Who's Taking Care of post-Birthright Jews?

The American Jewish community itself has failed to engage its members, culturally or religiously, so why blame U.S. Jews themselves for the 'thinness' of their Jewish identities?

Anne Grant
Anne Grant
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Anne Grant
Anne Grant

If there were a separate set of Oscar awards given in the wake of the Pew study on Jewish Americans, I would nominate Rabbi Leon A. Morris’ recent op-ed “Beware the American ‘Cultural Jew’” for Best Dramatic Performance.

Taking the crisis-mode tone of other commentators, Rabbi Morris reveals his own religious biases and shortsightedness as he preemptively mourns the decline of American Jewry (cause of death: ‘thin’ Jewish culture).

Morris insists that religion and its ritual performances can seduce America's culturally Jewish ‘prodigal sons’ into returning to the Jewish fold while not even questioning his own understanding of religious Judaism as ‘authentic’ Judaism. While I too find the level of Jewish assimilation in America alarming, I think that perhaps instead of blaming individuals for a supposed Jewish "decline," we should instead question the structures that created and sustained this religious-cultural division within the Jewish world in the first place.

Morris begins with the caveat that, among culturally Jewish Americans, their non-religious identities “are largely absent of anything that matters at all.” His comment underscores his own bias toward religious ritual observance as the "highest" or most legitimate form of Jewish identity. Basic anthropology of religion tells us that, within religious communities, we tend to see the ritually observant ones as the most "authentic" representatives of the group. Judaism is no different. All you have to do is look at the Haredi death grip on the Western Wall (which is hopefully changing) or the antiquated marriage laws in Israel to see that Orthodox Jews are considered the gold standard by which the rest of us determine what is "truly" Jewish.

But when we surrender this right of determination to the most religious members of the community, we forget that Jewish religious and secular culture, like all other cultures, has been constructed, changed, performed, reproduced and endlessly fought over. What is "truly" Jewish is liable to change; religious identity as it stands at this point in time shouldn’t be the default by which religious leaders like Rabbi Morris feel comfortable judging everyone else who claims membership in the Jewish community. After all, unlike creedal religions like Catholicism, in which a certain set of beliefs define your membership in the community, Judaism leaves open many possibilities for the manifestation of Jewish identity.

Instead of insulting culturally Jewish people by marking their identity as less legitimate than religious Jews’, Rabbi Morris should consider the possibility that, for many Jews without a "thick" sense of Jewish identity, Woody Allen and lox may be all they have to go on. I don’t think this sense of cultural identification is ideal, but if cultural Jews never receive religious education in the first place, they can’t really be said to be "abandoning" Judaism if those constructed cultural markers of Judaism are all that they have ever known. Rabbi Morris wants to solve the problem by getting Jews on board with ritual, all the while ignoring the fact that attraction to ritual is something one either has or doesn’t have; religious observance is self-selected. After all, as any kid who has ever been dragged to religious services can tell you assuredly, shoving religion down someone’s throat can sever her or his relationship with religion, possibly forever.

Despite his discomfort with American cultural Jews, Morris holds up the counterexample of secular Israelis, whose "thick" cultural connection to Judaism he deems not ideal but satisfactory. After all, you can reject your identity only if you know what exactly that identity entails. Rabbi Morris notes that secular Israelis speak Hebrew and observe holidays, and that they have some textual knowledge. But Morris forgets the obvious fact that these secular Israelis live in the Jewish state, where Hebrew is the official language and no one has to beg a boss or school principal for days off during the High Holy Days. In a country where everything from that horseradish you like to kippot decorated with your favorite NBA team insignias are readily available, it’s a lot easier to be the "right kind" of cultural Jew.

Israel, and its structures including the education system, commercial industry, and religious institutions, make it much easier for secular Israelis to learn those Jewish cultural markers than in America, where Jews exist as a minority. Jewish identity is still stigmatized in America; police officers guard some synagogues, such as the one I attend in Nashville, on weekends. Sure, we have Jewish day schools for those culturally Jewish kids with the appropriate resources, but their less advantaged peers can expect to be taught through dreaded Sunday school, and usually only until their bat or bar mitzvahs are over.

Which brings me to my final point: This conversation is really about structures. Instead of denigrating culturally Jewish Americans for their lack of "thick" Jewish identities (beware!), maybe Mr. Morris should instead be examining the lack of structures that initially allowed for this state of affairs to occur.

Where are the institutions that are channeling millions of dollars and abundant labor resources into determining what "authentic" Jewish culture is? Are those institutions creating sustainable, meaningful outlets for the expression of "thick" Jewish identity, be it cultural or religious? Is it problematic that big-money organizations such as Birthright/Taglit plan fancy 10-day trips with no follow-up care about Jewish cultural or religious identity in the diaspora?

Where are the organizations that would help cultural Jews learn about not just Woody Allen but the rich legacy of Jewish texts, literature, music, and more—without pressuring them to become religious? Could we envision a system in which Jewish culture and religion are both celebrated and are accessible to anyone who wants to engage with her or his Jewish identity?

I find nonchalant reports of Jews with Christmas trees and no sense of obligation to their heritage devastating. But we can only blame cultural Jews for "abandoning" Judaism if they were initially given the opportunity to gain fluency in Jewish religion and, yes, culture. Maybe instead of bemoaning these Jews’ lack of religion, Mr. Morris should really be discussing the structures that fail to transmit engaged identities—cultural or religious—to American Jews.

Anne Grant is a graduate student in sociology at Vanderbilt University.

Birthright Israel participants waving Israeli flags.Credit: Kobi Gideon

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