Choosing Outside the Chosen

The recently concluded PBS documentary "The Jewish Americans" by David Grubin reminded me most of "Beaver Valley," my favorite Walt Disney "True Life Adventures." The narration of the great Winston Hibler described a beaver Shangri-La somewhere high in the Rocky Mountains where the happy beavers were never really threatened by trappers and wolves, or developers who wanted to turn their ponds into condos and ski resorts. I'm sure that there are still a few Beaver Valleys left but not many. It's the same with the Jews of America. The "Jewish Americans" never really addresses the not-hysterical possibility that the Jews of Beaver Valley may soon become extinct.

The demographic catastrophe presently decimating American Jewry is not in dispute. Without numbing you with statistics, the basic facts are absolutely clear and chilling. The 6 million Jews in America will probably number no more than a couple of million by midcentury. This would make the Jewish percentage of the American population about the same as it was during the Civil War. After the Civil War, the Jews in America tripled as a result of European Jewish immigration in the first two decades of the 20th century. Today is different. There is no place in the world where 4 million Jews are waiting, ready to come to America and inflate its sagging Jewish population.

The cause of the pending extinction of American Jews makes our plight even more tragic. The Holocaust took one out of every three Jews on earth by genocide. The Jews of America face the same loss today as the result of acceptance, admiration and love. America is loving her Jews to death.

Until 1960 few Jews married non-Jews. Now more than half of the Jews who marry are marrying unconverted Christians. Only 30 percent of their children, and only 4 percent of their grandchildren are raised as Jews. Some demographers say our birthrate is the lowest of any group in America, so we are now older than any group in America. According to some studies, there are now more Jews in Israel than America. The Orthodox, particularly the Hasidic sector, is immune to assimilation but it remains a small minority, and its rejection of American culture is not at all appealing to Jews who have no inclination to give up either Aretha Franklin or Chinese food.

The most vile force in the collapse of Beaver Valley Jewry is the anti-Zionist propaganda flooding campuses, and the media, which have contributed to a radical decline in the identification and support of Israel by young Jews. In a recent study, fewer than half of young American Jews said that the destruction of the State of Israel would be a personal catastrophe, as opposed to the vast majority of older Jews for whom the State of Israel remains a source of deep pride and a key to Jewish identity.

Even with ample food and the absence of predators, these are bad times for the Jews of Beaver Valley. Knowing this and then watching the parade of Jewish all-stars and Jewish success in David Grubin's work made me queasy. I felt as if I was watching not a documentary but a eulogy for a group that the filmmaker had no clue was actually dying.

So what can be done to save the Beaver Valley Jews? I will only list a few of the directions I believe may be helpful.

The engine of Jewish identity must be our faith. Speaking Yiddish, vacationing in the Catskills, laughing at Jewish jokes and eating greasy, artery-clogging food are not now and never have been sustaining Judaizing forces. Ethnic Jewish identity is dead, and while alive was not able to survive the appeal of the broader American culture. What lasts and matters is that our souls (as well as the souls of all good people of every faith and nation) survive death and are brought to the world; that our virtue is informed by our faith so that the pursuit of justice is at once both a political and religious act; that the sanctity of life is a gift of God and not the state; that Israel is sacred not because it is a state but because it is Zion; that prayer is quintessentially not an act of petition but an act of gratitude and humility, and that the ways we are different from other spiritual seekers are fundamentally less important than the ways we are all the same in the eyes of God. All these beliefs are not only sustaining to a living community of faith, they are also true. The only people who should be rabbis are people who believe something like this.

The cost of Jewish life must be reduced. Contributing millions to hospitals and nursing homes and a whole host of important projects in Israel is good and fine. However, these efforts must now be balanced by the desperate need to offer free or easily affordable synagogue membership to every Jewish family who wants to educate their children and connect to a Jewish community of faith and charity.

Any person who wants to study Judaism from the best teachers in the world ought to be able to do so over the Internet for free. Every class of every great teacher must be recorded and transmitted and saved so that the most ancient wisdom can be made available though the most modern technology to those who are hungry to go online for more than porn and fantasy football.

Jewish programming must be increased and supported. The small impact the my friend Father Tom Hartman and I had as the God Squad convinced me completely that people are hungry to learn more about Judaism and faith and how it can matter in a modern life. What Steven Spielberg did to put the Shoah into the consciousness of the world can be done again and again on many levels and with many points of view. The rich mélange of Jewish life and thought must be made more public and more attractive. If we can make beating hearts out of chicken liver for bar mitzvah parties, we can surely make a great television programs full of Jewish soul—and heart—to air in prime time.

There is more, much more we can do, but one thing is certain. These things will not be decided in my lifetime. It will remain to the children of my children's children to chronicle the extinction of the Beaver Valley Jews, or—as I hope and pray and believe—the glorious news of their removal from the endangered species list in the Shangri-La that is America.