When author Samuel G. Freedman’s award-winning book Jew vs. Jew: the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry came out in 2000, it showcased the divide between various factions of the community, particularly between observant and liberal Jews.
In the ensuing years, some of those clashes have been resolved, with segments of the Jewish community moving in some surprising directions.
On Feb. 11, Freedman came to the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth to “revisit” his subject and a community that, while in many ways more vibrant than ever, is confronted with challenges ranging from intermarriage, to the demands of Orthodox women for greater religious roles, to efforts to attract Jews in an age of “shul shopping.”
“Of all the books I have written, Jew vs. Jew is the one I have felt the desire to return to, to update or write an epilogue,” said the Highland Park native and author of six books.
Freedman said Jewish religious and cultural life has never been more “varied, exciting, and energetic,” with innovative offerings in worship styles, music, and culture that were unimaginable generations ago.
Yet, he said, “our acceptance, embrace, and literal love for this country” as well as its “love of us” has led to a large spike in intermarriage. Freedman said it remains to be seen whether children of intermarriage will identify strongly with the Jewish community or will regard it as a part of a larger, varied ethnic identity.
Freedman, a columnist for The New York Times and a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said his book was penned “in the honeyed afterglow of Camp David, when peace seemed imminent.”
At the time, the Conservative movement was embroiled in a controversy about whether to include gender-neutral and egalitarian language in it prayers. While that discussion has been mostly among Conservative Jews, feminism “has become a huge issue in the Orthodox world, especially the Modern Orthodox,” said Freedman. That movement is “facing a day of reckoning” in regard to egalitarianism and the roles of women.
Freedman cited the growth of Orthodox congregations that allow for increased participation by women leaders during services. “They have now had several generations of women receiving top-notch [religious] educations and being told that’s as far as they can get,” he said.
Freedman said he was “attacked” when researching Jew vs. Jew for suggesting Orthodoxy would need to face the ordination of women rabbis. He backed off the subject, although he now believes he was on target.
“It will happen,” he said.
Not even mentioned in his book was the growing “post-denominational” trend among Jewish individuals and congregations. In increasing numbers, he said, American Jews already identify with multiple synagogues and minyans without regard to denomination.
“We are now shul shoppers,” he said. “The era when Jewish life was defined by which movement — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — you identified with has come to an end for many of us.”
Freedman also termed it “a real oversight” that his book did not mention the “huge phenomenon” of outreach by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and its impact on non-Orthodox and non-affiliated Jews.
“I should have seen it coming,” acknowledged the author, who said that among the insular fervently Orthodox and hasidim, Chabad stands out for its willingness to interact with liberal Jews to engage them in Jewish life.
“I can’t help but think that that interaction has changed the Chabadniks as well,” said Freedman. “Chabad is learning as much about us as we are learning from them.”