Jewish Assimilation: Has Assimilation Been Bad for Judaism?

Samuel Heilman made it clear that materialistic gain has led to the fall ofJewish culture. Have Jews turned their religious lives solely to conform to the Catholic American society? Heilman gives the argument that since Jews havemoved up the socio-economic ladder, they actually lost focus on what it means tobe a Jew. One must first answer the question of what is being Jewish? Is itsimply something inherited? Does it mean living ones life solely regarding whatthe Torah tells one to do? Is the answer much more complicated than followingrules, which were built for a time that was completely different? The Jewishreligion has lasted thousands of years, which were filled with intolerance andmurder, why is Samuel Heilman blaming the free Jews of today for being differentthan their predecessors?

One must look at events, which Jews have had to endure,to fully comprehend the nature of why they have changed so vastly. Jews came tothe United States to escape persecution and gain economic security, why aretheir grandchildren complaining of the state of Judaism, 100 years later?Since the beginning of time Jews have endured anti-Semitic regimes, whichkilled Jews merely for being Jewish.

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A clear illustration would be the past 150years, which later involved a mass migration of Jewish people, to the UnitedStates. Jews beganGergely 2 leaving Europe because laws did not allow them to havecommon freedoms, which we take for granted presently. Jews subsequently came tothe United to escape persecution. Jews came from countries as different asRussia and Germany with two common bonds. Religion and having endured some formof persecution. Experiencing the pains of persecution, prepared Jews for anypossible experience awaiting them in the United States.

Most Jews arrived in Ellis Island without a penny in their pocket. Jewssettled in a part of New York that was called The Lower East Side. Jews chosethe Lower East Side, because it was the only place one could arrive and not haveto immediately assimilate into American society. These Jews began theireconomic endeavors with the only profession they knew, commerce. Trade wastheir main form of economic gain, the only profession that was allowed inEurope.

In America, Jews had to follow the American govt., instead of theKahilla. Not being singled out meant that Jews had to pursue the American dreamthe same as Protestants, Catholics, and all other religions. To survive Jewsneeded to lose various parts of their religious rituals. Jews could not stopfulfilling economic duties simply because of religion. Jews were now competingwith other immigrants who had arrived before them. They had to learn customsquickly so they wouldn’t be isolated in a society, which does not identifyitself with a religious preference.The only way to survive was to bend rulesof Judaism.

The Lower East Side was a cornucopia of Jews from various parts of the world. In the Lower East Side the Jewish community came together to solve each other’sproblems. Apartments were extremely close together, so in little time everymember of aGergely 3street knew each other’s name. Each street represented a small community in TheLower East Side.Hazardous health conditions caused sickness, and ironicallycreated friendships that were based solely on the purpose of Judaism. As timepassed, Jews began to reminisce of homelands, which were far away. Lives inEurope were filled with torment, but Jews missed the sense of identity that cameby living under the Kahilla.

In Europe one did not have to worry if he/she wasfulfilling a Jewish way of life. The Kahilla ordered one to accomplish Jewishduties. Responsibility was never placed on the individual to choose betweeneconomic affluence, and religious purity. Jews needed to come together and forma sense of identity in The United States.This led to a Jewish renaissancewithin the United States. Yiddish, which was the common language among Jews,guided Jews to find the arts that they had left behind in their shtetls.

If one uses the Samuel Heilman perspective on Judaism, than the era ofrenaissance, was the height of Judaism in the United States. Heilman explainsthat at about the time of the 50’s Jews became more affluent, and began to movefarther away from the communal life, of the American ghetto. Heilman uses threeessential alterations to the Jewish State, to explain why the United States hasbeen bad for Judaism. Demographics, Intermarriage, and the change in education.

Heilman explains that each of these factors is equally important, in regards tothe loss of Jewish identity. He also takes into account different periods ofevolution that Jews experienced. He begins by describing the fifties as atransitional period were Jews attempted to figure out, whether being Jewish orbeing American was more important. The sixties and seventies are described, astimes where Jews were beginning to move farther apart, from the traditionsGergely 4of their ancestors. The eighties and nineties are described, as times wereJewish people are fighting to keep the religion intact.

As the 1950’s rolled around, Jews began to become more affluent. The Americandream had been forfiled, and many chose to leave the ghettos that they had knownall of their lives. These Jews were children of immigrants, and wanted to moveaway from their parents. “The movement to the suburbs consists largely offamilies in the most fertile of age groups (Heilman, 9).”

Young Jews did nothave the same perception of the ghetto that their parents had. Their parentscherished a lifestyle, which preserved some culture of the old country. Fear ofnot being identified, as a community was a large reason why Jews moved intoghettos. Young Jews wanted to be known as Americans, and the only fear they hadwas one of anti-Semitism. “Jews or any other ethnic or religious group wantedto live together, forming their own community. Young Jews feared segregation,in contrast to their parents, who in many cases sought it (Heilman, 19).”

Jewswere moving to suburbs and attributes, which the old country had given them,were being lost. “Replanting themselves in a suburban environment seemed tocall for homogenization differences led them to diminish communal and tribalties while emphasizing continuing mobility and the individual pursuit ofhappiness above all else, it encouraged a life-style that denied the importanceof anything that happened before the move to the suburbs (Heilman, 19).” Jewsdid not simply move away from the ghettos to move away from their parents. Jewsultimately chose to move to the suburbs because they could not stand the crimeand health hazards, which were so prevalent in the ghettos.

Gergely 5Did the movement out of the ghettos mean Jews were losing a part of theirculture? This epoch of Jewish life, according to Heilman, was the beginning ofthe end for Judaism. Heilman describes the time period as misleading, becauseafter moving to the suburbs Jews began to build synagogues in America. This candeceive many because Jews were merely following mainstream society. “In 1954,Gallup reported that 79 percent of American adults were members of the church(Heilman, 28).” Heilman argues that Jews were now trying to become betterAmericans, rather than becoming better Jews. These new temples were not likethe old ones according to Heilman. They represented economic prosperity insteadof religious affiliation.

The 50’s were not the beginning of the end! Jews were not losing a part oftheir culture, because they began to move out of the ghettos! Moving to thesuburbs was done out of necessity rather than comfort. Crime and death were thefirst factors for migration out of the ghettos. “The apartments in thebuildings were packed with relatives and children, many of them fugitives fromunpaid rent (Howe, 2).” To survive Jews had to leave the death traps.

Onecannot blame Jews for trying to move away from their poverty stricken past, andmove into communities that were not solely comprised of Jews. When Jews livedin the ghettos it was very easy to identify them. Young Jews fearedidentification, because of the alarming emergence in anti-Semitism that washappening in the United States.Henry Ford, a presidential favorite at thattime, announced how dangerous he thought Jews were by releasing the publicationof the International Jew. By the end of 1925 the Dearborn Independent, Fordsanti-Semitic publication, reached a distribution of 700,00(Sachar, 316).

Heilman does not stress this as an important factorGergely 6of Jewish assimilation. Jews of this time felt it was important to prove toAmericans, they were not the source of any problems. Jews adapted, they did notconform to live in the United States. Jews would have to find a way to expresstheir religion in other forms that did not base itself solely on community. Jews watched their families being murdered in the Holocaust, and they wanted tomake sure nothing of the sort would happen in the United States. When Jewsfinally accomplished being able to move into communities, they had achieved thedream they had set out to do, when they left the oppressive regimes in Europe.

Leaving the ghettos was a sign Jews had overcome struggles that had plagued thelives of their ancestors. As Jews moved out of the ghettos they continued thepractice of Judaism by building synagogues in their communities. This is a signof religious affirmation rather than conformity.

Since Jews came the United States it was evident that their Jewish educationwould be different than those of the old country. In America their was no czarto bar one from receiving the govt. education (Sachar, 189).This led to thedecline of Jewish formal education. “A survey taken in 1908 indicated that only23 percent of New York’s 170,000 school-age Jewish children were receiving anyform of Jewish education whatsoever (Sachar, 189).”

Jews in America would haveto receive their Jewish education through supplemental schooling. Yeshivas werecreated by European Jewry because they believed that America was the lastpossibility to instill Jewish culture in youngsters (Revel, 504). Jews neverconcentrated on the supplemental schooling, which was given to them. Theymostly took advantage of the American education that was provided to them. After the 1950’s Jewish education almost disappeared. ”

In 1946,Gergely 762.7% of students enrolled in supplementary schools attended five days per week;in 1958, 66% of the students attended three days and only 6% attended five days. By the 1970’s there were almost no five-day-a-week supplementary schools left(Heilman, 77).” Presently Jewish education is done in four major categories:

  • supplementary, afternoon, Hebrew school;
  • independent all day school;
  • yeshiva;
  • University based studies (Heilman, 32)

Have the Jews of today forgotten their history due to a lack of propereducation? Heilman believes this is absolutely true. He believes this can alsobe attributed to Jews attempting to make Americans forget the status ofimmigrant, which had previously been placed upon Jews. A step Jews took torelieve this status was to concentrate their studies on American education. “Jews saw a college education as a way to escape the poverty and second classcitizenship which their immigrant status and identity had imposed on them(Heilman, 39).”

Heilman believes that even though formal Jewish education isgrowing in America, it does not compare to the education that was given to themin the ghetto. Jews who presently receive religious schooling do not spendenough time on them to come away with any significant knowledge. “More and morefor this type of Jew, Hebrew school, became mainly remembered as the place whereHebrew wasn’t learned (Heilman, 78).”

Heilman thinks Jews have moved away fromstudying the wisdom of the Torah, which the Yeshivas of the past taught so well. “Now they were thinking about other wisdom in the secular and open atmosphere ofthe liberal arts university (Heilman, 83).”Gergely 8I disagree once again with Heilman’s belief that Jewish education in the UnitedStates, has led to a decline of Jewish awareness. He believes that due to thedecline of Jewish five-day-per-week, Jews have forgotten much of their history. Heilman’s perception is based on blaming statistics that are deceiving. As Jewshave begun prospering in the United States they have chosen to reacquaintthemselves with Jewish education.

In 1908 only 23% percent of Jews receivedformal education (Sachar, 189). By the end of sixties 80% of Jewish males, and70% of females had received some sort of Jewish education. Only recently haveJewish Studies programs been part of college education. The bottom line is thatmore Jews are presently getting some sort of Jewish affiliated education, thanin the past. Jewish education can never be solely based on beliefs of the past.

If present Jewish beliefs are not incorporated into Jewish education, than theJewish people will never evolve. Jewish education must revolve around thepresent society were Jews are living, or else Jews will once again findthemselves ostracized. One can never complain whether a child is learningHebrew or not. Hebrew is the language of Israeli Jews, English is the languageof American Jews. Heilman blames the progressive nature of Jews, but he failsto mention that 90% of Jewish Day schools today are Orthodox, even though only25% of their students contain to this section (Sachar, 853).

Heilman nevertakes into account how Jews, who are not in America, are teaching kids aboutJudaism. As a fortunate individual I have been able to visit various countrieswere family members of mine are receiving a Jewish education. The perception ofthese acquaintances is a Jewish education will teach one about the history ofthe Jewish culture, but it fails in regard to teaching individuals how a Jew canGergely 9live his/her life outside of education. We are privileged to live in country,which allows an individual to choose their occupation. One must never forgetthe Jews of the old country never had the freedom to choose their profession,and that is why they opted to leave.

Jewish intermarriage has changed from epoch to epoch. “Sephardic Jews didintermarry frequently, the post-1820 Jewish immigrants did not (Diner, 130). Inthe past forty years, Jews have begun to marry outside their religion onceagain. ” 9 percent of those married before 1965 married Gentiles, that numbergrew to 25 percent by 1974, and 44 percent by 1984. Since 1985, 52 percent ofthose Jews marrying have married Gentiles the first time in American historywhen more Jews are marrying Gentiles than Jews (Heilman, 130)” The increase ofinter-marriage has ultimately led to the decline of the Jewish population in theUnited States.

Has inter-marriage led to the decline of Jewish culture? Heilman believes thatinter-marriage is one of the most significant factors in what he calls thesquandering of Jewish identity. “All this out-marriage signifies not only aJewish demographic erosion but also a cultural drift toward the rest of America. That is, not only do high rates of out marriage threaten directly demographicsurvival of small minority populations, but they also symbolize, as perhaps noother indicator, the conflict between universalism and particularism (Heilman,131).”

As a result of intermarriage, according to Heilman, Jews have interwovenelements of other religions into Jewish life.Heilman deems that this willonly result in more inter-marriage in the future.The cycle will continueuntil Jewish identity vanishes. “While maintaining linkage may make the traumaofGergely 10intermarriage bearable by Jewish families and individuals, it may, in the longrun, prove to be devastating for the cultural integrity of the Jewish people(Heilman, 134-135).”

When two people of different cultures come together and live in happiness, it isa beautiful thing. One can never consider saying that one must look at a lifetime partner, simply based on religion. With that being said, the decline ofintermarriage can be attributable to a Jewish identity, which has emergedrecently. Jews do not want to marry a person who is ignorant, to the fact,cultures other than their own exists. “I don’t want to marry someone who is tooJewish (Prell, 177).”

Jews marrying outside of their religion will not resultin the loss of Jewish identity. Intermarriage will spread Judaism to cultures,which have never experienced it before. Jewish intermarriage is a prime exampleof why, Jews who left Russia, made the correct decision in choosing the UnitedStates. They wanted a country where they would be free of religious oppression,and they could make decisions based on intuition rather than force.

In 1953, 43%claimed they would be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew. By the end ofthe 1980’s 79% claimed they would support intermarriage (Heilman, 132). Segregation between Jews and other citizens of the United States has beeneliminated. Love between these two factions is due to religious tolerance,which can only be found in the United States.

America has been good to Jews, and it has helped evolve Judaism to match presentday concerns. Judaism is not the same as 100 years ago. 100 years ago Jewswere stuck in the ghetto and were unable to practice services, which were soprevalent to their culture. Now that Jews have fulfilled the American dreamthey have the freedom to choose the ceremonies they practice. Judaism hasalways based itself on justice andGergely 11Democracy. “As Americans of Jewish faith we believe implicitly in thefundamentals of democracy, rooted, as they are, in moralities that transcendrace and state, and endow the individual with rights, which he is answerableonly to God (American Council For Judaism, 523).”

America has freed Jews fromprejudice that has always been part of their past. Jews have responded byliving in the United States peacefully and together with people of otherreligions. Cultural assimilation does not mean the end of Judaism. It meansJews will now be able to spread their word of God, without prejudice. Presently,there are less restrictions on Judaic practice, than in the past. This willultimately lead to the distribution of the Jewish practice; not it’s demise Gergely.


  1. American Council For Judaism: A Statement of Policy. Feb. 1944
  2. Diner, Hasia R. A Time For Gathering: Striving for The Sacred. TheJohns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London. 1992.
  3. Heilman, Samuel C. Portrait of American Jews:The Last Half of the 20thCentury. University of Washington Press. Seattle and London. 1995.
  4. Howe, Irving. A Margin of Hope: In the Movement. Harcourt Brace Jovanich,Publishers. San Diego, New York, London. 1982Prell, Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: The Jewish American Princess. Beacon Press. Boston. 1999.
  5. Revel, Bernard. Builder of American Orthodoxy; The American Yeshiva. PublicationSociety of America. Philadelphia. 1972.
  6. Sachar, Howard M. A History Of The Jews In America. Vintage Books. NY. 1992.

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Jewish Assimilation: Has Assimilation Been Bad for Judaism?. (2019, Feb 28). Retrieved from