With the historic election of Barack Obama as its 44th President, the United States has recaptured its place in the world’s imagination as the land of opportunity. For Jews, this imagined America has for some time been the reality. Over several generations, Jews have achieved remarkable acceptance and success, especially considering the poverty and prejudice the first generations of Jewish immigrants faced.
But the American Jewish success story is also one of loss. America’s warm welcome has led to a new, ironic kind of danger: the danger that, without antisemitism forcing our identity upon us, we will forget who we are. When the great mass of Jews emigrated to the US and Canada in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, they came to build better lives for their children, not to help them become better Jews. They did not worry about whether their grandchildren would be Jewish — they assumed they would have no choice in the matter. But antisemitism is no longer a significant force in American life. It is easy to identify as a Jew, but it is just as easy not to, and many Jews have, in effect, opted out of Judaism.
While I have fought Jewish persecution throughout my life, I now see that the fight against antisemitism, which occupied Jewish organised life in America for a century, is no longer the most urgent matter. American Jews must continue to fight to defend other Jews — as European Jews know well, antisemitism remains a global threat that has taken new forms with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But the Jewish people have not stayed alive for so many years only to fight. Fighting alone will not sustain Judaism. American Jews can use their uniquely secure position to cultivate a renaissance, a new flowering of Jewish knowledge and pride.
One thing is perfectly clear: the only way to sustain a vital Jewish life for the 21st century is through education. Jews need to develop a familiarity with Jewish texts, culture and traditions. They should understand the joy in Judaism. They should appreciate the value and relevance of Jewish ethics. A Jewish renaissance has indeed begun, but the numbers of Jews it reaches is still small. Jews around the world should think big, and embrace innovative ideas that cross national boundaries.
Successful initiatives show what a vibrant Jewish future can look like. The tremendously popular Limmud conferences, which began in England, have been replicated in many other countries, including the US, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina and Turkey. Limmud conferences attract Jews of all ages and walks of life and attest to the variety of what Jewish life offers. The Birthright Israel programme sends young Jews from around the world on a free, 10-day journey to Israel and has had great success in its goal of inspiring excitement about Judaism. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life provides opportunities for college students to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity, and now has over 500 campus centres throughout North America, South America, Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Hillel is also helping to bring Jewish students together to do tzedek — justice — for people in need around the world.
Broadening the reach of Jewish education is the best way to address the high rates of intermarriage in the diaspora. In America, one out of two self-identified Jewish students on college campuses today comes from a home with one Jewish parent. My view is to accept intermarriage as a reality. In an open society, people from diverse backgrounds will fall in love. The key question is whether or not their children will be raised as Jews.
Statistics are often marshalled to show that this will not be the case in most interfaith families. I am confident that the numbers would change if Jewish communities cultivated high-quality education and a welcoming attitude. One promising American example is Boston, where the Jewish Federation has placed a strong emphasis on outreach, working hard to make local Jewish communities more welcoming both to intermarried families and to disengaged Jews.
Recent statistics show that the Jewish population in the Boston area has actually increased, with a significant majority of children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews. The most effective response to Jewish population decline is to encourage initiatives like Birthright, Hillel, and Limmud, which don’t tell young people what they need to do to keep Judaism from dying, but instead celebrate what it means to keep it alive.
In 1990, the late Rabbi Isidore Twersky called for galvanising change in Jewish education. His words beautifully express a vision I share: “Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith.” To pursue this vision is to imagine a new kind of opportunity for Jews everywhere.