A Tiny Drop in a Vast Bucket

by David Breakstone

When I was growing up in Great Neck, a Long Island suburb of New York long known for its disproportionately large and wealthy Jewish community, Lubavitch was no more than a curiosity, satisfied by a Hebrew school outing to a matza-baking factory in Brooklyn on the eve of Passover.

Today, diagonally across from the Reform temple in which I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, an imposing Chabad center is being constructed on a prime piece of real estate overlooking the water. Situated on a hill, it will likely soon be overshadowing the congregation of my formative years as well.

Cut to the 2012 Israel Day Parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue. An Israeli colleague who marched in it for the first time shared with me his surprise and dismay that the large majority of participants appeared to represent Orthodox institutions and organizations.

Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t exactly complaining. He himself is Orthodox and actively engaged in promoting Torah Judaism worldwide, but as a Zionist he was bemoaning the low turnout of non-Orthodox supporters of the Jewish state. I told him that when I was there nearly 50 years ago, so were they. “Where have they disappeared to?” he wanted to know.

A few days later we got the answer. Hard data corroborating the anecdotal evidence.

A survey commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York concerning the 1.5 million Jews living in the eight counties of New York City, Long Island and Westchester, revealed that 64 percent of the Jewish children in the region, and 32 percent of its entire Jewish population, run the gamut from modern Orthodox (10 percent) to haredi (22 percent). This represents an increase of some 50 percent over a period of 20 years. During the same two decades the number of nondenominational Jewish households more than doubled, rising from 15 percent to 37 percent of those surveyed.

The survey further revealed that Jewish education has intensified among those who identify with one denomination or another, but has declined among those who do not; that the overall intermarriage rate stands at 22 percent, while among the non- Orthodox it has climbed to a new high of 50 percent; and that those who do not label themselves as Orthodox are less involved in things Jewish than they were a decade ago, and that the ways in which they do continue to express their Jewishness tend to be increasingly through association with family or friends rather than with an institution, thereby threatening the infrastructure of the organized Jewish community.

In other words, even if inclined to march in support of Israel, they wouldn’t have had a framework within which to do so.

The bottom line: the more Orthodox and insular the Jewish community, the greater its retention rate. Surprise, surprise.

I’m reminded of the introduction to sociology course I took as a college freshman.

All these years later I still remember the field being dubbed as “the painful elaboration of the obvious.” Less obvious are the conclusions we are to draw from all this.

But before tackling that, let’s shift to Israel. I have no doubt that were a similar study undertaken here, we would also find that the intensity of Jewish education, birth rates, concern with the Jewish future and identification with the Jewish collective all rise in keeping with levels of ritual observance.

While digesting these phenomena together with a Shabbat meal shared with friends, one of them quickly jumped to conclusions. “If we’re genuinely concerned with Jewish continuity, then,” he offered, “we’ve really got no choice but to be investing in Orthodox institutions.” I almost sent him home without dessert.

The real challenge facing those of us who are concerned with Jewish continuity is creating a Judaism that is compelling for those for whom Orthodoxy will never be the answer. On both sides of the ocean.

The growth in the numbers of those alienated from Jewish life altogether is not going to be checked by augmenting support for those who portray authentic Judaism as unchanging and increasingly restrictive, inflexible and exclusive.

Doing so will only add to the sense of disenfranchisement felt by that segment of our population that occupies a shrinking middle ground between an expanding core and a growing periphery. It is they who need concern us. What that calls for in greater New York I will leave to somebody else to suggest. I will only propose what it calls for here in Israel: empowering those who offer authentic alternatives to a calcified Judaism while restraining those who would impose their fossilized rendering of tradition on the rest of us.

We can do both at once if we are but prepared to seize the moment. The time is now, for four reasons: Firstly, there is the Supreme Court ruling that the “Tal Law,” granting yeshiva students exemption from military service, is illegal and must be rescinded. This provides us with the opportunity to declare to the haredi population once and for all that they must shoulder their fair share of the national burden in defending the state or forgo the rewards of living in it – first and foremost the financial benefits that they have heretofore been successful in extorting from Israel’s coffers. (There are currently upwards of 60,000 young men who have not only been excused from serving in the army, but are being paid by the state to study instead!)

Secondly, there is the attorney-general’s determination, based on a High Court opinion, that the state must recognize and fund non-Orthodox rabbis, albeit in severely limited circumstances. This ruling establishes a precedent that must be grasped and utilized in myriad ways to embed the values of pluralism and religious freedom in the public consciousness and the country’s basic laws.

Until that happens, this latest development – as welcome as it is – amounts to little more than a tiny drop in a vast bucket.

At most, it is likely to lead to less than a dozen Reform and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis being employed by the state, compared to the more than 4,000 Orthodox rabbis currently on the public payroll. Still, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has vowed to work to reverse “this shameful phenomenon” of recognizing as rabbis those who labor “to uproot the foundations of Judaism.”

Thirdly, there is the public’s expression of outrage during the past few months in regard to the exclusion of women from the public domain and other manifestations of religious extremism, coercion and questionable use of public funds. Thousands of ritual baths, paid for out of the taxpayer’s pocket, are off-limits to any bride-to-be who has not been referred by a state-sanctioned rabbi.

The more than 300,000 émigrés from the FSU who are not halachically Jewish are being denied the possibility of conversion, and the situation is only getting worse. In 2011, only 4,293 recognized conversions were performed in the country, compared to 8,008 four years prior. Furthermore, potential immigrants who converted abroad are being denied recognition as Jews here, despite a Supreme Court ruling requiring the Interior Ministry to accept them as such. The result: the people of Israel are ready to draw the line on this side of sanity as never been before, finally saying no to the creeping encroachment on personal liberties that has been tolerated since the establishment of the state.

And finally, that the government now enjoys the support of 94 of the Knesset’s 120 parliamentarians means that the power of any one of its component parties is diminished while threats to leave the coalition over one piece of legislation or another may be taken less seriously. This is the moment to enshrine in legislation the promises of the Declaration of Independence in regard to religious freedom.

Due to the confluence of these four developments, we are at the cusp of an historical opportunity. We must not squander it. Orthodox hegemony, far from guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people will ultimately lead to its attenuation, hastening as it will the flight of the majority from tradition, and deepening the sense of alienation from the so-called Jewish state on the part of Jews around the world who are increasingly asking themselves if it really belongs to them as well. This is something we can ill-afford – not in Great Neck, not along Fifth Avenue, and not in Jerusalem.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.