Where Have America's Jews Gone?

Article excerpt

Reviewing a book on religion, especially one like "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America" - with its deep and moving personal thrust - calls for a different approach by a reviewer who shares some of the author's boyhood history. For in this important book Elliott Abrams, a successful Washington lawyer, opens his plea for a return to the faith of his fathers with a bit of autobiography.

So I, too, as they say in the House of Commons, must "declare my interest," and mention a bit of my own background: I write as a Jew with an upbringing similar to Mr. Abrams', though not a concurrently shared religious faith. I do share Mr. Abrams' politics and admire his record as a high-ranking State Department official in the Reagan administration.

I was born and raised on New York's lower East Side as an orthodox and observant Jew slated for the rabbinate. I broke with - or rather strayed from - the faith of my fathers undramatically, sometime after my high school graduation.

With that preface, let me turn to the testament of Mr. Abrams, now president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He describes himself as "a somewhat observant Conservative Jew," as distinct from the Orthodox faith. He begins with this statement:

"My wife and I want our children to identify as Jews, marry Jews, and raise their own children as Jews, but at the same time we want them to move freely in this open society. . . . We teach them what we believe: that the covenant of Abraham abides today and that they have been blessed to be born into it."

Confronting the author's hopes for the future is what he calls "a demographic disaster," the decline, even the possible dissolution of the Jewish community in the United States. Social phenomena like assimilation, intermarriage, low fertility, the growth of secularism and residential mobility are responsible for what Alan M. Dershowitz has called "the vanishing American Jew."

In 1957, 94 percent of American Jews lived in exclusively Jewish households. Today, only two-thirds do. Mr. Abrams predicts that, because the social integration of Jews is today widely accepted in America, intermarriage is likely to increase.

Thus, paradoxically, the continuing decline in anti-Semitism which has led to a full membership for Jews in American society may be a major factor in undermining their collective identity. …