The more I read of Jonathan Sarna, the more impressed I am with him personally, but the more I fear for institutional Judaism. Sarna is intelligent, considered, insightful and articulate, but he’s also an historian, and my feeling is that movements led by historians and sociologists rather than activists and entrepreneurs are already moving into their exhibit space at the museum.

I bring this up to comment on Sarna’s recent article in Reform Judaism Online, published by the URJ. Sarna has some thoughts to share looking backwards, and a few predictions for the future Judaism, inlcuding:

  1. In the past, economic crises have caused American Judaism to turn inward and away from Israel and its troubles. It has also gutted educational spending, with terrible consequence.
  2. Jewish institutional life tends to benefit from expansions in government services and social safety nets, as these free up significant funds and manpower for Jewish charities and social service organizations.
  3. Expect to see lots of Jewish organizations go under, particularly in the hard-hit Orthodox sector, as we finally learn whose been swimming naked as the tide goes out.  Mergers between Jewish instutions will increase, as will mergers between Jewish and non-Jewish institutions.

He’s got quite a few others, but I particularly want to focus on Dr. Sarna’s prediction that, as in the 1930s, American Judaism will turn inwards, and disengage to some extent with Israel. As evidence, Sarna cites the fact that fewer Jews are attending summer-long or semester-long programs in Israel.

My main objection to that piece of evidence is that  it discounts Birthright Israel, which has sent over 200,000 Jews to Israel over the last decade. Much of the decline in summer and semester programs in Israel can be attributed  to the fact that participants in those trips are ineligible for a Birthright tour, and many high-school students in particular have declined to go to Israel with their youth movements, synagogues, or schools precisely because they prefer to go on Birthright for free.

In any case, Sarna also points out that entirely endogamous Jewish couples are outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 by intermarried couples. If roughly 50 out of 100 Jews marry other Jews, you get 25 endogamous couples. That leaves another 50 Jews marrying 50 non-Jews, and thus you get that 2-to-1 ratio that is simply astonishing. Judaism in America has already been redefined on the ground, and we’re still left sorting out exactly what that might mean.