An Ex-Ambassador To Israel Gets It Wrong

Dan Shapiro, who served as the American ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, recently addressed a panel on Israeli-Diaspora relations at a Tel Aviv conference organized by the Anti-Defamation League.

Inter alia, he remarked:

“There is an idea that has some currency in certain circles around the Israeli government that says, ‘You know what, we can write off [the non-Orthodox] segment of American Jewry because in a couple of generations their children or grandchildren will assimilate. So let’s focus on the Orthodox who are an important constituency but smaller… we can sustain our support from the American public by… being dismissive of Jewish progressives.’”

Mr. Shapiro, who affiliates with a Conservative movement congregation in Washington, D.C., went on to call that attitude “dangerous” and a “moral mistake.” He also challenged predictions about the future of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community. “I think,” he conceded, “that there are assimilation trends and challenges that the Jewish community faces, but to believe that two-thirds of the community is going to drop off the table is a bad misread of demographics.”

The former ambassador was particularly critical of the Israeli government’s freezing of a decision to build an elaborate “prayer space” at the Kosel Maaravi.

In those remarks, he echoed Reform clergyman Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who not long ago penned an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had told reporters that the non-Orthodox movements are using the Kosel as a means of achieving official recognition in Israel via “the backdoor.”

The Reform leader informed the Prime Minister that Israel’s recognition of the American heterodox movements has been those movements’ open and public goal for years. The Kosel is just a means, in other words, as Mr. Netanyahu correctly observed, of advancing that goal.

Both the Reform leader and the former ambassador, moreover, asserted that there is a “crisis” among the majority of American Jews born of Israel’s acceptance of a single Jewish religious standard.

There is no “crisis” among American Jews, at least not in the way the two men imply. What there is is a looming demographic downturn for non-Orthodox American Jewry, despite Mr. Shapiro’s attempt to dismiss the fact. Non-Orthodox American Jewry may not be poised to “drop off the table.” But there is very little hope that it has a very bright future.

More than 30% of American Jews, according to the Pew Research Center, have no affiliation with any Jewish movement at all. Those Jews are not likely to pass on a strong Jewish identity, or care much about internal Israeli affairs — if even about Israel in general.

A mere 14% of American Jews, moreover, belong to Reform temples and a mere 11% to Conservative congregations, according to Professors Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen. (And those percentages include unknown numbers of “Jews by choice” whose conversions are not recognized by halachah.) And what percentage of those percentages actually care about Israel’s religious standards is unknown.

By contrast, virtually the entire American Orthodox community has substantial interest in Israel — her security and her religious stances. And American Orthodox Jews, of course, are overwhelmingly more likely than other American Jews to visit and even move to Israel.

What’s more, only 17% of the Americans who even just claim to be “Reform,” and 13% of those who claim some affiliation with the Conservative movement are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 24% of Orthodox Jews in that age category. No less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

What that means is that the American Jewish future, projected from current demographic data, will be increasingly Orthodox.

And the heterodox movements have certainly not made much progress in Israel. A recent survey commissioned by “Panim,” an Israeli umbrella organization of 60 groups sympathetic to “Jewish religious pluralism,” revealed that the percentage of parents of Israeli students attending government schools who define themselves as Reform or Conservative is 0.4 percent. Less than half a percent.

So, with all due respect to Mr. Shapiro, Israeli leaders are being entirely reasonable to care much about the Orthodox segment of American Jewry. Taking the Torah-world’s concerns seriously — whether about political matters or religious ones like maintaining halachic standards for personal status issues or respecting the sanctity of the Kosel — is not being “dismissive” of other American Jews, but rather sensitive to the demographic facts, which clearly reflect what has preserved and protected Klal Yisrael over millennia, and what will continue to into the future.