In his book, Faith or Fear, Elliott Abrams details the demographic crisis facing the Jewish community in America and explores the question of how, given rising rates of intermarriage and declining fertility levels, Jews can survive in a “Christian America.” The answer, inevitably, is in a reawakening to religious Judaism. Abrams argues that Judaism has been replaced for many American Jews by a civil religion based on a commitment to social justice. In Abrams’ formulation, Jewish philanthropy is at the heart of this civil religion. Philanthropy spoke to him in Washington, where he is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
PHILANTHROPY: You talk about how philanthropy has become a civil religion for American Jews, replacing Judaism. Explain what you mean by that.
MR. ABRAMS: For some Jews social justice as a theme has more or less replaced Judaism the religion as their form of Jewish identity and Jewish commitment. They see the search for social justice as the essence of Judaism, where others might see support for Israel or commemorating the Holocaust as the essence of their Jewishness, and that tends to translate into support for liberal Democratic policy initiatives.
For those people, philanthropy fits into their view that the essence of Judaism is this concern for social justice which is transmuted into a concern for the poor. They tend to support charities that have that focus. That has a couple of impacts. For one thing, I think it means that they tend to give less to Jewish charities and more to secular groups working in those areas. The other thing is that they tend to point Jewish charities in the direction that they think is appropriate. For example you see Jewish organizations taking positions on social policy issues that have very little to do with the Jewish community per se. Gun control, abortion rights, the minimum wage, that sort of thing, which I argue in the book are really a reflection more of liberal political views than of Judaism.
PHILANTHROPY: You note in your book that giving to the federated Jewish charities by Jews is declining and you seem to suggest that this is because of their lack of ‘Jewishness,’ that this civil religious commitment to social justice doesn’t motivate givers.
MR. ABRAMS: We need to define what is a useful expenditure for the Jewish community. What works and what is the goal? Twenty-five years ago most federations would have said that they don’t give money to Jewish day schools because they believe in the public school system and the day schools are for the orthodox and that’s not really an expenditure the community as a whole should make. Similarly, they gave very little money to synagogues, almost none. That’s turning around because there is a broader perception now in the late 1990s that there has to be a greater focus on religion. So the federations have begun to spend more money on more narrowly defined religious matters like day schools and synagogues. But while everybody is talking about this watchword, ‘continuity,’ there is a tremendous debate over how you achieve continuity and what is effective, and I think the confusion among donors reflects this.
PHILANTHROPY: Your book is critical of the American Jewish community for not supporting more Jewish education. Is part of your aim to spur greater support for Jewish day schools?
MR. ABRAMS: The Jewish community as an immigrant community came to value the public school system enormously because it was the way that the children of immigrants became Americans, it was the transmission belt from immigrant status. The notion that one should support an alternative to the public schools comes very, very hard for many Jews, especially because the great battle of the immigrant generation and of their children was to enter into American culture and society.
Now assimilation and success in America have been achieved. The question is not, ‘how do I become an American?’ the question is, ‘how do I stay a Jew?’ The data make it very, very clear that Jewish education is critically important. The more education the better, which is an argument for day schools. One of the effects of this, of course, is that day schools are no longer found only in the orthodox community. There are now conservative and even reform day schools. Though there aren’t many, there are some, where there didn’t used to be any. The question arises: should the community support these schools? The comparison I make is with American Catholics. There is tremendously broad support for Catholics schools and the poverty of the family is really unrelated to the ability to go to the school. If you are a poor, Hispanic immigrant and you want your kids to go to Catholic school they’ll go, they’ll get in, somehow or other it will be worked out financially. That is not the case in the Jewish community. What I am arguing is not that every Jewish kid should go to a Jewish day school. What I am arguing is that it is scandalous in a community this wealthy that there are children who wish to go to a Jewish day school and can’t for financial reasons.
PHILANTHROPY: We are ostensibly undergoing this paradigm shift today, at least talking about the ability of private charity to pick up some of the functions of government in the area of social welfare. If, as you suggest, Jewish giving needs to be motivated by a greater religious sense, and most of the underclass that we’re trying to address through this paradigm shift is outside the Jewish community, how does this bode for the participation of Jewish charities in this transformation?
MR. ABRAMS: Part of the answer is just straight politics. Many Jewish charities are reacting to this paradigm shift as liberals and they are against the paradigm shift. I would argue that that has very little to do with Jewishness.
There is a big debate in the Jewish community regarding the responsibility for people outside the community. If you go back to the period between the Civil War and the Depression, there were a lot of immigrant Jews in America. The question then of what Jewish charity was for was very simple. Jewish charity was basically to help poor Jews. That had been true for thousands of years and it was still true. All of the traditions of helping the poor were really quite relevant. But since World War II it has become really a great deal less relevant as Jews have come out of poverty. So there is a debate now. What do all these traditions tell you about your obligations outside the Jewish community?
For the most part, the position that Jews are taking in the national debate over this paradigm shift is very little informed by Judaism and Jewish traditions for a very simple reason: most American Jews are quite ignorant of what that tradition is. They couldn’t tell you. If you said to them, ‘What were the Jewish practices a hundred years ago and how did they influence your views?’ I think most Jews, excluding the orthodox, couldn’t tell you what those were. And therefore obviously they don’t have much impact. And that’s why I say that I think for the most part Jews are participating in this debate as liberals or in some cases as conservatives but not much as Jews.
PHILANTHROPY: How has Jewish teaching influenced the welfare reform debate in the U.S.?
MR. ABRAMS: I think that it’s pretty rare for people to be able to bring Jewish teaching to bear, because there just aren’t all that many American Jews who understand what that teaching is. Just as an example, there is a Jewish tradition of not helping beggars and of insisting that people work for charity. We just had this debate in this country over the last five years and we have moved in the direction of insisting on work. Well, I don’t think you’ve seen Jews taking a leadership role in that. In fact, if anything there are probably more Jews on the other side, resisting it as liberal Democrats. What role did Jewish teaching on this question play? I’d say none.