In a recent interview with Interview Magazine, troubled Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf of Transformers fame and Indiana Jones infamy touted his newfound faith in, and conversion to, Christianity. The announcement was met with equal levels unrest and skepticism as the public response vacillated between anguish at another loss to the numbers of American Jewry and the reality that LaBeouf has proven time and again to be quite the adept prankster. In fact, the Religion News Service is quoted as saying “[some people] really want to believe that LaBeouf is a Christian now because having famous people on ‘our’ side makes ‘our’ case stronger. But after watching the movie and then re-reading the interview, it will be clear that Shia was laughing his way to the bank over all the hubbub.”
Regardless of how sincere LaBeouf’s claim is, it nonetheless is proof positive of the endemic laid bare by the most recent Pew Survey: American Judaism is hemorrhaging. And non-Orthodoxy is hemorrhaging marginally harder.
But something else also seems to be at play here, a reality which underscores the broken system the Pew Survey uses to gather information about American Jewish demographics in the first place: The Jews that American Judaism is losing are White. But the Jews who are staying and joining are not.
According to a 2008 article by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, African-Americans made up a significant portion of people learning about Judaism in Atlanta. At Congregation Shearith Israel, approximately 8 out of 20 people studying Judaism were black, and at the Marcus Jewish Community Center about 20% of the nearly two dozen people enrolled in introduction to Judaism classes were black.
In fact, the growth country-wide was so prevalent it was thought that it might impact the 2008 presidential election. After all, just a few months earlier, 3% of the African American population of Cairo, Illinois underwent a mass conversion to Reform Judaism.
And despite no concrete numbers, (largely because surveys such as the Pew and others operate from the perception that Jews are merely a subset of White America and therefore only seek out such), the anecdotal evidence suggests that the past two decades has only seen an increase of Americans of all ethnicities exploring Judaism.
The Jewish diversity organization Be’chol Lashon estimates that 1 in every 4 North American Jews is a person of color “including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.”
That’s over 1.2 million Jews across the denominational spectrum in America.
But with these numbers juxtaposed against the statistics presented by the Pew survey that approximately 11% of Jews raised Orthodox, 17% of Jews raised Conservative, and 28% of Jews raised Reform have left Judaism entirely, can it be possible that Judaism is experiencing a White Flight?
It’s very probable. But the question is why?
Not too long ago at our Shabbat table, my wife came up with a theory: The trend of American Jews to flow towards becoming less and less observant until eventually leaving Judaism altogether is due to a phenomenon she playfully dubbed as the “Eurofication” of Judaism.
You see, her hypothesis behind why, say, an ultra-Orthodox Jew’s shtreimel and beketshe is greeted with scorn, yet a buddhist monk’s bright orange robe and white socks with sandals is met with a respectful reverence is because the “faces” of Eastern and Aboriginal religions are brown and yellow and beige. As such they are seen as mysterious. Ancient. Wise.
They are given the space to practice their rites and be respected for them. They are places and spaces to be returned to and mined for their insight on and into the world.
But by far and large, Judaism’s face is perceived to be White. A White face means progress, cutting edge, the future. Exploration. Colonization. Culture. Capitalism.
Therefore Judaism is seen not as ancient and wise, but old-fashioned. The ancient Mosaic and Rabbinical traditions aren’t seen as mystical and beautiful but backwards. They are a place to move on from, not a place to draw from.
Not only does this prevent Jews of the more liberal, progressive, forward-thinking denominations from “looking back” and becoming more observant, it subconsciously fuels the eventual migration from the “antediluvian” entity of Judaism altogether.
Because it’s okay to reach back into sagacious rituals, but it is unacceptable to be old-fashioned.
While this is a phenomenon which largely doesn’t affect Orthodox Judaism–which holds fast to the sacraments of the olden times and is generally unconcerned with progress or modernity for their own sakes–it runs rampant in denominations focused, whether implicitly or explicitly, on “keeping up” with the “real world”. However, much like many other harmful outside influences which have been absorbed into even the most traditional of Judaisms, the Pew Survey is a testament that even Orthodoxy is not immune.
If my wife’s “Eurofication” theory rings true, then the push for the active inclusion of Jewish diversity is an integral building block not only for the existence of non-White/non-Ashkenazi Judaism, but for the survival of the rest of American Judaism as well. Because if there is a White Flight on the horizon, it will be American Judaism’s pathological insistence on divorcing itself from its brown roots and projection of an all-White monolith that will be its catalyst.
MaNishtana is an Orthodox Jewish blogger, author of “Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe”, and the Executive Director of The Shivtei Jeshurun Society for the Advancement of Jewish Racial & Ethnic Diversity (www.SJSociety.org). He blogs at http://www.manishtana.net. He drinks anywhere.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.