Outside of Mormons, Adventists and some Pentecostals in Latin America, Africa and Asia, most Christian denominations are losing members. But they are not alone. Jewish losses might even be proportionately higher.
After surviving conquests and diasporas, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, Jewish existence as a people is again threatened, but this time by their own success. Acceptance, assimilation, a decreasing birth rate, a trend among young Jews toward a more secular existence, and marriage outside the faith are all causing concern among older traditional Jews. As Jewish scholar Alan Dershowitz recently pointed out, “the very success of Jews as individuals has contributed to their vulnerability as a people.”
Judaism has experienced some of its greatest growth during periods of extreme persecution. But, according to Dershowitz, “As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, not to mention the lowest birth rate of any ethnic or religious community in the United States, the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may be coming to an end. Due to their disproportionate visibility, influence and accomplishments, American Jews have made enormous contributions to science, medicine, the law, the arts and, especially, charitable giving. But our numbers may be reduced to the point where our impact on American life may become marginalized.”
Out-of-proportion contributions? During World War II Jews comprised 3.3% of the U. S. population but made up 4.3% of the U. S. armed forces. Of American Nobel Prize winners, 37%, or eighteen times their percentage of the population, have been Jewish Americans. In countless other fields Jews have contributed far beyond to their actual population numbers.
As many as half of today’s young Jews refer to themselves as ethnic, but not necessarily religious Jews and almost half marry outside their faith. Older, more traditional Jews have long feared assimilation almost as much as persecution as a threat to their continued existence as a distinct people. And there is a good reason for this.
Judaism’s troubled past of discrimination and persecution has acted as a unifying force for the preservation of their faith and traditions. But today, outside of the Muslim Middle East and a few Skin Heads, anti-Semitism in its former fury hardly exists today. And whereas the first waves of Jewish immigrants tended to huddle together in America’s larger cities, mostly in the northeast, today many third and fourth-generation Jews have moved to the interior of the country and to the suburbs. They are fast becoming dispersed and “mainstreamed” in line with general American population trends. Today many Jewish groups are emphasizing the cultural as opposed to the racial and religious aspects of their Jewishness as way of distinguishing themselves in a society that is fast absorbing and neutralizing their historical uniqueness.
Is there a logical explanation for Jewish high achievement, or are they simply smarter than the rest of us? Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews tend to have slightly higher IQs than the world average while Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern) Jews are about average. But throughout their history Jewish communities have traditionally educated all their children (males, that is, until relatively recent times), not just the children of the wealthy. I think this has been a major contributor to Jewish excellence in so many different fields. Shouldn’t there be a lesson here for the rest of us?
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at email@example.com.