An Anxious Time for American Jewry
To look at the broader social and intellectual context … Inherent to Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture is an abiding anxiety around Jewish sustainability. For understandable reasons, be they justified or not, identified Jews typically focus on two concerns: either anti-Semites will do Jews harm physically, or assimilation will do Jews in spiritually. Not for nothing did a leading Jewish thinker (Simon Rawidowicz, 1986) entitle a seminal essay on Jews, “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.”
In the mid and latter part of the 20th century, the Shoah and Israel’s many wars and conflicts have served to reinforce and deepen fears for Jews’ physical survival. In the latter part of the 20th century, recognition of the advance of intermarriage along with numerous reports of declining Jewish numbers in a variety of institutional contexts, have heightened pre-existing fears that Jews will diminish numerically if not qualitatively as well. Particularly since the early 1990s, Jewish communal leaders have become even more focused upon the instruments of Jewish education and socialization, hoping to “stem the tide of assimilation,” by producing more committed and connected younger Jews who will, in their own way, sustain the Jewish future.
In this context, Jewish communal leaders and observers inevitably wonder whether their hopes for Jewish education will be realized. Will day schools, camps, Hillels, Israel travel and a variety of related activities actually make a difference? Is it even possible for the various instrumentalities of Jewish education and socialization to overcome powerful social and cultural forces and produce Jewish youngsters and adults with a life-long Jewish engagement? More broadly, in an open society – one which is not so favorably disposed either to ethnic identity or religious commitment that is non-fundamentalist – can Jewish value education even hope to succeed?