In the 1930s, a Republican Jewish judge, observing his coreligionists’ commitment to the Democratic party, quipped, in Yiddish, that Jews have three velt (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world), and Roosevelt. Since then, Jewish devotion has attenuated somewhat, although Jews still overwhelmingly lean Democratic. Most American Jews, however, are unfamiliar with the terms “this world” or “the next world” in any language. Carefully examining a wealth of statistical data, Samuel J. Abrams and Jack Wertheimer argue that the sort of robust Jewish liberalism that characterized U.S. Jewry a few decades ago is in steep decline. Jews, they explain, are undergoing their own version of what political scientists call the “great sort,” whereby politics, religion, and place of residence increasingly align:
Jewish political liberals and conservatives have moved into two camps with distinct and exclusive ideas, behaviors, and packages of attitudes and practices, resembling and reflecting the same sociopolitical phenomena in the larger society, a development with serious ramifications for American Jewish life.
[Most importantly], the conservative/liberal gap widened, not because conservatives became more Jewishly engaged—they held steady—but because liberals experienced notable drops in Jewish engagement over the years.
We do not know if liberals became more distant from Judaism and the Jewish people, or whether those who are Jewishly distant migrated to the liberal camp. But we do know that liberals identify less with Jewish religious and communal life than conservatives today—and that this process has been underway for over 30 years. The widening of the gap is not due to recent events, such as the Trump presidency or Israel’s decreasing popularity with Democrats and liberals. Rather, other factors have been at work, undoubtedly resembling similar patterns in American society at large.
Here, then, is the broader context in which politically liberal American Jews find themselves, an ideological environment not warmly disposed to religion, to put it mildly, and one that regards particularistic allegiances to white ethnic groups as anachronistic, if not a form of white supremacy. Little wonder that many Jewish liberals are distancing themselves from Jewish religiosity and communal needs.