Throughout much of the Galus (Diaspora) of the Jewish people our host countries invariably turned to methods of oppression in denying our faith and its practice. Also what is true is that because Jews were stigmatized and cast as second class citizens, the strong temptation presented itself to assimilate into the broader population. In terms of a diminished population, other than the banishment in 700 B.C. and subsequent sizable loss of the 10 tribes of Israel, the biggest single assault on the population of our people was of course the Holocaust.
Here in the United States, the first wave of Jews were Sephardi and came in Colonial times (17th century), as a result of the expulsion of Jews from Brazil by the Portuguese The second wave, in the 10’s of thousands from Central Europe, mainly from Germany, came in the middle of the 19th century. The 3rd and most powerful wave, consisting of about 3 million, came mostly from Eastern Europe between 1882 and World War I (1914). These were the main 3, but there was a Jewish immigration after World War II and during the 70’s and 80’s from the Soviet Union.
During Colonial Times the forces of assimilation for Jews (who in 1790 numbered 1/20th of one percent, of the general population) were so strong that after the 4th and 5th generations most of the Jewish life had disappeared. Due to the pressures of antisemitism which became more pronounced by 1870, German Jews from the second wave, a good number of whom originally subscribed to Reform Judaism, again succumbed to social pressures ultimately to give up their Jewish identities, so that by the 3rd generation of their arrival many of these no longer considered themselves Jewish. The 3rd wave from Eastern Europe, however, went counter to the aforementioned trend by declaring their Jewish religious and cultural identity. Zionism, the Yiddish language, Orthodoxy and socialism (which was then a burgeoning Jewish held political philosophy) were all expressions of this newly arrived group.
However the dominant American culture in the late 20th century, including the philosophy of government, was not so favorable to individual ethnic groups having their own culture and traditions; rather, the view of the “melting pot” was the conventional wisdom and it was expected that minorities eventually melt their own cultures away in the bigger American culture pot. The established Jewish leadership that already had roots in America in fact held the same view. The idea was to acculturate these new “greene” (green - as in not ripe yet) newly arrived Jewish immigrants to become Americanized and basically blend in to American society. Because life for Jews in this period was still rife with disadvantages imposed on them by the mainstream majority and the unspoken but very real pressure to dissolve into the big “melting pot”, great many of even this wave submitted to the majority by checking their Jewishness at the door even as they longed to be able to publicly express it.
However a major shift occurred in the Jewish-American psyche with the advent of the civil rights movement in the early sixties, the creation of the state of Israel/the miraculous victory demonstrated by Israel over its enemies during the ’67 war and the philosophical realization from the Holocaust experience - that assimilation is not the road to Jewish security anyway. During this period, “American society became more open to Jews than any country has ever been throughout the whole history of the Diaspora” according to historian Arthur Hertzberg. In this period Jewish intellectuality in universities and publishing became totally in vogue.
Despite this freedom to express and practice one’s religiosity and culture, the sobering statistic is that there still was an intermarriage rate of 40 to 50 percent for Jews between 1985 and 2001. That however may be a lagging indicator because with the young Jewish generation we find a hunger to pursue Jewish education even if it is just minimal. Yeshivas, such as Chofetz Chaim and the Lubavitch movement, are taking advantage of this new-found cultural freedom and yearning for one’s authentic roots and identity. Indeed the Kiruv movements are finding great receptive markets and regions all over the U.S. to reintroduce Jews to their original heritage.
To the extent that American life, post the 60’s cultural revolution, and its shrinking back from Judeo-Christian ethics, leaves a vacuum to be filled by the Judeo part of Judeo-Christian teachings - so is the responsibility of today’s leadership of Jewish Orthodoxy to fill that vacuum with wisdom and guidance that serves to produce a superior quality of life. Much of popular culture by evidence of its movies, TV and music is sorely lacking that today. Jewish Orthodoxy can be (Lehavdil), the “Starbucks” franchise of today’s religious teachings. To accomplish such a strong franchise in this country and indeed internationally, Jewish Orthodoxy has to accommodate a clientele for which “loving thy neighbor as thyself” cannot just be an incidental phrase but rather the crucial tenet that in fact it is. Hillel said that is the essence of the Torah. This concept has to be pre-eminent in Torah education today for Jewish Orthodoxy to regain the dominance it once had for the Jewish people.