There are, however, also significant signs of a movement back to the center in Jewish life, especially at the lay level. The vast majority of American Jews identify themselves as standing somewhere in the middle of the Jewish religious spectrum, from Centrist Orthodox to Centrist Reform, and it is these Jews who are most appalled by the specter of a communal schism. Most Jewish lay leaders come from this group, and they form a strong force speaking out on behalf of Jewry's "vital center." Like the assimilation-revival conundrum, the question of whether the center will re-emerge or schism will result is actually being decided on the ground wherever Jews gather.

Finally, uncertainty surrounds the question of whether 21st-century American Jews will be able to identify a mission compelling enough for the American Jewish community to become passionate about and rally around. The great causes that once energized and invigorated American Jewry -- immigrant absorption, saving European Jewry, creating and sustaining a Jewish state, rescuing Soviet, Arab, and Ethiopian Jews -- all of these great missions have now been successfully completed.

There are, to be sure, no shortage of important secular and universal causes that American Jews can and do embrace, from environmentalism and gay rights to world hunger and animal rights, and these are all significant causes, many of them with a sound basis in Jewish tradition. But these are not, ultimately, Jewish causes, in the way that Zionism and the Soviet Jewry movement certainly were. Diaspora Jews today are the poorer for not having found a well-defined, elevating mission to inspire them. It remains to be seen whether such a new and compelling mission can in fact be formulated.

Rather than concluding on this note of uncertainty, however, let us instead recall that problems, crises, and anticipated catastrophes -- many of them far worse than anything that American Jews are currently experiencing -- cascade through Jewish history. They are what make Jews, in Simon Rawidowicz's famous phrase, the "ever-dying people." The fact that Jews have so often defied the odds and continued to survive testifies to the value of their being highly attuned to such problems. Complacency, Jews know, is a luxury that they can never afford.

[A fuller version of this article is available on the Patheos Jewish Portal. A modified version of this article will appear in a volume to be published by Georgetown University. Please do not quote or reprint without the author's permission.]

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Dubbed by the Forward newspaper in 2004 as one of America's fifty most influential American Jews, he was Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community, and is recognized as a leading commentator on American Jewish history, religion and life. In addition, he serves as chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Dr. Sarna has written, edited, or co-edited more than twenty books, including the new A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young JewHe is best known for the acclaimed American Judaism: A History. Winner of the Jewish Book Council's "Jewish Book of the Year Award" in 2004, it has been praised as being "the single best description of American Judaism during its 350 years on American soil."