The Holocaust Is Killing American Jews
by Ephraim Buchwald
There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust, than the memory of the 6 million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question “Where was God?,” rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain which lingers from the staggering losses. After all, what could possible be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died — except insuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews?
There is great justification for the continuing Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. It was numerically the greatest loss of Jews ever in Jewish history, and the wound is still raw. Survivors, who actually witnessed the horrors, can be spoken to personally. And now that “revisionists,” who seek to deny the Holocaust, have become even more brazen, sensitive Jews are reacting with even greater passion.
But obsessing over the Holocaust is exacting a great price. It is killing America’s Jews.
According to the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations National Jewish Population Survey, record numbers of Jews are now walking away from Judaism. Two million American Jews no longer acknowledge being Jewish. One million American Jewish children are being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all. And 625,000 Jews or their children have converted out of Judaism. A recent Gallup organization survey of religions in America reported that while there seems to be a resurgence among Protestants and Catholics, Jews as a group are drifting away from their religion.
There are many reasons for this wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity. Our grandparents hoped that America would be a melting pot for future generations; instead it has become a meltdown! Jewish education is woefully inadequate. For many decades intensive Jewish education was derided as being separatist. So now young Jews walk away from Judaism, not because of dissatisfaction with the faith, but out of ignorance.
And the ignorance is overwhelming. The average American Jew knows who was the mother of Jesus, but doesn’t have a clue as to who was the mother of Moses; probably knows the meaning of the word “trinity”, but is unlikely to know what the word “mitzvah” means. Similarly, the typical American Jewish child could probably sing the first verse of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but is unfamiliar with the first line of “Ma’oz Tsur” — the joyous Hanukkah hymn.
We have no one to fault but ourselves. We failed to properly educate our children, and when we did, the experiences were so negative that it’s been said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew school because, in most instances, it’s proven to be the greatest turn-off to Jewish life.
The American Jewish community stands now at a most formidable crossroads, a crossroads which will likely determine whether Jewish life in America continues, or ceases to exist altogether. America’s Jews, like the Israelites of old, are being asked to choose between “life and death”, between “the blessing and the curse.”
Unless we “choose life,” unless there will be within the very near future, a dramatic turnaround in the patterns of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, we are probably witnessing the last generation of Jewish life in America as we now know it. Our community will not be recognizable within 25 to 30 years.
If we are to stop the hemorrhaging of Jewish life in America, intensive, positive, joyous Jewish education and experiences must become a priority. But right now what seems to be the priority is building Holocaust memorials. Over half a billion dollars have already been pledged or spent to build 19 Holocaust memorials and 36 research centers or libraries in America. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have 2 or 3 competing Holocaust memorials. The largest and most expensive American Holocaust memorial, the US Holocaust Museum was dedicated on April 22, 1993 in Washington D.C., built at a cost of $168 million.
More than a quarter of the books published on Jewish themes today concern the Holocaust. Jews who have never opened a Bible, have broad expertise in Holocaust studies. Jews who have never read a single page of Jewish philosophy, are fully conversant with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Jews who are totally ignorant of the ABC’s of Judaism, have enrolled in intensive courses analyzing the most obscure details of the European Jewish Holocaust. It is quite likely that a young Jew today knows who Hitler and Eichmann were, but has no idea of Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides.
We’ve reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim — murdered, cremated or turned into a lampshade. Is there no joy in Jewish life? Is there no balm in Gilead? No wonder our young Jews are turned off and walking away from their heritage.
It is hardly likely that we will be able to stop the proliferation of Holocaust centers in America. However, there is still time to make certain that these centers communicate a joyous and positive message for Jewish life. We must make certain that young Jews who enter these centers encounter a message which will inspire them to live as Jews, and not be turned off by the spectre of endless victimization and suffering. If we fail to accomplish this, then these vaunted Holocaust centers will soon become the tombstones of the present generation of American Jews.
There is a Holocaust taking place in America right now. We can’t hear it, because there are no barking dogs; we can’t see it because there are no goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and no concentration camps; we can’t smell it because there are no gas chambers. But the net result is exactly the same.
If we fail to act now, if we fail to share with our young Jews the beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish life and Jewish heritage, there will be few Jews left in the next generation who will even know that there ever was a Holocaust of European Jews. The “silent Holocaust” will have done its job. Hitler will have emerged victorious.
Ephraim Buchwald is the Director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. He is the Founding President of the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals, and rabbi of the Beginners Service at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City.
Reprinted in updated form from The Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1992.