The future of Jewish life in America comes down to a choice, Jonathan Sarna said — between assimilation and revitalization.
And which one will prevail?
“The answer is, nobody knows,” he told a crowd of some 200 people Monday at the Eddy Theatre on the campus of Chatham University. “That will be determined day by day, community by community, Jew by Jew.”
If anyone came to Monday’s lecture, the first in a series titled “Conversations for a Jewish Future,” expecting Sarna to outline a road map for Jewish renewal in the United States, they came away disappointed.
But Sarna, a professor of American History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, gave the crowd, including several lay leaders, college students, rabbis and senior citizens, some useful historical context for the challenges they face.
For much of Jews’ 357-year history in North America, the prominent historian said, they feared that this country may be “a land that’s good for Jews, but bad for Judaism.”
As early as the 1820s, he noted, Jews were leaving synagogue life. At the same time, other Jews were searching for ways to draw them back.
In other words, the challenges of today are nothing new.
Neither are the strategies to meet them:
• Emphasizing tradition and modernity (so long as modernity doesn’t interfere with tradition);
• Reforming Judaism through innovation (weekly sermons, mixed seating, English readings, less formality); and
• Emphasizing peoplehood over religion.
And which way works best?
“The answer is yes, yes, yes,” Sarna said. “Jews actually cherish all three of these core values,” though the three values have often led to conflict within the Jewish community, he added.
The Conversations lecture series, which extends through September 2012, and deals with topics as diverse as philosophy, theology and social sciences, is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — through its Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future — and the Agency for Jewish Learning.
Federation Chair Lou Plung, who opened Monday’s program, said the series is designed to educate Jews as a community.
“The future of Judaism is in our hands,” he said.
And AJL President Charles Saul, who introduced Sarna, struck an optimistic note, saying in 30 years, “I have never seen the opportunities we see today in [meeting] these challenges.”
As for Sarna, he reminded his audience that in every generation, Jews always appear to be a vanishing people.
He said a new era in Jewish geography is dawning, one in which Jews will not be the global people they may consider themselves to be.
He noted that the Jewish world of today is contracting with only 37 nations possessing a Jewish population of 5,000 or more. Israel is poised to eclipse the United States as the largest Jewish center in the world (the first time that has happened since the days of the Bible); Tel Aviv has already surpassed New York as the largest Jewish urban center; and as Jewish life continues to concentrate in large cities, people around the the world grow up having never met a Jew.
But the aura of a vanishing people isn’t quite what it seems, he promised.
“American Jews will find creative ways to maintain Jewish life,” he said. “It may still be possible for the current vanishing generation of Jews to be succeeded by another vanishing generation, and still another.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)