The Vanishing American Jew
In 1964, Look Magazine, then a widely read mass circulation publication, ran a cover story
called “The Vanishing American Jew.” The magazine predicted that there would
be no more Jews in the U.S. fifty years later. Now the 50th
anniversary of that prediction has arrived and it is Look which has
Nevertheless, we who want American
Judaism to continue have reason to consider what has happened to us these fifty
A recent poll undertaken by the Pew
research organization found that only 48% of American Jews believe there is a
personal God and that fifty percent consider themselves atheists. It is
therefore not surprising that only one half of all American Jews are members of
a Jewish congregation and that 30% are Reform Jews, a denomination which
requires little adherence to Jewish traditions.
It is also important to remember that
only about 15% of synagogue members attend Sabbath services each week, while the
other 85% attend only three times a year, i.e. on New Year (Rosh Hashana) and
Atonement (Yom Kippur).
This lack of participation has been
discussed for years in the Jewish community as numerous reasons for this
abandonment of our ancient religion have been proposed.
Some argue that the services are too
long. Yet Reform attendance is lower than that of Conservative or Orthodox
attendance, although Reform services last only an hour. Others have argued that
Hebrew is not well known and that therefore many would be congregants cannot
follow the readings. This overlooks that Jewish prayer books and the Hebrew
Bible contain English translations for anyone to read. There are many who argue
that Jewish education is deficient, and that this leads to apostasy. Yet,
graduates of Jewish day schools appear to be as uninterested in Jewish tradition
as other Jews.
All these reasons for poor attendance
at weekly synagogue services do not deal with reality. Sociology teaches that
things are not what they seem. That is true here as well. To understand the
failure of American Jews to support the synagogue it is necessary to seek the
answer in the synagogue, not elsewhere.
That leads us to recognize that just
about every Reform and Conservative congregation has become an alternative
status system. In almost all of these congregations we find that a small clique
of self appointed elitists have usurped the synagogue and developed a self
perpetuating oligarchy (rule of the few) which will not allow anyone deemed an
outsider to participate or to be treated with at least as much dignity as is
normally accorded anyone. Fearing that outsiders might have an interest in
assuming power in the congregation, the elitists treat all “ordinary”
members with disdain and contempt. This consists mainly of refusing to speak to
those so stigmatized. The “silent treatment” is of course a gross insult and
is the real reason for lack of attendance and a lack of interest in Jewish
religious participation. Who wants to go where he is not wanted? Evidently,
then, we can solve the problem of absenteeism by taking our teachings seriously.
“We have not come into being to hate and to destroy. We have come into being
to praise to labor and to love.”
Indeed, all voluntary organizations
tend to become oligarchies, as the German sociologist Robert Michels showed in
his famous 1920s study “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.” Michels dealt with
political parties. Of course, our congregations are not, or ought not to be,
political entities. Elitism does not belong in a Jewish congregation. Equality
and a minimum of respect for the feelings of others belong there. That is why
any congregation which succeeds in including everyone will undoubtedly grow and
grow. Why not try it? It may even lead to the observance of the Torah’s most
important commandment: “And you shall walk humbly with your God and you
shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:20).
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).