Photo Credit: Doron Horowitz / Flash 90
The American flag. (illustrative)

In recent months there was a public explosion of unexpected anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions all over the United States including Jewish centers, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Before it was disclosed that the bulk of these incidents was the work of an apparently disturbed young American-Israeli in Ashkelon, there was an extensive media discussion in both Israel and the U.S. regarding the reasons for this “wave of anti-Semitism.”

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Much of it centered on the recent U.S. election, the role of President Trump, his political adversaries – some of whom are Jewish – and anti-Semites who supported his presidential campaign. A more plausible explanation was that the growing political polarization in the U.S. has helped foster an atmosphere conducive to the release and expression of anti-Semitic sentiments and activity.

What should be noted here is the vigorous, unprecedented response of the organized Jewish community in the U.S. It successfully generated a condemnation of these events by government agencies both national and local.

It also elicited pledges from those bodies to actively pursue and punish those responsible for these activities (subsequent to which they would help evaluate the level of the danger posed to the Jewish community).

It is not that anti-Semitism does not exist in America, and we will need to continue monitoring it as we have been doing. In this case, however, the campaign against anti-Semitism was the result of a flawed perception of the American political reality.

The response of the organized Jewish community in this instance stands in very sharp contrast to its response to the monumental study of the American Jewish community completed several years ago by the Pew Foundation – which found an astounding 70 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S..

Among its other findings were that approximately 25 percent of young Jewish adults in the U.S. today have very little or no connection with the official Jewish community, marking an implicit erosion in the effective role and membership of other Jewish communal bodies and a steady leakage of membership out of the Reform and Conservative movements.

When I met with the editor of the Pew report soon after its publication, he reported that the Pew Foundation had decided not to attach any recommendations to its report. Wise decision. Determining the best approaches to counter the rising rate of intermarriage and the report’s other findings should be the responsibility of the organized Jewish community.

Yet despite the enormous discussion the Pew report generated, there has still been no massive coordinated, communal, programmatic plan or even a serious effort to deal with that report’s findings.

The one visible response has some segments of the Jewish community advocating a greater attentiveness and a more welcoming attitude to intermarried couples. This has been followed by decisions in the Reform movement, and very recently in the Conservative movement as well, allowing non-Jews to become members of their synagogues.

All groups are sociologically defined by the membership criteria and the boundaries they establish for their members and others. By either diminishing or seriously dissolving either of those it is probable, even inevitable, that the group will be weakened.

That is what makes the contrast between the strong, determined response of American Jewry to its encounter with the recent scare over anti-Semitism and its earlier response to the self-immolation documented in the Pew report so compelling and sorrowful.

The large elephant stomping in the courtyard of the American Jewish community is the systematic neglect of American Jewish communal organizations which have, to date, neither recognized nor dealt with the sociological conditions so accurately reported in the Pew study.

This concern needs to also encompass the growing number of young adults who are disconnecting from the organized Jewish community, many of whom will ultimately disappear from the Jewish people.

It is reasonable to expect and enlist the aid and assistance of Israel in the massive effort required to deal with this challenge before which many of our current concerns pale in importance.

The ultimate responsibility for this endeavor, however, must rest with the American Jewish community which, for starters, needs to organize an international conference, not on anti-Semitism, as has been suggested, but on sustaining a viable Diaspora – the most critical challenge confronting Diaspora Jewry.

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Rabbi Dr. Jerry Hochbaum was executive vice president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, where he served the global Jewish community for more than four decades until retiring to Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and an MSW in community organization.