The changing face of American Jewry

By Avi Beker

Haaretz

Kislev 5, 5765

The question arose this year, as it does every year: what should be the focus of the discussions held at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, which took place this week in Cleveland? And as they do every year, the cynics noted that yet again the main agenda items are assimilation, which continues apace, and the difficulty encountered by the fundraising apparatus to respond to the communities' needs.

Some observers also cite the low number of participants this year - about 2,500 Jews - at what is the largest and most important gathering of organized American Jewry, a symbol of the power of the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. And once again, experts in the U.S. and Israel lament the overly decentralized structure of the Jewish community in America, which lacks a central authority that might radiate leadership and outline clearly defined challenges.

Nevertheless, the secret of the strength of the American Jewish community lies in its very decentralization and the lack of centralized planning. There are more than 2,000 Jewish organizations and some 700 Jewish federations in America, as well as thousands of synagogues. The Jewish community displays its vitality through an immense array of institutions and organizations, which necessarily creates redundancies. But the decentralization accurately reflects the American political culture and the belief - also reflected in the economic system - that supply and demand will take care of these matters.

The issue of support for Israel may constitute a major factor among participants in the General Assembly, but it is less significant when it comes to discussions and decisions. On the other hand, the GA is important when it comes to formulating decisions on the amount of assistance rendered to Jewish communities around the world, including Israel. In this area, the participants will have to consider the possible implications of cutbacks in the federal education, health and welfare budget allocations as a result of the increased budgetary deficit.

But in the big picture, changes taking place in Jewish society are largely similar to the changes taking place on the general American scene. The approximately 25-percent increase in the number of Jewish voters for Bush and Republican congressional candidates is not only a factor of Bush's attitude toward Israel; it signals a much more substantive process among American Jews - the reinforcement of conservative and traditional attitudes.

Every few years, it seems, the American Jewish community witnesses a significant demographic revolution in which the percentage of Orthodox Jews grows, both in absolute numbers and in terms of more active participation in Jewish and general political life. The Orthodox overwhelmingly voted for Bush and the Republicans not only because of their positions on the Israeli-Arab conflict but also, they claim, due to their sense of identification with the Republican's social and religious values.

The Orthodox outlook, which is also seeping into the more liberal Jewish constituencies, constitutes a substantial shift from the traditional Jewish position, which backed the liberal line of clear separation of religion and state, and was inclined toward the left on issues of individual rights such as abortion and homosexuality. Increasingly, more Jews feel a commonality of interests with evangelical Christians.

Organized Orthodox Judaism is now closer than ever to the power centers of American politics. The Orthodox represent only 10 percent of the Jewish population, but they are at the hub of activity in Jewish organizations and federations, and their share of leadership positions is growing.

More than 70 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Bush (as opposed to 70 percent of all Jews, who voted for Kerry). And as David Zwiebel, one of the heads of Agudath Israel of America, explains, from now on the Orthodox will be recognized, by both the administration and the general Jewish population, by their new standing as a leading political force in the Jewish community.

Bush's victory, and the increased influence of believing Christians that helped to fuel that victory, will have an effect on internal processes at work in the Jewish community.