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What futuristic American dreams are made of

What does the future hold for the Jews of America, asks Ben Judah

    (Bill Chizek/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

    The Singularity? Spiritual machines? The visions of an American Jew. Information waves? Japanese Superstates? Again, an American Jew. Because from Ray Kurzweil to Herman Kahn, American Jews love being futurologists. But strangely, rarely Jewish futurologists about themselves.

    Yet every “Jewy” American Jew I have ever met has Googled these words: “Jewish Demographics”. They may not rush to give Ted Talks but privately there are tens of thousands of Jewish futurologists in America. Fretting as they fall asleep not about electric sheep but about how many American Jews will there be in 2100 — and who they will be. Will they be Charedi? Or will Richard Spencer have the last laugh?

    Demographic surveys are to Jewish futurologists what the prophets were to the Israelites. And, like Hosea, the near definitive 2013 Pew Survey is damning: two-thirds of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue, a third of millennials report “no religion” and 58 per cent are now marrying out. And there are less of them, too: four per cent of Americans were Jews in around 1960; it’s down to 2.2 per cent today.

    At the Washington think-tank where I sometimes work, under a portrait of Herman Kahn (predictions include: 3-D photography by the year 2000) I assembled an impromptu seminar of two Pew-reading closet Jewish futurologists. (One was me, the other a colleague, a Jew with two opinions). This was the only question: project me to 2100, the now 5.3m American Jews.

    The Jewish pessimist made his prediction first. The numbers don’t lie. Because we have a good idea who today’s five-year-olds are, we can have a good guess at 2100. Just 10 per cent of American Jews are Orthodox but 27 per cent of their children are. Give it three generations and these numbers will making swaggering American Jews much more of a Jewry: smaller, much more Charedi and poorer. By 2100, the Jewish pessimist predicted, the era when secular Jews dominated the studios, Supreme Court Seats and Editorial Boards will be history. And most Jewish children won’t study Philip Roth as they’ll be Charedi.

    “Secular Judaism is a one-generation thing. Reform just doesn’t work,” said the Jewish pessimist (who hasn’t been to shul in years). “What the Orthodox said was right after all. Secular Reform Jews don’t have Jewish grandchildren. Or not enough of them. After three generations, the grandchildren of these people who are feeling Jewish, in 2100 will also be feeling Korean and Italian and also not really anything.”

    The Jewish pessimist then predicted his vision of the Davening Remnant. “Maybe they’ll be 2m Charedi. Maybe they’ll be 1m Modern Orthodox. But they won’t be American Jews the way Jerry Seinfeld or the way Elena Kagan are.

    If you want to see the future, go to Lakewood, New Jersey, a booming shtetl 50,000 strong. It’s the new Brooklyn for the Chasids and the Mod-Orthodox. Apart from that it isn’t. Because it’s cut off and not going to take over New York. But it’ll survive.” His 2100 population figure? Total Jews at 3.9m. One grandparent? Triple that.

    Then the American pessimist spoke (the same Jew’s other view). The current political trends don’t lie. Crumbling public education. Collapse in the public ethos. Trump as just the beginning. Kleptocracy, oligarchy, cutbacks to the welfare state and an upward curve for the neo-neo Nazis. “Somewhere between the Koch brothers, Roy Moore and Charlottesville,” he said. “That’s the future of America. So, if you think Jewish futurology for this America is just a Pew Study, think again.” His final population prediction for 2100 was 5.2m: a hostile atmosphere tightening the community. The American Jewish tomorrow as the French Jewish today. “Nothing saves Jews from assimilation like antisemitism!”

    Fears are easy. Dystopias are the easiest tomorrows to see. Now comes the hard Jewish futurology. What kind of Judaism? What kind of community do Jewish optimists want for 2100?

    Is it an education dream — an inclusive, accessible Jewish and heavily subsidised school brought to every city? Is it a halachic dream -— a new generation of rabbis with such authority they can move forward? Is it a cultural dream — new technology reviving Yiddish and bringing Hebrew to millions? Is a denominational dream — an Orthodoxy that’s more open or a Reform that’s more alive or a Chasidism more modern?

    Or is it something even more utopian? A Judaism that brings together the outreach of Chabad, the tolerance of Reform and the learning of the Charedi together? This is the wild Jewish futurology that I really want.

    Ben Judah is the author of ‘This is London’

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