demand for Jewish schooling is likely to increase greatly on the future.

This is a change of tack for a community formerly concerned that their children receive a good general education in the melting-pot of America: many once felt that Jewish education could be safely relegated to supplementary school. This strategy clearly has not worked for many, however, as supplementary schools have generally failed to provide the sort of education that could provide an anchor for a strong Jewish identity. As a result, some sectors of an increasingly wealthy and educated community have realized that more intensive Jewish education is a higher priority. Jewish camps of different kinds have also flourished in America for many decades and are an important feature of informal education; more so, in fact, than the usual youth movements that are stronger elsewhere. However, youth organizations, and especially those connected with synagogues, have done well. A new and increasingly popular form of education is family education, an integrated inter-generational approach that is gaining emphasis.

There are two major ‘Jewish’ institutions of tertiary education - Brandeis University and Yeshivah University - as well as a number of smaller colleges. There are also rabbinical and educational centers connected with each main Jewish stream. Some of the greatest scholars in the modern Jewish world have been associated with these institutions. It is also worth noting that many universities have employed scholars to deal with various aspects of Jewish history, literature and culture: American universities are estimated to currently employ some one thousand scholars of Jewish studies. This partly reflects - and perhaps partly causes – the increased popularity of Jewish studies among many young Jews.

One factor that we should single out is the increasing number of Orthodox girls and women seeking a deep Jewish education, something that was denied to them in the traditional world of the past. Demanding the right to learn, they have caused a minor revolution in Jewish studies within the world of Orthodoxy, including the establishment of new institutional frameworks for educational purposes.

Culture is a very broad field and we can only mention it very briefly. The Jewish press is perhaps weaker than it once was, but in other areas we see more and more initiatives. Arts festivals of different kinds (films, literature and music) are doing well and new initiatives in this field are common. Museums (not only about the Holocaust) are becoming a much more prominent feature of Jewish communities, and there are many initiatives to turn such places into educational and cultural attractions rather than passive monuments to a fading Jewish past. Jews are very evident in American culture and the general community has recognized a substantial number of Jewish writers over the years. It is interesting is that the output of many of these writers is becoming more noticeably Jewish as they confront issues of Jewish life and Judaism above and beyond the more traditional issues of assimilation and anti-Semitism - i.e. interaction with the outside world - that have fueled countless previous works.

5. What is the situation of assimilation and intermarriage in the community?

There is no question that there is a high rate of assimilation in the American Jewish community: this has been the case for as long as the community has existed. The lure of the outside world has proved extremely strong and, coupled with the tenacious melting-pot myth that has been active up to the last generation, it is not surprising that many Jews have lost a great deal of their distinctive Jewish identity in the struggle for acceptance.

If we confine ourselves to recent years, it seems that a number of factors are working in different directions. On the one hand we see that a definite exchange of the melting-pot ideal for an alternative one of multi-culturalism, with an attendant legitimization of ethnic pride, has made separate community identity more acceptable. On the other hand, many young Jews have found little attractive in the relatively superficial Jewish life or Judaism that they have been offered. We see a reaction to this in their attempt to reach out to Jewish alternatives, and a large number of potentially attractive initiatives have been launched over the past years.

Many in the traditional movements, especially the non-Orthodox ones, have begun to analyze the factors that render them unattractive to so many young people, to try to improve the situation. Recognized, authoritative, organized religion is less attractive to many people today; but, on the other hand, the search for spiritual fulfillment is on. Israel is no longer as attractive as it has been in the past. On the other hand, initiatives like the Birthright program, which in its first attempt already brought some 6,000 young people to Israel at the end of 1999, have clearly had widespread success in interesting many of the participants to Israel. The picture is unclear and full of contradictions.

The objective picture with regard to intermarriage is far clearer, although its interpretation causes disagreement. The facts are as follows. Not only is there much more intermarriage than ever before - far beyond 50% in many parts of the country, especially on the West Coast and in small communities - but there is more acceptance of it than ever before. The taboo of communal disapproval has clearly been broken for a large part of the Jewish community: intermarriage is now an accepted part of Jewish life. Many see it as inevitable in an open society, and some even see it as desirable. The non-Orthodox religious movements have adopted a policy of outreach that condones - at least retrospectively - the practice of intermarriage and tries to bring the non-Jewish partner into a positive relationship with Judaism. Intermarriage workshops are common throughout the community.

However, this does not solve the problem of the long-term effects of intermarriage on the Jewish community. Some argue that it strengthens the community by bringing in ‘fresh blood.’ Others are far less optimistic, and believe that it is part of a continuing weakness that is forcing the non-Orthodox section of the community into increasing compromises.

6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?

The truth is that almost every significant historical event that has affected the Jews in one way or another over the past centuries has affected the Jewish community of America. For hundreds of years it has been seen as the first choice for many of the oppressed and starving all over the world, and it has acted as a magnet for Europe’s ‘huddled masses’, conspicuous among whom have been the Jews. The Inquisition and Expulsion in Spain; the oppression and counter-revolution in mid-nineteenth century Europe; the pogroms and poverty of Eastern Europe; the Holocaust; the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent anarchy in that region, and the difficulties for the Jews in post-revolutionary Iran: the American Jewish community has been built on all these foundations.

Furthermore, the establishment of the State of Israel has naturally had an immense effect. Restricting ourselves here to the direct demographic implications of this, we see that there has been a two-way result. On the one hand, almost 75,000 American Jews have made aliyah - in smaller numbers, perhaps it should be noted, than the general community numbers would suggest. On the other hand, more than other places in the world, America has served as a magnet for hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been dissatisfied - for whatever reason - with their own country.

7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?

The American Jewish community is generally wealthy. Some of its members are among the wealthiest people in the world. This is not just a stereotype; it is reality. However, the image of a rich and fortunate American Jewry should not disguise the fact that there are pockets of genuine poverty within the community. A recent survey estimated that there are about 180,000 Jews below the poverty line in New York alone, a number that is believed to have increased by some 40,000 in the past decade. The main groups affected are Jews from the former Soviet Union - presumably a temporary step as an immigrant group on the way to integration with better economic prospects - and Haredi Jews, a more structural problem connected with lifestyle and education. In addition, there are many problems of poverty and welfare among the elderly. The tendency of the Jewish family - like the American family in general society - to break down under the tensions and strains of modern life has produced a high divorce rate and many single parents - especially mothers. This also contributes to economic problems within the community.

The main Jewish agency dealing with poverty and welfare is the Jewish Welfare Board, founded in 1917. Significantly perhaps, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, founded three years earlier and dedicated to helping needy Jews all over the world, was the first American Jewish institution that cut across all denominational boundaries in that country and unite American Jewry.

We find in the Jewish community most of the problems that plague general American life: drug abuse; alcoholism; AIDS; homelessness; domestic violence and abusive families. A large number of Jewish agencies deals with social problems; the number has increased in recent years along with increased recognition that these problems do exist in this most affluent of communities. Large amounts of energy have been expended in recent years in trying to educate the community about the reality of this situation.

8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?

Unlike the situations in Argentina and France, the American Jewish community has not suffered much from anti-Semitism. In the immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the last century there was plenty of local rivalry between different national groups who used negative stereotyping as part of their arsenal against other groups. Anti-Jewish feeling certainly existed, but no more, perhaps, than anti-Irish or anti-Italian feeling.

The main period of anti-Jewish feeling was in the inter-war period and in the years immediately following World War II. During this era America closed the doors of many of its clubs and other institutions to Jews, and whispering campaigns about the Jews were common. This rarely resulted in full-fledged violence, however. Since that period, the amount of anti-Jewish feeling in official America has fallen away and, to a large extent, anti-Semitic rhetoric has been restricted to extreme-right fringe groups. The one community in which there has been continual tension over the last generation is the black community. Here it seems that economic factors (‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’) have played a role: once again, the amount of rhetoric exceeds the level of actual violence.

With the recent outbreak of Moslem fundamentalist terror against the West, and Israel’s becoming a focal point - or even a cause of - the tension with the West, it remains to be seen whether this will have any repercussions on the local Jewish community. There are a number of Jewish thinkers and writers who have talked of a new kind of anti-Semitism rising in the Moslem world against all Jews. Whatever the truth of the charge, it is notable that the Jews of America are not talking about the anti-Semitism within but of the anti-Semitism without. In America, it seems they may be scared of terror attacks as Americans, but they are not noticeably scared of terror attacks as Jews.

We should note one further thing here: the successful integration of American Jews into the life of the nation has been borne out recently by the near election of an American Jew - and an observant one at that - as Vice-President of the U.S. His nomination, which caused enormous excitement among American Jews, and the fact that it was accepted on all sides of the political spectrum as a valid political move, say a great deal about the strength of the Jews in American political culture.

Summing up, it seems true to say that, of all the Diaspora communities, the American community has been blessed with less hostility and more tranquility than just about all others.

9. What are the main problems on the agenda of the Jewish community?

The community is facing a number of severe problems, some of which have already been mentioned. Assimilation and intermarriage pose serious questions; whether or not intermarriage seriously harms the community demographically, it is clear that the increasing rate of this trend hides a troubling reality. The nucleus of committed Jews, whose Jewish identity is at the core of their persona, is clearly decreasing; the number of Jews for whom aspects of Judaism are an option if they are sufficiently attractive is clearly large; but the number of Jews who are prepared to give something to Judaism or Jewish life because they feel some kind of responsibility toward it, is steadily declining.

This is part of a universal Western trend that hallows the individual and his/her autonomy, and plays down both the control of the collective over the individual and the individual’s responsibility for the collective. This clearly poses a problem for any concept of Judaism that we have known in the past, which is based on commitment to a broader set of values. Ultimately, in this religion of personal autonomy, the individual is only committed to him-/herself.

A related problem is finding a grander cause to unite the majority of American Jews. During the twentieth century the American Jewish community largely drew together around certain causes: helping oppressed Jews; aiding immigration and integration in the early years of the century; protesting the Holocaust; supporting the establishment of the Jewish state in mid-century; supporting the young State of Israel; rallying for the freedom of Soviet Jews and - to a certain extent - of Ethiopian Jews and aiding their integration in the free world or in Israel. Those times have largely passed, however. Perhaps Israel’s current fortunes as a nation beleaguered by terrorism can provide a temporary focal point for some, but it will not do for all. American Jewry is clearly a community in need of a cause.

The problem of acrimonious relations between the different streams of Jewry is particularly acute in America. Streams dismiss and de-legitimize each other. Even here, the concept of service to a wider Jewish community of is problematic. The situation is worsened by the fact that sectors of the liberal community have become more radical in recent years, accepting patrimonial descent and gay marriages, which can only cause schism with the halachic community. These are just some of the main problems that beset the community.

10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?

To a certain extent, predictions regarding demographic trends bring us back to the first point made above: it depends on how you count Jews. However, at some point in the future it seems likely that the community will shrink demographically as many of the more marginalized elements fall by the wayside without any meaningful subjective (or objective) connection to Jews or Judaism. It is also quite possible, however, that a strengthened center of more knowledgeable Jews of all denominations may constitute a new basis for the collective. In this smaller but more knowledgeable group, it is fair to predict that women will play a larger role than in the past, empowered with knowledge that will enable them to play new roles in the public Jewish sphere. It seems unlikely that large numbers of American Jews will be attracted towards aliyah to Israel, although one cannot discount the possibility of more Israeli Jews’ moving to America.

It is impossible to predict whether Jews from other places will also immigrate. For example, will more Argentinian Jews respond to their present difficulties by seeking to move north to the United States? To some extent, this depends on what happens with regard to Israel. In the foreseeable future, Israel and the United States are likely to remain the chief addresses for Jews who find themselves in such trouble that they wish to leave their present community. The more attractive Israel becomes, the less America will be seen as a serious option; in a reverse situation, America is likely to remain more attractive.

United Jewish Communities:
http:// www.jewishcommunities.org
Council of Jewish Federations:
http:// www.cjfny.org


 

 

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30 Nov 2006 / 9 Kislev 5767 0