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Jack Wertheimer on The Pew Survey and What is to be Done

December 9, 2013

Last week, Tikvah’s Advanced Institute Moments of Decision, Great Debates pivoted from 20th century turning points for Israel to the alternatives faced by leaders in mid-Century America. Their engagement with Jewish America was deepened by a lunchtime visit from one of the country’s leading scholars  on contemporary American Judaism, Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Professor Wertheimer answered questions from Tikvah Senior Director Mark Gottlieb about the recent Pew Report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  What were its strengths and weaknesses as a study? What is the balance of good news and bad news? What does it say about the future of the various Jewish movements in the United States, and the Conservative movement in particular? (Here Professor Wertheimer has a quibble with Daniel Gordis, who recently wrote a requiem for Conservative Judaism in the Jewish Review of Books.) And last, what do we learn about our current “moment of decision” – what, in other words, can and should be done?

In connection to this last question, the Professor offers a memorable critique of the ever-popular vision of “tikkun olam” (repairing  the world) as a form of content that might bring about greater Jewish involvement:

One of the greatest disservices that is being done to the Jewish community today is this obsession with tikkun olam… The problem with tikkun olam is… your selling something to people that they’ve already bought!… The argument that has been offered in the past is that this is the hook. Jews want to do good for the world – and if you show them that this really stems from Jewish values, then somehow they’ll reconnect to Jewish life. And my response is: Prove it! Prove that that really works!”

Listen to Professor Wertheimer’s whole interview here:


More about: The American Jewish Experience