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2019 saw the highest levels of anti-Semitism in the US on record. American Jews are responding with Jewish pride.
Anti-Semitism has been steadily increasing in the United States for the past decade, a new report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shows, and in 2019 it reached a record high. Anti-Jewish incidents in 2019 were the highest on record, exceeding all records since at least 1979, when the ADL first began keeping track.
In 2019 well over 2,100 attacks on Jews were recorded, an 18% increase since 2018 and fully a doubling in anti-Jewish attacks since 2015. Many of the anti-Semitic incidents were horrifically violent, including the murder of Lori Gilbert-Kaye in the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27, 2019, the murders of Mindy Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch, as well as Douglas Miguel Rodrigues and Det. Joseph Seals, in Jersey City on December 10, and the violent knife attack on Jews at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, on December 28. (Rabbi Josef Neumann died of his injuries three months later.) The report also details over a thousand cases of threats and harassment directed Jews and over 900 cases of the property of Jews being intentionally destroyed or damaged.
The ADL’s report is shocking in its mind-numbing tally of examples of anti-Jewish hatred but for too many of us it’s hardly surprising. For the first time in recent memory, the ADL records, a majority of American Jews have been victims of anti-Semitic incidents – or have witnessed someone else being attacked for being Jewish. Our sense of security as American Jews has shattered.
For the first time in a generation, American Jews are discovering what many Jews in Diaspora communities all over the world experience, realizing that we are a minority within our own countries and not always welcomed. For some Jews, this is acting as a powerful catalyst, encouraging many of us to explore what it means to be Jewish, and leading countless Jews to embrace their Judaism.
Here are four inspiring recent trends of Jews choosing to live fuller Jewish lives, even in the shadow of increasing anti-Semitism.
In recent years, increasing numbers of Jews have been rediscovering a central component of Jewish life: Shabbat. This is part of a trend of living a more fully Jewish life in general, and in some communities, it’s young Jewish adults who are showing the way.
A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted the growing, vibrant Shabbat scene among Millennials living in Houston: “On a typical Friday night in Houston, many young people are out drinking in bars or curled up watching Netflix… But in a few Houston homes, Jews in their 20s and 30s have opted to fill these evenings with a different kind of obligation: strictly observing Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath.” The young professionals featured in the article described how they had chosen to celebrate Shabbat as adults, and took turns inviting each other to Shabbat meals in their homes, and even held informal Shabbat services for their friends and guests in their apartments on Friday nights.
Data about just how many young adults are choosing to celebrate Shabbat are hard to come by, but one indication that Shabbat observance is catching on is the rapid proliferation of “Moishe Houses”, informal homes where small groups of Jews rent together and which function as central hubs for Jewish activity for young adults, hosting Shabbat lunches and dinners as well as other events. From the founding of the first Moishe House in Oakland, California in 2006, the movement has grown rapidly to over 100 Moishe Houses around the world today, hosting Shabbat dinners for young adults. This fits into a pattern: more Jews in their 20s and 30s are rediscovering the joys of Jewish rituals – so much so that a greater proportion of young Jewish adults describe themselves as religiously observant than older American Jews today.
Many Jews are used to reading dire predictions of the future of American Jewry – yet contrary to some dark predictions, the number of Jews in the United States is growing. Researchers at Brandeis University near Boston found in a major 2018 that the US Jewish population was 7.5 million that year – and growing each year.
Fueling that is a birthrate that’s much higher than the US average of 1.77 children per family. Orthodox American Jews tend to have larger families – an average of just over 4 children per family. Even among secular American Jews, the desire for larger families seems to be motivating many couple to have larger families. While most American Jews who describe themselves as “secular” do have families about the size of the average American family, many do join their Orthodox brethren in choosing to build larger families – nearly 10% of “secular” American Jews also have an average of four children or more. Jewish children ensure the future of a vibrant Jewish community – the fact that so many Jewish families are raising larger families is helping build the next generation of American Jews.
The past several years have seen a broad upward trend of Jewish college students and young adults visiting Israel, many for the first time, on Birthright Israel trips. Birthright was formed in 1999, and since then the program has revolutionized Jewish life in America and beyond, bringing young Jewish adults to Israel on free (or almost free) trips, so they can experience Israel and gain familiarity with the Jewish homeland. Tens of thousands of Jews have traveled to Israel with Birthright; many have found themselves transformed by the experience.
In recent years, the numbers of American Jews going on Birthright trips has trended broadly upwards. From 13,593 students participating on Birthright in 2015, that number rose to 15,043 in 2016 and to 15,570 in 2018. In 2017 Birthright widened the pool of participants, raising the maximum age of visitors to 32 and instituting Israel trips geared towards newly-married couples.
Birthright trips have an outsized impact: participants are 45% more likely to marry Jews after their trip than others. “It was a spiritual experience I didn’t expect to get” explained Sam Paul, an 26 year old insurance broker from Manchester, New Hampshire, on his trip, echoing many other American Jews who’ve got the chance to learn about the Jewish homeland through this unique program.
Jews consistently are in the lead when it comes to charitable giving in the United States – American Jews donate more money to charity than any other ethnic or religious group: they give at levels higher than other religious and ethnic groups, and a greater percentage of American Jewish families give charity than families of other faiths. This phenomenon is true at all levels of income – one recent study found that even among households making less than $50,000 a year, (which is less than the national mean in the US), Jews are significantly more likely to donate funds to charity (60% of low earning Jews donate versus only 46% of non-Jewish low earners.)
Demographer Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim studies charitable giving and she notes that there’s something unique about American Jews’ generosity: “Expressed in Hebrew, the Jewish concepts of tzedakah (charitable giving), tzedek (justice) and chesed (mercy and kindness) instruct and compel all Jews to give charity and treat people who are less fortunate with compassion.” The generosity of American Jews is another reason to be proud of our community – and yet another way that our faith shapes and strengthens us and our faith.