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The Pew Study and Zionism: the Inconvenient Truth

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Photo Credit: Original image: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Over the past few months the organized American Jewish community has been buzzing over the findings of the Pew study of Jewish life in America.

The study highlights the deep crisis of intermarriage and the deteriorating level of Jewish affiliation among young Jews. The denominations most affected by the survey’s revelations are the Reform and Conservative movements, both of which must find ways to adapt and respond to a rapidly worsening situation.

At the same time the study showcased several highly successful aspects of Orthodox Jewish life in America. The high level of retention; the low rate of intermarriage (which, in the words of the survey, is “practically nonexistent among Orthodox Jews”); and the strength of Jewish identity and commitment to Israel add up to an effective and successful model of maintaining fidelity to Judaism.

Given that Orthodox Jews were for years the underdogs in American Jewish life, it was only natural that the Orthodox reaction to the Pew study was largely self-congratulatory.

What was lacking on all sides of the discussion, however, was a frank consideration of what we might learn from each other.

Conservative and Reform leaders have by and large failed to acknowledge the great success of the Orthodox model, nor have they exhibited any desire to come closer to the successful Orthodox approach. In fact, not a few spokesmen for those movements sought to rationalize and downplay the terrible news about the weakening of Jewish identity and the sky-high rate of intermarriage.

But there was something missing in much of the Orthodox response as well; namely, the continuing failure, particularly in haredi circles, to acknowledge that the study served to clarify the importance and centrality of the state of Israel to a healthy Jewish future.

While there is no question that (whether they’ll admit it or not) most American Orthodox Jews, haredim among them, are committed to the well being and continuity of the people and the state of Israel, many haredi leaders and organizations have for decades been inclined to view Israel in a far from positive light.

Be it the secular nature and outsize influence of the kibbutzim, the hostility of the dominant socialist political parties, or the lack of a strong institutional Torah infrastructure – all phenomena of the state’s early years that have long since gone by the wayside – many haredim came to regard Israel with suspicion and even outright hostility, especially regarding any matter touching on religion. The farther to the right one moved on the American Orthodox spectrum, the more prevalent the belief became. And that attitude generally remains in force.

But we’ve reached the point now where a change in position is necessary – necessary because numbers don’t lie.

When the intermarriage rate in the U.S. – which is not even the highest among Diaspora countries – is at 58 percent (70 percent for the non-Orthodox) compared to less than six percent in Israel, that’s significant.

When 27 percent of Israelis keep Shabbat, 70 percent maintain a kosher kitchen, and 85 percent believe in God, that should mean something, particularly to religious Jews.

It should mean something because when you compare it with the 22 percent of American Jewry that keep kosher homes, the less than ten percent that observe Shabbat, and the rapidly declining number of Jews who even identify as Jewish, then Zionism is transformed from merely a political movement into a spiritual imperative.

In light of these numbers, anyone with basic religious integrity must acknowledge the positive accomplishments of Zionism. It is the time to admit that the state of Israel has been successful not only in creating a safe homeland, thereby securing the Jewish body, but that it has also been successful in maintaining and preserving the Jewish soul.

Clinging to resentment of the early socialist Zionist leaders’ hostility to traditional religion may have a certain nostalgic “feel-good” quality to it, but this is a time for truth, not nostalgia. As the depressing numbers of the Pew study unambiguously demonstrate, assimilation and intermarriage have become runaway trains in America. It is all the more essential, therefore, for all Orthodox groups to embrace Israel, not only for existential reasons, as many of them have already done, but for ideological ones as well.

Let us hope that haredi leaders draw constructive and pragmatic conclusions from the Pew study rather than hide from reality, as many Reform leaders have done.

Let us also make the best of this data and utilize it to learn from the mistakes of the past and engage in the creation of a better future. A future in which we are united despite our differences yet committed to one another because of our similarities, which are far greater than we tend to perceive.

About the Author: Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a fellow at Yeshiva University’s Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Law.


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One Response to “The Pew Study and Zionism: the Inconvenient Truth”

  1. If Israel was a safe harbor for Jews, your argument might work. A disinterested viewer might regard either the steadily increasing war tensions around Israel (so you think the Arab spring is going to go into reverse?) or the Israeli legal reliance on something other than the US formula (equal protection, separation of church and state) for national integrity as strong evidence that Israel is not safeguarding either Jewish lives or Jewish values. So tell me, how does a Jewish state work, "existentially" and "ideologically" speaking? Does it mandate a kosher kitchen, ban intermarriage, impose faith in God?

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