American Jewish Life, 1980-2000

Political and Social Integration

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By the end of the 20th century, the vast majority of American Jews were fully integrated into American life and increasingly distant from their parents and grandparents' experiences. During this time, American Jewry witnessed a significant degree of internal diversification. Blending the richness of their own tradition with the American virtues of freedom and pluralism, the community broadened the boundaries of Jewish observance, patterns of worship, and education.

By 1980, discrimination against American Jews in the professions was largely a thing of the past. Virtually no field was (or is) "closed" to Jews, officially or unofficially, including politics. There were more Jews in the House of Representatives and the Senate than ever before, in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the U.S. population. In the 2000 presidential election, Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was the Democratic candidate for vice president.

american jewish lifeAmerican Jews' social integration was no less remarkable. This achievement, however, was far more complicated. With assimilation into American society came higher rates of intermarriage. Recognizing the changing makeup of the American Jewish population, the Reform movement followed the lead of the Reconstructionist movement and passed its "Resolution on Patrilineal Descent" in 1983. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association was founded in 1974, and formally approved patrilineal descent in 1975.) The resolution ruled that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is considered Jewish, as long as the child is being raised in the Jewish tradition. This ruling reversed a long-held tenet of Jewish law that relied upon matrilineal descent to determine a child's Jewish status.

The controversy surrounding this decision became more intense with the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The NJPS found that roughly half of the Jews married between 1985 and 1990 chose non-Jewish spouses. Jewish communal leaders had to confront the implications of this statistic: How were they to determine, or redetermine, the boundaries of the Jewish community? Were intermarried couples and their children welcome to join synagogues?

The community began to review its priorities. Should Jewish institutions focus on "outreach" and try to engage all Jewish families, even if some of their members did not consider themselves Jews? Those who argued this position, including the Jewish Outreach Institute (founded in 1988) and the Union for Reform Judaism, figured they were simply accepting, and adapting to, the reality of Jewish life in the late-20th century.

Others disagreed, preferring a policy of "in-reach." They contended it was best to keep the definition of "Jew" more narrow and rigid. Anything else would erase the boundary between Jew and non-Jew, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish community would be lost.

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.