Jewish Stagnation from Washington Times
Posted July 7, 2006
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Yosef I. Abramowitz, the chief executive officer of Jewish Family and Life, based in Newton, Mass., is also the president of the Union of Councils of Jews in the former Soviet Union and publisher of Sh’ma, an intellectual journal.
In an essay for this month’s Moment magazine, he suggests Jews need to emulate Mormons in terms of creating a more family-friendly culture. The Jewish community, he says, also must redirect its energy and rethink its institutions, philanthropy and ideology in order to avoid stagnation. Following are excerpts from an interview with religion writer Julia Duin.
Question: You say the world Jewish population has remained stagnant at 12 million to 13 million since the end of World War II, but that Mormons have grown from 1 million in the mid-1940s to 12 million today. What have they done right?
Answer: First, the Mormons know what they believe. They believe in what they believe so much, they are not shy about sharing it. If the Jewish people think we have something of value in terms of our morals and values, is it fear or selfishness that keeps us from sharing it? Since I know we are not selfish, we have to get beyond that fear.
Second, Mormons have a two-year service period for people of college age that is a model for religious service that the Jewish community should look at. Look at the founding of the Jewish state, which was done by the European-based youth movements. That is a source of strength and hope and energy we have failed to tap into. I am not saying we have to model the Mormons theologically but in terms of strategy.
Third, Mormons understand the value of databases of the living and the dead. But Jews, in terms of modern history, are petrified of lists. Jews only keep lists of the dead. The last time people compiled lists, it didn’t work so well. We have a culture among Jewish institutions that doesn’t share information and names.
Q: Are you suggesting Jews should proselytize like the Mormons do?
A: Well, the word has so many connotations to Jews. I’d say our vision for the world in need of healing should compel us to share what we believe is our unique system. Jews and unchurched non-Jews are seeking values and community. We are the first generation whose ideas and beliefs can compete on a level playing field because of the accessibility of Internet.
You’d think that raising the bar on commitment would scare people away. But the Mormon and much of the evangelical Christian experience has been that the clearer you define the commitments, the more people actually understand what you stand for and believe in. It gives them an opportunity to join something far more tangible. The Jewish community has been petrified to define itself and stand out. It is an aftershock of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust which we need to get past.
Q: Is the Jewish community obsessing on anti-Semitism?
A: We are kind of stuck in a reactive mode. It’s a lot easier to define what you are against than what you are for. The mantle of Jewish leadership in the last two generations has been largely defined by what you are against: anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union, the Arabs who try to annihilate Israel.
Q: Mormon-dominated Utah has a fertility rate of 2.71 children per woman, whereas the average American Jewish woman’s fertility rate is at 1.04. What does this say about current Jewish attitudes toward abortion and childbearing?
A: What I am arguing for is establishing the bedrock of the Jewish community and families have been, along with their schools, the key transmitters of Jewish values. We have one of the lowest fertility rates in the country and we need 2.1 for replacement purposes. We are not replacing each other. If we had 2.5 to three children, it would be revolutionary in terms of long-term impact.
There is definitely a social implication when the bedroom fills up with little ones. My wife is a Reform rabbi and most of our social circle of progressive religious Jews have more than two children. My kids range from almost 11 years old to 9 months. Three are biological, one is adopted and we are considering another adoption. Children are a blessing.
Q: Why do you say Jews suffer from an ideological vacuum?
A: We are afraid to have an internal discussion about what it is we truly believe and what we stand for because we don’t want to offend anybody. So we are depriving future generations of clarity and the values that will ground them. We need a global Jewish values curriculum, which does not exist.
The dream of the previous generation was full integration into American society to protect against being too ethnic and singled out. It was the American Jewish dream of being part of the melting pot. We need to do the opposite: create islands of community and values, which is why the day school movement has taken off in a big way. That’s where you see the explosive growth.
Q: But aren’t most Jews militantly secular in their outlook? Why is it that only the Orthodox show any religious passion at all?
A: I know it appears that way and there’s truth to that, but that assumption does a disservice to the tens of thousands of non-Orthodox committed Jewish leaders who are struggling to turn around the majority of the Jewish people. Orthodox Judaism is never going to appeal to more than a small percentage of Jews. There are 2,000 non-Orthodox schools in this country where the majority of Jewish kids are being educated. The theological battleground is not in Orthodoxy, it’s among the underaffiliated progressive Jews. My strategy is on how to reinspire and engage them in a national way.
Eighty percent of American Jewish kids have a bar or bat mitzvah. We teach our doctrine at age 12 and 13 when our youth aren’t developmentally ready for it, so the next year, they rebel and disappear. They come into the community and then they leave it. We haven’t figured out a way to maintain them.
And in addition to teaching the content of Jewish life — the rituals — we also need to give them the gift of Jewish values. But every time I quote “blessed to be a blessing,” which is a basic Jewish value from Genesis 12, I get blank looks.