Today’s thin-skinned culture demands that I be offended that Sherwin Pomerantz “disagreed” with my recent article, “The Non-Negotiable Judaism My Parents Gave Me.” But his response thrilled me, even if half his argument misfires.
I hoped my article would trigger debate — rather than be squashed by Conservative Jewry’s powers that be. Many have spent the last half-century demonizing anyone who dared to yell that the Conservative Emperor had no clothes — that American Jewry’s once-reigning religious movement had lost its way ideologically and theologically, not just demographically. So I thank Pomerantz for his serious, thought-provoking response.
I also deeply appreciate the many heartfelt — often anguished — responses I have received since the Jewish Journal published my article. Those of us who grew up in the Conservative movement and went Zionist or Orthodox or both don’t delight in Conservatism’s drift; most of us lament its inability to inspire others as it inspired us.
So, yes, I agree with Pomerantz that mid-century Conservative Jews’ central failure was that “in the absence of any long-term commitment to religious observance, they had not been able to convey the same level of religious feeling to their children.” Traditionally, Jews alternated between fearing God and fearing anti-Semites; in the Conservative world my parents raised me in, many leaders feared their congregants, and most congregants feared their kids. As I argued in my essay, the constant defensive worry about whether “they” will show up or stay Jewish put too many people on guilt trips without launching enough satisfying, sustaining Jewish journeys, guided by a bedrock faith in God or a non-negotiable commitment to Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel.
Tragically, as more people drifted away, rather than having the deep, soul-searching, self-critical debate they needed about where they went wrong, too many Conservative rabbis and leaders tended to ask what was wrong with anyone who asked such questions. Before the coronavirus, you could witness what these decades of denial wrought in the many empty seats every Saturday morning, which turned American Jewry’s grandest cathedrals into Grand Canyons.
Pomerantz and I part ways in two critical junctures. First, he should beware of an uncalled-for Orthodox triumphalism celebrating Conservatism’s collapse. The numbers of religious Jews in America and Israel are quite sobering, too. Only 10% of American Jews are Orthodox — with a mere three percent identifying as “Modern Orthodox.” The 2013 Pew study reported that half of those raised Orthodox abandoned it — although retention rates among younger Orthodox Jews are improving. The Jewish Virtual Library reports that of Israeli Jews over 20 in 2020, only 11% identify as religious while 10% are ultra-Orthodox.
Most categorically, I reject Pomerantz’s claim that the Conservative movement succeeded as “a transitional movement that ‘conserved’ American Judaism for the ultimate resurgence of Orthodoxy.” That argument disrespects Conservative Judaism’s mission to serve as a sustainable form of Jewish life. Pomerantz’s conclusion is like deciding the Boston Red Sox succeeded by cultivating Babe Ruth’s hitting skills before trading him to the New York Yankees, or that Americans appreciated the military experience they gave Benedict Arnold before he switched over to the British.
This “Conservadoxing” phenomenon Pomerantz toasts is also quite marginal overall. Although Pew tracked the dramatic drift from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to unaffiliated to intermarried, the researchers found very little “switching in the opposite direction. For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.”
Jewish historians know that over the millennia, many more Jews left the fold voluntarily by assimilating rather than being bullied or killed by Jew-haters — by many orders of magnitude. And American historians know that over the decades, the lure of America’s New World identity has weakened most Americans’ Old World ethnic and religious ties. Therefore, the challenge from my parents, from the serious Conservative movement of my youth and from my article remains: What positive vision of old-new Pilates Jewishness, strong at its core, shaped by non-negotiable bottom lines, will work — not to keep our kids Jewish out of guilt, but to keep them doing Jewish regularly, meaningfully, out of their own pride and passion?
I warmly invite Sherwin Pomerantz for coffee as a fellow Jerusalemite, where we can toast the most wildly successful modern experiment in keeping Jews Jewish — from generation to generation, be they secular or religious — Zionism!
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.