By Herbert J Gans
The Jews of No Religion, or JNRs described in the first part of this article will increase in number in the years to come, and are likely to constitute a third or more of American Jewry a generation hence.
They could be even more numerous, especially if the youngsters now growing up in Jewish and intermarried households themselves continue to intermarry at a rising rate.
The increase in JNRs, and the continuation of other long term assimilatory changes in Jewish life will surely impact the future of American Jewry; and the second part of this article will speculate about the possible impacts in the next generation.
Answers to some of the questions about JNRs posed in the first part of this article will aid such speculation and should be relevant to whoever is concerned about and with the future of the American Jewish community.
Although the Jewish community is often described as a relatively homogenous whole, in reality it consists of diverse people and organizations. For the description that follows, it can be divided into sectors, although these are conceptual rather than actually existing divisions.
A brief article can only outline five such sectors, and even they are overlapping, interrelated as well as further diversified by subsectors. The first four sectors constitute the so called organized Jewish community.
One sector is the set of ultra orthodox denominations and its members, Hasidic and non-Hasidic. Most remain separate from, and some are hostile toward American Jewry’s other sectors.
A second sector consists of the Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations and those of their members who are regular worshippers and organizational participants.
A third sector, probably by now the largest, is made up the irregularly or periodic worshippers and participants. They show up mainly for familial ceremonies, on the High Holidays and for organizational social activities.
Both sectors revolve around the religious, educational and other institutions and organizations of their denominations. Still, they and their regulars could not long survive in their present state without these irregulars.
They constitute the heart of today’s Jewish community and its future may depend to a large extent on whether and how that heart remains vital.
A fourth sector is organizational, consisting of several sets of formal, mainly non-religious organizations. Many lobby for Jewish causes and most are run by Jewish professionals with the support of donors rather than active members.
The most important (1) maintain the memory of the Holocaust and associated memorial institutions, (2) defend and support Israel, (3) fight anti-semitism and other forms of injustice (4) support charitable, cultural and other nonprofit enterprises, and (5) lobby and provide campaign funds to the country’s two political parties and related organizations involved in national politics.
The fifth sector is made up of the Jews of No Religion.
Predictions are mostly guesswork, but the following four guesses about the future of American Jewry now seem likely.
1. Sector Shrinkage and Change. The five sectors will continue to exist, although all but the ultra orthodox and JNR sectors will shrink in numbers and strength. Consequently, most will intensify their efforts to retain current participants and to persuade dropouts to return.
The sectors will also change in significant ways.
The largest proportion of American Jews will continue to be regularly and irregularly active participants. The religious and non-religious organizations could, however begin to lose ever more of their members to an already emerging new sector: Jews who practice their Jewishness entirely at home. They may already be or be becoming Jews of Some Religion.
Over the years, the shrinkage in some sectors will impact other sectors. For example, many children of regularly active Jews will become irregulars as adults, while a number of the latter are likely to turn into Jews of Some and No Religion.
Also, as long as women continue to be more religious and organizationally active than men, they may begin to dominate all but the ultra-orthodox sector.
Some shrinkage could occur even in that sector. Despite its fertility and high retention rates, more ultra orthodox young men may have to find jobs outside the ultra-orthodox enclave. This will not only expose many to secular America but those who now obtain a steady and higher income might then bring fewer children into the world.
2. Distancing and Meaning Loss. A number of the regular participants in the organized Jewish community and more of the irregulars will undergo a subtle distancing process away from that community as a variety of its activities become less meaningful in or relevant to the rest of their lives. Both distancing and meaning loss will eventually result in fewer funders and supporters, and thus a further shrinkage of the organized community.
For example, as the children of today’s Holocaust victims and survivors age and pass on, their descendants will forget more and more of the memories of the Holocaust. Eventually, the Holocaust might turn into an occasion for another high holiday – perhaps the already existing Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Distancing from Israel can be expected to rise as well. This is especially likely if the country becomes more completely embroiled in Middle East geopolitics. Liberal American Jews could also be turned away if Israel’s ultra orthodox and other of its sectors drive the country further toward theocracy, and incursions into Palestinian occupied land in and outside Israel’s borders.
If America’s antisemitic groups should become fewer or less active, the defense organizations that fight antisemitism may face the same losses.
Conversely, some organizations and individuals protecting a variety of Jewish secular interests could have a brighter future. Jewish money has always played a significant role in American cultural activities and a variety of philanthropic and other nonprofit institutions that cannot survive without financial aid.
Jewish money is currently playing an even more significant role in American politics. If extremely rich people can continue to make very large campaign donations, disproportionate Jewish funding of American electoral politics should persist.
3. An Increasing Role for the Professional Leadership. As the major religious and non-religious organizations shrink in size, the leadership will either weaken or become more powerful as they seek to assure their organizations’ survival. They – and their organizations – may also become more competitive, trying to attract each others’ financial and other supporters. One result: more community conflict.
For example, if Israel’s politics continue on their present path, it could lead to greater conflict among Israel’s organized defenders in America. The heads of secular democratic and theocratic organizations here could begin to attack each other as venomously as there.
If the number of American Jewish oligarchs increases significantly, they could turn into a separate and independent subsector of the leadership, marching to its own drummers and not always to benefit the Jewish community.
4. The Growing Role of Jews of No Religion. This sector should become more visible, and perhaps alter non Jewish America’s perception of American Jewry. Some JNR organizational activity might develop, perhaps to connect with Christians, Muslims and others of No Religion.
Undoubtedly, JNRs will be wooed to return to the community, possibly by new Jewish organizations designed bring them back into the fold. Absent special circumstances, only a few JNRs are likely to do so, but some may want to create social and other ties with fellow JNRs.
The continued growth of JNRs will, however, be accompanied by some shrinkage as they, or more likely their children become distanced from their ancestry. They will also find fewer reasons to, and occasions in which, to feel Jewish, and will eventually drop out completely.
Then, they may remain loosely connected to American Jewry mainly by continued antisemitism or the fear that antisemitism could return as it has so often over the centuries.
However, that connection will be largely defensive, and if antisemitism should weaken, even it could fray. At that point, a terminal identification process may set in, and many former JNRs will become ex-Jews.
Predictions must always be taken with many grains of salt, for unexpected events occur all the time and without fail.
For example, new kinds of global economic and political turmoil or a rise in world anti-semitism might result in another sizeable Jewish immigration to America.
An influx of secular Jews could increase the number and influence of JNRs, while ultra-orthodox newcomers would strengthen that sector of American Jewry.
A continued increase in America’s economic inequality and a further proliferation of the political Right could increase conservative tendencies in the organized Jewish community. A revival of the Jewish Left that once played a leading role in various American reform movements is possible as well. Even religious revivals are conceivable in economically and politically traumatic times.
Traumatic times can also spawn ultra right and quasi fascist social movements that would carry out anti-semitic incidents. These might result in a new mobilization of Jewish defense organizations, which in turn could bring some other Jewish organizations back to life. In that case, a number of JNRs and ex-Jews might return to the fold temporarily.
Nonetheless, whatever happens to the country in the coming years, American Jewry will continue to make its presence felt. Even if smaller in number and less regular than today, a loyal religious sector will remain. Professionals and volunteers will maintain other activities, but perhaps more than in the past, they will be readier to change with changing conditions in order to assure the Jewish community’s survival.
Herbert J Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University. The author of a dozen books, he is best known in Jewish sociology for his writings on symbolic ethnicity and symbolic religiosity.
Cross-posted with Berman Jewish Policy Archive