American Jews in the New Millennium: Transformation and Uncertainty

Jonathan D. SarnaBy Jonathan D. Sarna

Prophecy is a dangerous assignment for an historian of American Judaism. A cursory examination of the history of prophecies about Jews, whether in America or elsewhere, discloses that a great many of them through the years have proved wrong. The oldest recorded mention of the name Israel is, in a sense, such a prophecy. It is included in an Egyptian hymn of victory dating to Pharoah Mer-nep-tah (about 1230 B.C.E.), and it reads, "Israel is laid waste, his seed is not [i.e. his offspring is wiped out]" (Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, 231). We know that things worked out rather differently; in fact, the Pharaohs were eventually wiped out, while Israel lived on. In short, as somebody once said, "Prophecy is very difficult, especially about the future." This may be worth bearing in mind as we proceed.

In this spirit, I want to point to four transformations affecting American Jewry in the 21st century. And then I want to point to three areas of uncertainty concerning the community's future -- areas where it seems to me that the evidence is not yet in, visions are contested, and the future is being shaped (even as we speak) by the actions of contemporary American Jews.

The first transformation that is impacting upon Jewish life in the United States is demographic. In the 21st century, it is safe to predict, the American Jewish community will shrink both absolutely (the number of Jews will decline) and also relatively (the percentage of Jews within the total U.S. population will also decline). Jews form between 2.2 -2.4% of the national population; as a percentage of the population, this represents a substantial decline since the 1940s when Jews were almost 3.7% of the nation's population. Relatively speaking, then, the Jewish population has already been in decline for half a century. Since the U.S. population is growing and the Jewish population is not, Jews will almost undoubtedly form a smaller and smaller percentage of America's population.


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This leads me to a second important transformation affecting American Jews:  the likelihood that in the 21st century, American Jewry will shrink in significance both nationally and internationally. This claim may initially elicit surprise: a case could be made, after all, that American Jews have never been as significant politically as they are right now, with Jews occupying two seats on the Supreme Court, about 10 percent of Congress, several governors' chairs, and more. But at the same time, in other respects, the decline in Jewish significance has already taken place. For a time, particularly in the 1950s and ‘60s, American Jews saw themselves and were seen by others as part of a religious triad celebrated in a best-selling book by Will Herberg entitled, significantly, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955). According to Herberg, America had become a "triple melting pot," defined by three great ‘communions' or ‘faiths.' Nonbelievers, Muslims, Buddhists, and all of the other non-Christian faiths, by contrast, did not feature on the nation's religious canvas in those years. They were outsiders and in many cases had no official status at all.

Today, no serious student of American religion adopts the Protestant-Catholic-Jew model. We recognize that Herberg excluded a great many significant players from his account, and we pay enormous attention to religious outsiders -- and well we should: their numbers are growing fast. The result, for Jews, is a decline in status in the world of American religion, one that will only become more evident in the years ahead. Where once most Americans viewed Judaism as the "third faith" in the United States, as well as the nation's largest non-Christian faith, now Judaism is viewed as one of many American "minority faiths," and in many circles it is treated accordingly.

As if this change were not enough, 21st-century American Judaism will also have to come to terms with its diminished significance on the world Jewish stage. Within the next few decades, Israel is poised to overtake the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world. From an Israeli point of view, Israel's demographic rise marks the ultimate triumph of Zionism: the first time since the days of the Bible that Israel will truly be the single largest population center of world Jewry. For American Jews, though, the impact of downward mobility, of moving from being the greatest Jewish community in the world -- the center of world Jewry -- to merely second best may well prove sobering. It will surely affect the self-image of American Jews, their fundraising, their relationship to Israel, and their sense of responsibility to the Jews around the world.