I. The Beginnings of American Jewry
North America’s first Jews arrived in 1654 aboard the “St. Charles,” sailing with a desperate shipload that brought 23 Spanish-Portuguese Jews to New Amsterdam as they fled from the vestiges of the European Inquisition that had come to the New World in Spain’s and Portugal’s South American colonies. These Jews sought refuge in New Amsterdam, the sole Dutch colony among the original thirteen colonies that eventually would comprise the United States. The Dutch had been among the friendliest European countries for Jews, as Holland itself had to ward off the perils of Catholic intolerance amid the Catholic Crusades, Inquisitions, and other Christian religious wars that dominated Western Europe during those centuries.
In time, those first “American Jews” found themselves confronted with a most anti-Semitic force, Peter Stuyvesant, then the governor of the North American Dutch colony. Peg-legged and crusty, Stuyvesant barred Jews from participating in the common defense of the colony and instead demanded that Jews pay a special tax levied on them alone, to pay for not serving. One defiant holdout, Asser Levy, insisted on serving in the military defense and refused to pay the tax. He fought Stuyvesant and won. Today, there is a small intersection of streets in lower Manhattan named Asser Levy Square. No one knows whom that space is named for. There is also a prominent New York City public school, one of the city’s three or four finest, named Stuyvesant High School. Through most of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, much of that top school’s student body was comprised of Jews. No one knows — or cares — whom that school is named for. And in that first Jewish encounter with Stuyvesant, there may be seen a metaphor describing the entirety of the American Jewish experience.
The experience of American Jews is comprised of three main waves of immigration, followed by processes of assimilation. First came the earliest 25,000 Jews, the Spanish and Portuguese who survived Catholic Crusades, Inquisitions, and Blood Lies. They were moderately Orthodox and Old Worldly. Then came the secular, anti-Orthodox, German Reform Jews who arrived between 1840 and 1880, fleeing reactionary Germany during the Age of Metternich. Those 250,000 Jewish newcomers to America outnumbered the landed Sephardic community by ten-to-one and redefined the very meaning of being a Jew in America. They established American Jewry’s institutions: charitable Jewish Federations, fraternal orders like B’nai B’rith, and low-key defense agencies like the American Jewish Committee and, amid the Leo Frank lynching, the Anti-Defamation League. They worked hard to assimilate. And then came the East Europeans.
II. The East European Immigration of 1881-1914
From 1881 (when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by radical revolutionaries, followed by the “May Laws” of 1882) through1914 (when America sealed its borders to foreigners, as World War I erupted), a tsunami of Jewish immigration numbering 3,250,000 Jews from Eastern Europe burst onto the American scene. Overwhelming the prior landed German Jews by more than ten-to-one, the religious among these “Orientals” were profoundly more Orthodox than the Reform “Occidentals” on the scene, even as the secular among them were more extremely radical than anything the German Jews could imagine. Arriving in the millions with long beards and peyot (sideburn curls that many Orthodox do not cut), their look and practices terrified the assimilated Reform German Jews, who feared that these “Ostjuden” (Jews from the East) would stoke anti-Semitism in the New World. These newcomers wore obvious Jewish religious head coverings. The German Reform Jews mocked those head coverings, which they felt resembled the look of Eastern Orthodox Christian clerics, and they disparagingly called these newly arrived religious people “The Orthodox.” The name stuck.
By now landed and feeling some security as they endeavored to be indistinguishable from their Christian neighbors in this New World, the German Reform Jews urgently organized programs and schemes to break up the concentrated settlements of Orthodox East European newcomers and to scatter them across the country. Meeting many immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island, these Jewish “philanthropists” would put them immediately back on other boats and ship them to Galveston, Texas or to other cities. They tried to make farmers out of the newcomers, in an era where the main anti-Semitic stereotype that was rampant in America — and intensified at the Democrat National Convention of 1896 after Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” speech — associated Jews with banking, investing, and Wall Street finance. So the German Jewish investment financiers donated to Jewish philanthropies shipping newcomers to lightly populated northern New York State in the Catskill Mountains and to Vineland, New Jersey, to make them farmers. (The schemes failed, and many of those families instead turned their farms into hotel resorts.) Continually, the landed Reform Jews established institutions aimed at the single goal of assimilating the newcomers, to not only blend them into America’s “melting pot” but to dissolve them.
The radicalism of German Reform Judaism was so shocking to the newcomers that many sought a more tempered, conservative approach to “modernizing” Judaism, creating “Conservative Judaism.” Among the early founders of that movement were several of the prominent American Orthodox rabbis who expected and intended for that movement to be Orthodox in practice. In time, however, Conservative Judaism would depart from Torah observance, and newer and more carefully focused Torah-observant efforts ensued, resulting in the founding of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (“OU”) and the planting of Agudath Israel onto American soil. Meanwhile, one Friday night, at an “Oneg Shabbat” program organized on the Lower East Side to “Americanize” East European Jewish young adults, the prominent Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise came to speak and teach them about American ways and values. To pay for the program, held at a local garment button factory, organizers passed a hat around the meeting room that asking people to donate money. Many of the young adults, shocked and appalled by the desecration of Shabbat, instead filled the hats with buttons lying around the factory. Days later, they gathered and founded their alternative Americanizing program that would teach young adults American values while simultaneously honoring Orthodox Judaism. They called themselves “Young Israel.” The playing field now was set for the Reform assimilationists and the newly arrived Torah-observant to embrace America over the next century.
III. The State of American Jewry a Century Later — The Superficial Successes
The established American German Jews, who had arrived half a century ahead of the East European Jews, made their bargain with America: in return for greater tolerance and even eventual acceptance, the Jews would abandon much of what made them unique as Jews. By today, outside the Orthodox population of American Jewry, that bargain presently manifests. Much of America’s historic genteel anti-Semitism seems, on the surface, to have disappeared. In return, except for the Orthodox Jews of America, much in America of what historically has defined Jews as Jews also has disappeared. For the non-Orthodox, with intermarriage rates above 50 percent, it is the Liberal Democrat agenda that today comprises their “Jewish” religion. For example, outside the Orthodox, American Jews proved to be Barack Obama’s most reliable Caucasian constituency in both his Presidential campaigns, as he garnered well more than 80 percent of the non-Orthodox American Jewish vote even though Obama, by any yardstick, is not identified as Israel’s best friend. The overwhelmingly one-sided support for the Democrat candidate, any Democrat candidate, a phenomenon that has been repeated through virtually every American election this past century, speaks not so much to “political affiliation” but to social agendas. For those Jewish voters, their focus is not on the candidate who will best support Israel — nor, for that matter, on the candidate who will best support interests parochial to Jews. Rather, he is the one most certain to pursue a liberal agenda.
Along the way, Jewish political influence in America substantially has dropped from what existed thirty and forty years ago. This reduction of influence was reflected most recently in the failed effort to oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal. Even large numbers of Jews in Congress voted for the deal, and the few who voted against were circumspect to oppose in a low-key manner that assured the deal’s passage.
Jews in America also matter less numerically today. At one point, half a century ago, there were six million American Jews, comprising three percent of America’s population of 200 million. Today that percentage has decreased by fully one-third: There are some 300 million Americans today, but still only six million Jews, and actually fewer when “patrilineal” non-Jews are excluded from the count, reducing the Jewish percentage of the population to less than two percent. At the same time, by way of comparison, America’s Arab population has grown from one million to somewhere between two and three million people during the same period.
Superficially, the Jewish population seems more prominent and influential in America today than ever before. An Orthodox Jew, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, ran as a Vice Presidential candidate in 2000 on the ticket headed by Al Gore in their unsuccessful race against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Barack Obama’s closest advisors have included Jews like David Axelrod, his chief campaign advisor, and Rahm Emanuel, his first White House Chief of Staff. Until a recent New York City election, the mayors of America’s three most prominent cities all were Jewish: New York City (Michael Bloomberg), Chicago (Rahm Emanuel, having moved back there from Washington, D.C.), and Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti, son of a Jewish mother). Similarly, although comprising only two percent of America’s population, Jews comprise nine of the 100 United States Senators (and typically count a tenth, Diane Feinstein, although she is not actually Jewish). Jews comprise approximately 5 percent of the House of Representatives. The probable Democrat candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, has a Jewish son-in-law, married to the Clintons’ only child.
In the Ivy League, comprising some of America’s most highly regarded universities, where the numbers of Jewish students and faculty once had been severely restricted by targeted anti-Jewish quotas as late as the 1950s, virtually every Ivy League university has had a Jewish university president in the past decade, and Jewish student enrollments far out-distance the Jewish percentages of the population, with Jews comprising at least 25 percent of the Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and University of Pennsylvania student populations, 20 percent at Cornell, and 15 percent at Brown. There are now three Jewish United States Supreme Court justices among the nine. (There never had been any until Louis Brandeis ascended to the Court in 1916.)
So it would seem that American Jews, whose doctors once could not gain admittance privileges at prestigious hospitals, whose attorneys once could not gain entry into any prestigious American law firms, whose executives could not gain admittance into American banking, and who could not gain admittance into alumni and fraternal societies or country clubs, never have had it better. So it would seem.
IV. The State of American Jewry a Century Later — Beneath the Surface
However, beneath the surface of the extraordinary attainments and the successes described above, the deeper truth requires considering carefully the price of this “success.” To be a son-in-law to the Clintons means marrying a Methodist at a ceremony where a reform rabbi co-officiates with a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. William Shillady. Although Jews speak glibly about the “minyan” in the United States Senate, the reality is that, except for Lieberman, few of those senators would know which way to hold a siddur (prayer book) — and Lieberman no longer holds office. Indeed, Lieberman himself, when he ran for Vice President, found that the price to pay America for such acceptance included changing his position on moving America's Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He gave a radio interview during the campaign stating that he saw nothing wrong with intermarriage between Jews and Christians.
The price of acceptance in America has included a dramatic change in voting priorities and concerns for American Jews. Half a century ago, candidates for President knew that the New York primary would demand not only eating a knish in Brooklyn and a bagel in Queens but also staking out strong positions favoring Israel. The second half of that equation no longer holds true. Democrat Presidential candidates campaigning in New York now know that the Jewish vote is in their pockets, secure and dependable, regardless of their stand on Israel. Thus, a Barack Obama could generate a decade of conflict with Israel and her leaders, clash with Israel over an Iran nuclear deal, insist on unilateral Israeli concessions, and press for a return to pre-June 1967 boundaries in Israel, all without sacrificing Jewish support and financial backing. Similarly, his aspiring Democrat successor, Hillary Clinton, could demand Israeli “settlement freezes” and even scream at Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the phone when she was U.S. Secretary of State, demanding that Israel be barred from building Jewish homes even in East Jerusalem, and yet she can rely on Jews to fund her and back her Presidential campaign, even as she could depend on Jews to elect her to the United States Senate from New York.
Meanwhile by contrast, strongly pro-Israel Republican Presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (who never uses the term “West Bank,” but instead speaks of “Judea and Samaria”), Sen. Ted Cruz (who famously walked out of a mass gathering of Lebanese Americans, after they booed a pro-Israel comment he made, and told them that “If you will not stand with Israel, I will not stand with you”), Gov. Mike Huckabee, and others have had only the most modest of success in attracting Jewish support outside of limited circles. Instead, their strongest pro-Israel supporters have been the Christian evangelical community.
Thus, American Jews have paid a serious price for acceptance in the United States. Along the way, well-funded demographic surveys have found that American Jews marry later than do others, have fewer children than do others, and therefore are experiencing a marked population reduction and paid aging of the population, even as intermarriage rates skyrocket and affiliations with even non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism recede. To bolster their sagging numbers, amid the striking population decline and surging intermarriage rates, Reform Judaism had to redefine Jewish identity by also including as “Jews” those who are born to non-Jewish mothers, as long as they have a Jewish father. That urgent change to “patrilineal descent” saved Reform temples from closing, as they could expand the population of children and paying families enrolled in their “bar/bat mitzvah” programs and “Hebrew Schools,” the center-piece of reform temple revenue streams. Meanwhile, Conservative Judaism is sustaining enormous losses, as they desperately try to increase their numbers by adopting, on delayed bases, most innovations previously initiated by Reform.
The only Jewish population in America that is growing, even surging, within the American Jewish community are the Orthodox. According to the most definitive population survey done, the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, since 1990 American Orthodox adult congregants have doubled. Orthodox youth have quadrupled: in 1990 there were 85,000 American Orthodox Jews under age 17; today that number is 350,000. In New York City’s five borough’s today, Orthodox children comprise 74 percent of all Jewish children, and they comprise 61 percent of all Jewish children in the Greater New York region including Westchester and Long Island. The intensity and passion of Orthodox Jews in prioritizing Jewish concerns and religious practices is profound. Moreover, voting patterns among Orthodox Jews are opposite those of other American Jews, with more voting Republican in recent years, motivated by their heightened concerns over Israel, which they prioritize.
No Jewish community outside Israel ever has survived the Exile, and American Jewish life will not be permanent either. As we recite every Shabbat at Musaf: “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land and have been [driven] from our soil.” In America today outside the Orthodox community, Jewish dissolution and disappearance already is quite apace. Meanwhile, Orthodox parents likewise must contend against a brutal and coarse culture that grates against the values of a Torah society. The cost of a Jewish Day School education in America, the most reliable defense against the social and cultural challenges, has skyrocketed to unbearably costly levels. As American Jews go forward, theirs is the epoch described in a different context by Charles Dickens at the outset of A Tale of Two Cities: It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.
Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of General Sharon’s War Against Time. His political commentaries have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, Los Angeles Times, and others. He is an adjunct professor of law at two law schools, Rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.