OMAHA, Neb. — At least a portion of my hometown of Omaha, Neb., may well be under water in the coming days. Pumps are in place at various locations, including at a nuclear power plant located not far from town. The Missouri River, which borders our city, has risen to potentially dangerous levels. Some Omaha residents have taken to sandbagging to help reinforce critical locations along the river.
This potential disaster mirrors the serious challenge facing the non-Orthodox Jewish world.
Non-Orthodox Judaism is confronted by rising levels of secularism that almost always lead to assimilation — a trend that within a generation or two could render Reform and Conservative Judaism largely irrelevant in North America (and abroad as well). Non-Orthodox Jews’ general discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life, left alone, stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence.
This prediction is neither original nor new. From studies about very high interfaith marriage rates to growing assimilation percentages, we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by just about every metric we have at our disposal. (I am not Orthodox, by the way.) Some may not like reading these words and others may be angered by them, but like the flood facing Omaha, it’s hard to ignore what one sees.
This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., God-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose. So Jews increasingly try to find their Judaic meaning in social/political causes (immigration reform, Supreme Court appointments, environmentalism, women’s rights, etc.). Putting aside the merit of the positions taken, let’s be honest: These tikkun olam pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.
We’re losing Jews and the commitment of Jews far too quickly to think that we can afford to continue on as we are. If Jews continue to prioritize these social/political efforts over proven religious practices, we must have the courage to acknowledge that we have substituted all these secular causes for Judaism.
We can’t have it both ways. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation.
I watch with sadness as the seminaries of our non-Orthodox movements lay off employees and close programs. National non-Orthodox day school attendance represents only a small percentage of Jewish children in the United States. And it’s not because the economy started spiraling downward — the trends leading to this point were in place long before.
Orthodox Jews, for whatever disagreements many non-Orthodox Jews have with them, have grown in number, and not only by sheltering themselves in haredi Orthodox communities. In contrast to the haredi Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox largely swim in the same secular waters as other Jews: They own televisions, use the Internet, attend secular universities, and work and vacation in the secular world.
But they also hold to a religious discipline that they believe is life improving. They observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and they study Jewish texts in far greater numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. They are more likely to have children, and their children are far more likely to marry Jews and make Jewish homes.
Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, businesspeople, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and when to fight evil. In short, Judaism done right makes us better human beings. It is the discipline of leading a traditional Jewish life that also reminds us how best to engage in repairing the world.
Ironically, by overemphasizing tikkun olam we could ultimately, through lack of Jewish knowledge and experience, lose the very impetus that put us in the tikkun olam business in the first place.
Must every Jew become Orthodox to live a committed and meaningful Jewish life? Clearly not. There are, of course, great numbers of highly committed non-Orthodox Jews. But as a community, at least for now, we’ll be severely weakened if we don’t acknowledge that we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world.
(Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federations of North America, formerly known as United Jewish Communities.)