By Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter
When I was a little boy, my parents spoke to me only in Yiddish. I remember they told me a story more than once (or was it a joke?) but all I can recall is the punchline, “oyb es iz azoy git, farvus iz azoy shlecht?” (they spoke a Galitzianer Yiddish). “If things are so good, why are they so bad?”
I was reminded of this phrase when I reviewed the Pew Research Center’s latest study entitled Jewish Americans in 2020. Much of the research shows that for Orthodoxy “es iz takeh azoy git,” “it is, indeed, so good.” Most extraordinarily, only 3 percent of American Jews above the age of 65 self-identify as Orthodox and 7 percent between the ages of 50 and 64 do so, but that number jumps to 17 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29. This indicates that the percentage of all Jews in America who are Orthodox Jews will grow significantly in the years ahead and that, therefore, in the future the Orthodox community will be playing a much greater role in American Jewish life. In 1990, 6 percent of American Jews identified as Orthodox; that number now is 9 percent and shows every indication of growing.
The news for Orthodoxy is, in fact, zeyer git, very good, and our community has a lot for which to be proud. Young people growing up in our community in the last few decades have no clue how weak Orthodoxy was in America even as little as sixty or seventy years ago.1 But, baruch Hashem, the situation has changed. Not only is Orthodoxy alive in America, defying all prognostications to the contrary, we are growing and flourishing in America.
But es iz nisht azoy git for the rest of the community. Some pundits have been optimistic about the results of the study because it “is evidence of the innovative and ever changing ways Jewish religion is practiced, not grounds for panic.”2 While I welcome different ways Jews connect to their Jewishness, I am concerned for two reasons. First, the study showed that many, even self-identifying, Jews are not at all involved in any way “Jewish religion is practiced,” even most broadly concerned. Fully one-third of those who were raised as Jewish are not Jewish today, either because they identify with a religion other that Judaism (19 percent consider themselves Christian) or because they do not currently identify themselves as Jews in any way. I also wonder how meaningful even practices identified as religious can ultimately be absent any non-negotiable commitment to the notion of mitzvah, or commandedness, a concept more and more problematic in a contemporary world governed by personal autonomy and individual choice.3 The study also shows that among non-Orthodox Jews who got married in the last decade, 72 percent say they are intermarried. 72 percent! How robust could their Jewish religious practice possibly be?
In my response to the Jewish Action symposium on the 2013 Pew study,4 I focused on our responsibility to the larger American Jewish community, but here my interest is in our Orthodox community. To my mind, the current study shows that es iz nisht azoy git for Orthodoxy either. The following data on even those who self-identify as Orthodox Jews emerges from the study, some based on the very statistics I cited above:
– 14 percent do not report that religion is very important in their lives;
– 5 percent do not report that being Jewish is at least somewhat important to them;
– 25 percent do not report that their religious faith provides them with a great deal of meaning and fulfillment;
– 17 percent do not report that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish;
– 31 percent do not report that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish;
– 23 percent do not report that they often mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them;
– 9 percent do not report that it is very important to them that any potential grandchildren are Jewish;
– 17 percent report that they attend synagogue a few times a year or less.
I am not sure how to interpret these numbers. What, in fact, does it mean to consider oneself “Orthodox?” But most disturbing and upsetting to me is the finding in this study that 33 percent of Jews raised as Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. I want to repeat this. Fully one third of children (our children) whom we raise (in our homes) as Orthodox leave Orthodoxy! I personally am aware of a number of such cases and in each one of them the parents of these children are wonderful and positive role models; they have done all they could possibly do to raise their children as committed and observant Jews. But, communally, we need to devote much more attention to this than we have been giving it until now.
Only 3 percent of American Jews above the age of 65 self-identify as Orthodox and 7 percent between the ages of 50 and 64 do so, but that number jumps to 17 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29.
I want to suggest that we need to take a hard look at re-shifting our communal priorities. Enormous amounts of energy have been expended on kiruv, or bringing Jews into the Orthodox orbit, but this study also shows that we have largely been unsuccessful. There are relatively very few Jews joining Orthodoxy from other denominations (2 percent of formerly Conservative Jews currently identify as Orthodox and 1 percent of formerly Reform Jews do so). It seems to me that this moment requires that we focus much more of our resources on those of us who are already “in the room” to ensure that they not leave. The OU’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) educators across the American university landscape are already correctly paying much attention to the Orthodox students on their campuses and they should be given more help. NCSY, historically a kiruv organization, is correctly devoting more and more attention to young girls and boys already in day schools, and this work should be given more resources to expand.
Of course, the entire Jewish people is our concern, but Chazal have already determined that aniyei ircha kodmin, “the poor of your own city take priority” (Bava Metzia 71a). We need to strengthen ourselves even as we work to strengthen the totality of the Jewish people.
1. See my contribution to “The Sea Change in American Orthodox Judaism: A Symposium,” Tradition, vol. 32, no. 4 (1998): 92-93.
2. Rachel B. Gross, “If you’re asking American Jews if they’re religious, you don’t understand American Jews,” the Forward and JTA (May 11, 2021).
3. See my “Halakhic Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy,” in Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamara Wright, eds., Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Jerusalem, 2012), 155-76.
4. “The Pew Report: It Really Matters,” Jewish Action, vol. 74, no. 4 (summer 2014): 58-60.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar, Center for the Jewish Future, Yeshiva University.
By Dr. Erica Brown
In 1883, the Canadian artist Paul Peel completed his painting “Reading the Future.” That intriguing title does not prepare us for a tender portrait of a young woman looking at the bottom of her gold-rimmed cup, reading the dregs of her tea leaves for a clue about what her future might hold. The artist almost whimsically suggests that with a simple turn of her head, she may be better informed by looking up instead of staring at the residue of an empty tea cup.
It is with that forward eye rather than backward glance that we might approach the Pew study. It seems as if the entire North American Jewish community anxiously awaited these results and responded with a mix of triumphalism, defeat, organizational hand-wringing and program modifications. It certainly gives everyone a valuable piece of research to analyze. Statistics often wake us up to certain realities we already recognize anecdotally but need someone with impressive academic credentials to verify.
To be sure, there is much to be proud of here. Ninety percent of Orthodox Jews surveyed in the 2020 Pew study regard their lives as generally good and their respective communities as good or excellent places to live. Attachment to Israel is high, as are fertility rates and our commitment to Jewish continuity. Rising anti-Semitism is a particular concern for Orthodox Jews because dress, geographic density and frequency of synagogue attendance make Orthodox Jews easy victims.
So far, these findings offer no surprises, just confirmations.
There are three findings, however, that should garner attention from an educational standpoint. The first is the large jump in Orthodox Jews who vote Republican and the impact this has in fragmenting Jews within Orthodoxy and outside it. The shift to more conservative political leanings is attributable to many understandable factors. At the same time, we should be wary of echo chambers that may coarsen our political literacy and result in increased polarization. It may be a good time to provide civics studies in more Jewish day schools so that an emerging generation of day school graduates can be better informed about our government, its workings and the range of valid political views and issues.
The next two findings, which were not apparent to me when I reflected on the last Pew study, is that while a 67 percent retention rate for Orthodox Jews who maintain committed across the lifespan is a “good enough” statistical rate, internally a 30-plus percent drop-out rate is cause for concern and response. When you pair that with the fact that only 15 percent of the current Orthodox population, according to the Pew research, was not born into Orthodoxy, what results is a question of how resources are best spent.
The Orthodox Jewish community has many outreach organizations working hard to bring more teens and older adults into the fold as ba’alei teshuvah. Yet this current data should give us pause. It suggests that those flirting with a more intense Jewish life bound by ritual and law may enjoy Shabbat dinners, free holiday services, great trips and lower tuition rates for pre-school but never fully commit to an Orthodox lifestyle. We have invested human and financial resources in creating Israel programs, youth organizations, camps, retreats, gap year experiences and yeshivot all dedicated to outreach when, if these statistics are accurate, we really need to be investing more of that human and financial capital into the 30 percent of our community before they leave.
The problem is that we don’t know who that 30 percent is. The retention rate seems to be as high as 85 percent among Millennials and Gen Z. That rate is promising indeed. But for the 15 percent of them who leave, we might think carefully about what’s not working for younger Orthodox Jews. Do students feel safe asking difficult questions in Jewish day schools, whose curiosity dissipates as they find their intellectual and spiritual energy elsewhere? How do we repair spiritually listless morning minyanim in schools and improve the rigor and relevance of Jewish studies classes? How should we best advance professional development for teachers, provide more and better experiential programming for students, and create and more experimental schooling alternatives so that when the next study rolls around the retention rate is even stronger?
So who are the 30 percent? My guess based only on anecdotal evidence is that they are older Orthodox adults. They may be aging singles who feel increasingly excluded and marginalized in synagogue and other communal settings because they aren’t married with children. What attention is being paid to this growing segment of our community? Perhaps this percentage points to empty nesters whose religious behaviors and attitudes may wane when children leave home and are no longer a driving motivation to maintain a frum home life. To borrow Adam Grant’s language, many older Orthodox Jews may be spiritually languishing, and this, too, may explain the one third who no longer affiliate. We might respond by creating meaningful programming and a centralized structure for online adult education focused on issues unique to this transitional generation in the Orthodox community instead of our current hodge-podge of thousands of online shiurim.
Imagine for a moment that all of the innovative engagement techniques used to bring people to Judaism were directed, in part, to help strengthen those who are already in the room and waiting for inspiration. In crass fundraising terms, it’s a lot easier to solicit someone who gives one hundred dollars to a charity to give a thousand dollars than it is to get someone to give eighteen dollars who has never given a gift. It may be easier—but less of a popular sell—to help people appreciate the gift they already have than to give that gift to someone who was doing just fine without it. The organized Jewish community tends to focus on everyone who doesn’t show up instead of looking more carefully at those who are actually there.
To look at who actually is in the room, it behooves Orthodox organizations to join forces to do a thoughtfully designed internal demographic study of our own with a much larger sample pool than the 2020 Pew study. As it is, the Orthodox community should approach the Pew findings with caution. The sample size of Orthodox Jews was under 500 and, because the sample was so small (in contrast to the 2013 Pew Study, where it was larger but not much larger), it was not segmented based on a range of Orthodox commitments. Whereas in the last Pew study, the affluence among Modern or Centrist Orthodox Jews was highlighted, this research pointed to several unsurprising poverty markers that may indicate the Orthodox population in this study was more Ultra than Modern Orthodox.
Conducting an internal study takes a degree of courage. But in order to know how to allocate resources and strategize for the future, we need more information than we currently have. I myself am a product of NCSY outreach efforts, as is my family, and would be the last to minimize the importance of outreach efforts. But I cannot ignore the numbers, nor can our community. If 30 percent of Orthodox Jews are not retaining their commitments, it’s time to know why and to put our creativity and our limited resources to protecting our current investment. With so many causes for optimism in the current Pew study, we need not be afraid to read our own future and then to write it. We need not satisfy ourselves with old tea leaves. Our cup runneth over.
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor at The George Washington University. She is currently working on a commentary on Kohelet for Maggid Books.
By Eric Fingerhut
Perhaps the best-known Jewish organizational motto of all time was the United Jewish Appeals’ (the predecessor to the Jewish Federations of North America) slogan “We are One.” The 2020 Pew Survey of the North American Jewish community seems to scream the opposite message. We are divided, the survey seems to tell us, religiously, politically, even culturally.
Clearly this is cause for concern. Jews are a small minority in every place outside of Israel. It is hard enough to build flourishing Jewish communities—communities that are healthy, safe, caring, welcoming and inclusive, educated and engaged, involved in our broader communities and deeply connected to Israel and global Jewry—when we are unified, but virtually impossible, it would seem, when we are so divided.
And yet we do come together across these divides with some regularity. In fact, the Jewish community’s unified response to the Covid-19 pandemic would seem to be the hopeful response to some of the more negative conclusions of the Pew Survey, which was conducted just before the pandemic hit in full force. Working with Jewish organizations from across the spectrum of Jewish life and with every denomination, I’m proud that the Jewish Federation system led efforts to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Covid-relief to meet the basic human needs of those who live in the hundreds of Jewish communities under our umbrella, to support Jewish institutions of all kinds throughout the country, and to leverage over half a billion dollars in federal “paycheck protection” funds to allow Jewish organizations to keep tens of thousands of staff members on the payroll.
We witnessed this extraordinary communal unity as well from the unprecedented coming together in the face of the recent surge in anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. More than one hundred other organizations, including the Orthodox Union, joined our letter in May that urged the Congress to pass the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act. The Act, signed shortly thereafter into law by President Biden, strengthens the ability of law enforcement, on all levels, to track and prosecute anti-Semitic and other hate crimes, making our society safer for everyone.
In 1990, 6 percent of American Jews identified as Orthodox; that number now is 9 percent and shows every indication of growing.
We partnered again with the OU and other leading Jewish organizations to press President Biden to take concrete steps against anti-Semitism, including appointing a new Jewish liaison to the White House. And the Day of Action Against Antisemitism, co-sponsored yet again with the OU and other Jewish organizations, featured a rally with members of Congress, faith leaders, and other luminaries that drew more than 30,000 viewers of all different backgrounds.
We will need to stay unified as the pandemic recedes and Jews flock back to synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish communal buildings, where the threat of domestic terrorist attacks is, experts say, likely to rise. The safety and security of our community depends on us focusing not on our differences, but on our shared priorities. The anti-Semitic attacks witnessed across North America during Operation Guardians of the Walls did not discriminate against religious and non-religious Jews, or inquire as to what the denomination the victim was before they were attacked. It is a threat to all of us and all of us will respond—together.
Finally, the other major finding of the Pew Survey that resonates deeply is that “together” includes a more diverse community than ever before. We are privileged to have on our staff an extraordinary young African American Orthodox rabbi, Isaiah Rothstein, who directs our Initiative for Jewish Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI). Rabbi Rothstein has achieved prominence for his work in promoting a more welcoming environment for Jews of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. He created two programs in just the last year that are having a transformative effect on the Jewish community: one called Moed, which sponsors holiday celebrations, retreats and other programs for Jews of Color; and the other called Kamochah, which is the first organization geared specifically to the needs of Black Orthodox Jews. For us to care for all in our community, we must be engaged with all. Jewish Federations are committed to this work.
In short, we may be divided in many ways, as the Pew Survey shows, but in the ways that really count, we remain indivisibly, unalterably, and magnificently one.
Eric Fingerhut is the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America.
By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
In 2013, the Pew Research Center published a thorough demographic study titled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” I suggested at the time that the report yielded two clear conclusions and mandates for our Orthodox community. Firstly, to stem the precipitous and catastrophic rise of assimilation and intermarriage, we would have to recruit a greater swath of our community to meaningfully engage in outreach and not rely on outreach professionals alone. Our Orthodox communities would need to become more welcoming and friendly, more accommodating and sensitive to those without an observant background, and our communal budgets would need to prioritize funding outreach efforts, programs and personnel.
Secondly, I suggested that the Pew report’s findings regarding our Orthodox community should move us to immediately evaluate our assumptions regarding the commitment of our Orthodox youth and their experiences both in our homes and in our schools.
A few months ago, Pew released its latest report with updated findings and an opportunity to measure how well we have done. Tragically, intermarriage outside of the Orthodox community continues to be sky high at over 70 percent, effectively threatening the very future and continuity of a significant segment of the American Jewish community. Among other findings, the report found that “twice as many Jewish Americans say they derive a great deal of meaning and fulfillment from spending time with pets as say the same about their religion.”
Correctly, we are all outraged by and concerned with growing anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, as disturbing as those horrific incidents and troubling trends are, when it comes to Jewish continuity, the statistical threat of anti-Semitism pales in comparison to the damage we are doing to ourselves and our own contribution to the disappearance of our people.
It is evident we have not succeeded in moving the needle on assimilation and intermarriage. The question is, have we really even tried?
There is so much to unpack and analyze from the latest report, but one contrast in particular jumps out at me and, I believe, offers a mandate and charge going forward. Sadly, the report found that members of different denominations of American Judaism generally don’t feel they have “a lot” in common with one another. About half of Orthodox Jews say they have “not much” (23 percent) or “nothing at all” (26 percent) in common with Reform Jews. Similarly, most Reform Jews say they have “not much” (39 percent) or “nothing at all” (21 percent) in common with the Orthodox.
Despite our common history and shared destiny, notwithstanding our overlapping culture, calendar and commitment to Israel, Jews of different streams not only do not feel connected, they don’t even feel they have commonality. This likely results from the increased general American trend towards polarization from, and negative associations with, those who are different than us.
There is a significant and startling exception to the rule. Pew reported a denominational shift, particularly among the younger demographic. Chabad, analyzed for the first time as its own denomination and not an Orthodox subgroup, is now the same size as the Reform and Conservative denominations. Thirty-eight percent of all American Jews have engaged in some way with Chabad programs. Forty percent of those are active on a regular or semi-regular basis. Seventy-five of those who are involved with Chabad do not self-identify as Orthodox.
Reform and Conservative are losing members. While certainly some are walking away altogether, it turns out a significant amount still want to feel connected to their Judaism, and Chabad is where they feel most at home. If we want the next Pew study to report improvements in the statistics regarding intermarriage and assimilation as well as disaffection among the Orthodox, we must take a page out of Chabad’s playbook.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, successfully inculcated a feeling of duty and responsibility into generations, including a growing number who were born after he had already left this world. As fundamental as any other part of their identity, those associated with Chabad feel a powerful sense of shelichus, that they are on a mission and have a mandate to connect and feel commonality with all Jews, to bring them closer to a relationship with Hashem, and for Judaism to inform and inspire their lives. Their approach is non-judgmental, warm and welcoming, they make Torah and Judaism accessible, relevant and contemporary. And they do it all without compromising on a strict commitment to Torah, halachah and Lubavitch practices and minhagim.
The success, as demonstrated in the latest data, is the result of not relying on rabbis and rebbetzins alone, but the force and focus of an entire movement. Those touched and inspired by Chabad are not the only beneficiaries of Chabad’s approach. Rather than feel lost, invisible or inconsequential, young people in Chabad feel they have a purpose, they are here for a reason, and that the world is waiting for a difference only they could make.
My intent here is not to glorify or romanticize Chabad as perfect or for everyone, but rather to use their success as a springboard for us to learn from the combination of these two data points in the Pew report. We can both make a measurable impact on stemming the tide of assimilation, as well as inspire our children to be ambassadors of Torah and Yiddishkeit if we embrace taking responsibility for Jewish continuity as a core value of our movement and our lives. Let’s learn and utilize the language of shelichus, being on a mission in our schools, at shuls, and around the Shabbos table. Let’s develop and teach a curriculum of responsibility for the Jewish future and how practically we can better reach out, invite, engage and relate with Jews who don’t have our background or level of observance.
After the last Pew report I suggested we need to work on combating intermarriage and inspiring our Orthodox youth in parallel, side by side. Perhaps a major takeaway of this latest study is that we can impact both groups with one campaign and focus.
Nobody is better positioned to make Judaism alive, attractive and relatable than those who are both uncompromising on halachah while simultaneously engaged in society and participating in the greater world. We have the best platform and are poised to have the greatest success, we just need to care enough to try.
In response to the 2013 Pew report, I shared that our shul, Boca Raton Synagogue, has a dedicated outreach rabbi, Rabbi Josh Broide, on our rabbinic team. Given the catastrophic threat of assimilation and intermarriage, we consider his position and efforts a necessity, not a luxury and that is why we prioritize it in our budget. His tireless efforts have yielded significant success measured by the quantity of otherwise unaffiliated people who have participated in his programs, classes and services and by the meaningful changes many have made to their lives.
It is evident we have not succeeded in moving the needle on assimilation and intermarriage. The question is, have we really even tried?
Until now, we have considered the outreach role and efforts as complementary to our shul and supplemental to our community. The most recent report has driven us to reconsider that perspective and the focus from exclusively directed at the unaffiliated to working with and inspiring our members to create a movement, to feel they are part of a mission. We will only move the needle on the formidable threat of assimilation if we recruit those who are already committed to not only participate in outreach efforts, but to lead them.
A movement requires strategic thinking, intentional programming and mindful messaging from the pulpit, in shul literature, through the youth department and adult education. Themes of taking achrayus, personal responsibility, mesirus nefesh, community, Klal Yisrael and continuity should be emphasized again and again. Tools and training should be provided to help overcome inhibition and to provide skills in engaging the unaffiliated meaningfully. These ideas, ideals and efforts must be shared with and stressed to teens and youth. We must involve them, empower them and enable them to see themselves as instrumental to our movement, not only in their youth but throughout their lives.
Let us pray that with our renewed efforts coupled with siyata d’Shmaya, Divine assistance, the next Pew survey will report an inspired, flourishing Jewish people steeped in Jewish values and Torah and feeling a tremendous connection and commonality with one another.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida.
By Rabbi Steven Weil
My children have heard me give what they call my “Pew speech” too many times to count. When the results of the Pew study of American Jewry were released in 2013, I was devastated by the results. It was Mitzrayim all over again, where 80 percent of our people did not make it out. It was the eerie feeling of déjà vu for the Ten Lost Tribes; lost to our people for good because they assimilated into the foreign cultures in which they lived. I felt an urgency to enlist committed Jews everywhere to become ambassadors of Judaism to their unaffiliated family members, co-workers and neighbors. So I used my platform as a teacher and lecturer to give my “Pew speech,” an impassioned plea to anyone who would listen in every community I visited: if you are blessed to appreciate living a life with Jewish values, reach out to those who simply do not know what they are missing. Invite them to a Friday night dinner. Include them on you mishloach manot list. Gift them a book by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l. Offer a free trip to Israel to their kids (through Birthright Israel). The majority of our brothers and sisters who are unaffiliated are not anti-religious, they just have never been exposed to the depth, beauty and warmth of Jewish living. And when they do experience it, they respond very positively. Who wouldn’t be excited to discover a rich and enriching heritage they did not even know was theirs?
There has to be a concerted effort from our rabbis, lay leaders and the Orthodox media to impress upon our communities . . . what a tragedy the Jewish nation is experiencing outside the safe walls in which we are ensconced.
But eight years and countless “Pew speeches” later, I am sad to say we have not made nearly enough inroads. Our Orthodox communities are strong and flourishing. Our educational, charitable and social institutions have improved and grown in quality and quantity. Our media outlets are widespread and have high standards that attract the hundreds of thousands of people who read publications like Jewish Action, Mishpacha Magazine and Hamodia. Multitudes of people learn Daf Yomi and connect to any number of apps and websites where countless shiurim on any topic, on any level, given by the best teachers in the world are accessible. Whether we are Chassidic, Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox, our communities are stronger and more sophisticated than they were eight years ago because our focus has been on advancing our institutions. And while we build, thrive and revel in our successes, we are losing fellow Jews all around us at astounding rates to intermarriage and lack of engagement.
I still believe, as I did in 2013, that the way to stem the tide is through personal, informal peer to peer relationships. The best representatives of Jewish life are “regular” Jews who live Jewish lives, who prioritize family time, are multigenerational, discuss ideas, enjoy and cherish Judaism, and at the same time are relatable as family, friends and colleagues. I now believe, however, that grassroots efforts are not going to be enough. There has to be more of a concerted effort from our rabbis, lay leaders and the Orthodox media to impress upon our communities what a dire need this is and what a tragedy the Jewish nation is experiencing outside the safe walls in which we are ensconced. The message cannot be overstated; we are losing the vast majority of our people to assimilation and intermarriage, and I shudder at the thought that we are “playing the fiddle while Rome burns.”
The majority of our brothers and sisters who are unaffiliated are not anti-religious, they have just never been exposed to the depth, beauty and warmth of Jewish living.
There is one factor that exists today that did not exist to the same degree eight years ago, and may, for better and worse, aid in our efforts to reach the unaffiliated masses: anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2019 and 2020 had over 2,000 reported incidents of harassment, vandalism and assaults on Jews and Jewish institutions across the United States, some of the highest numbers on record since 1979. During Operation Guardian of the Wall, the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased 115 percent compared to the same time the previous year. Synagogue shootings, random attacks on people in the streets, at restaurants or at a Chanukah party and vitriol spewed on Twitter and TikTok are all sobering and painful reminders that no matter how we choose to identify ourselves, to those who hate us, we will always be Jews. In Nazi Germany in the 1930s, a large swath of the Jewish community was similarly assimilated into the prevailing culture. There was also an onslaught of hatred and anti-Semitism. As a response to being targeted, Jews were forced to reckon with their Judaism. They did not all become Orthodox Jews, but they could no longer be complacent either, and they began to invest time, thought and effort into exploring their history and heritage. Chazal tell us: “The removal of Achashverosh’s signet ring was greater than the forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel, for they were all unable to return the Jewish nation to the path of righteousness whereas the removal of the signet ring did return the Jewish people to the path of righteousness” (Megillah 14a). The unfortunate reality is that when we are threatened from the outside, we have nowhere else to turn but within. We look to our fellow Jews for comfort and strength, and we look to see why Judaism matters so much. None of us wish for an increase in hate crimes and anti-Semitism. It is disturbing and frightening. It may, however, play the role it did for the Jews in ancient Persia or for the Jews in Nazi Germany and help bring our lost brothers and sisters back to their roots and back to their people.
When reflecting on the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, said: “Perhaps we should add another al chet in our Yom Kippur confessional ‘for the sins we have committed in being unresponsive to the cries of our brethren in Europe who were being brutally slaughtered’” (Reflections of the Rav, p. 68). When a significant portion of our population is at risk of being destroyed, physically or spiritually, we have an obligation to intercede and do whatever it takes to save fellow Jews. And there is accountability when we don’t do enough. Let us not be the generation that has to add yet another al chet, for the sins we have committed by being unresponsive to the 80 percent of our brethren in our own backyard who are fading into oblivion through assimilation.
Rabbi Steven Weil is CEO of Friends of the IDF. He is a former senior managing director of the OU and an active OU volunteer and donor.