The Uncertain Future of Judaism in the United States

The Uncertain Future of Judaism in the United States

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A Jewish settler wrote to Germany from the colony of Virginia in 1791 that “one can make a good living here [in America, but]. . . I know that you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot be anything else.”

Such a view of being Jewish in America seems prophetic to Seymore Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, authors of Jews and the New American Scene. While many Jews have found security and prosperity in America, Lipset and Raab claim that success also threatens Jewish religious and cultural heritage.

“Jews achieve higher levels of education, professional status, and income than all other [religious and ethnic] subgroups,” say Lipset and Raab. The data suggest Jewish people are the most economically successful of all categories of immigrants. These researchers add that this economic success reflects a relatively high degree of ethnic, political, and religious toleration. In the United States, “everyone is treated according to the logic of the marketplace, that is, without reference to inherited traits.”

But Lipset and Raab argue that the same “logic of the marketplace” has also removed some of the external forces that promoted Jewish identity, religious and social cohesiveness, and cultural continuity. For most Jews, “identification with the tribe no longer provides members with a life meaning that can compete with the fruits of individual accomplishment.” Throughout their history in North America, Jews have been steadily lessening the degree to which they adhere to dietary laws, speak Hebrew, study the Talmud, or attend services at the synagogue. Perhaps even more significant, most Jews marry non-Jews, and have too few children to replace their own numbers.

Lipset and Raab cite three forces that do encourage Jewish identity and cohesion: opposition to anti-Semitism in America and Europe, concern for the survival of Israel, and the assumption of politically liberal values. However, they add, anti-Semitism is now a less serious problem in the United States. Further, most Jews today are more confident about Israel’s long-term stability and security.

Lipset and Raab believe that liberalism, too, is in decline as a uniting political point of view. With the exception of African Americans, they claim, Jews have been the most consistently liberal ethnic or major religious group in the United States. However, liberal ideologies do not of themselves support Jewish identity.

The future of American Jews is very much in doubt to Lipset and Raab, who see in U.S. history a slow dissolution and fading of Jewish culture and belief. Are todays Jews likely to return to ethnic and religious self-awareness? Will there be a decline in the intermarriage rate? Lipset and Raab have strong doubts.


Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Earl Raab. Jews and the New American Scene. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Lipset and Raab are correct in their assessment? Do you agree with their predictions for the future? Why or why not?
  2. As you see it, is the argument made by Lipset and Raab generally in line with the secularization thesis? Why or why not?