Jews in America

Jews in America

Historian to talk about assimilation, identity, and distinct culture

Dr. Richard Rubin
Dr. Richard Rubin

How integrated are Jews into American culture?

That seems like a fairly easy question. We’re pretty well integrated.

But what effect has that integration had on the Jews?

And how do those two questions play off each other?

Dr. Richard Rubin, who retired after teaching at Swarthmore College for almost three decades, specializing in race and ethnicity in general and Jews in America in particular, will address those questions at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck at a Teaneck-Hackensack Hadassah meeting. (See box for more details.) His talk will be based on his recent book, “Jewish in America: Living George Washington’s Promise.”

“There are two principal themes in the book,” Dr. Rubin said. “How integrated are we? Remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when there were quotas that kept Jews out of some colleges. There is an evolving element of integration in Jewish life.”

On the other hand, “has integration brought about a large-scale assimilation? Is there any distinctive Jewish element left?

“Those two ideas are at the core of my book,” he continued. “That core includes intermarriage, it includes where and what Jews could do, and when, and it compares, for example, what it was like in Europe, when Jews wanted to integrate but they were always a people apart.”

The period he’s discussing starts around the 18th century, when Jews started trickling out of the ghettos to which they’d been confined in Europe. In America, on the other hand, “there never was a ghetto, unless Jewish people decided that they wanted to be in one,” he said. “That was from the beginning. The book begins with George Washington’s promise, in the letter he wrote to the Jews of Rhode Island” — that’s the famous 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport — “where he said that Jews will be full citizens of this country. No one had ever said that before, and it wasn’t said until many years later in France and Germany.

“In England, Jews couldn’t sit in the government until the 1850s. In France, it happened in the first decade of the 1880s, not because of popular belief but because of Napoleon, who for some reason, said that Jews could be citizens. But it was with a caveat — he said that as Frenchmen they could have everything, as Jews they could have nothing.

“That was diametrically opposed to what Washington promised the Jewish people. What he said was that minority cultures will be protected. Not just majority cultures — that’s obvious — but minority cultures.

“And it has been that pluralist American way ever since then.”

In his book, Dr. Rubin said, he traces “a period of minimal anti-Semitism in the United States in the beginning, and then the period of social anti-Semitism, which was quite severe from the 1890s to after the Second World War. That was the period of college quotas, of hotels you couldn’t go to, of all sorts of other social inhibitions.

“And then I cover the Jewish renaissance in the United States, the beautiful time when the whole Jewish world got turned upside down in America, where not only did they integrate into the business world and had all sorts of economic opportunities, but it was the end of quotas in universities and colleges, the end of the dishonor of not allowing people into hotels.

“This started in the early 1960s, when the U.S. government, which had passed no laws about Jews, started to pass laws that encompassed Jews. One of them was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which basically outlawed discrimination in public places and in public organizations.” Not only did it prevent discrimination on the basis of race and gender, it also included religion.

But many Jews, particularly in Orthodox communities, worry that “as Jews have integrated into American society, the Jewish voice becomes smaller. They are taken over by common beliefs, so that the Jewish voice is hardly heard.”

Dr. Rubin’s data for his look at more recent assimilation comes largely from the huge Pew Foundation studies on religion in America, which were so big that they incorporated a lot of information on Jews. “It was an absolute gold mine,” he said. Because Jews are only about 2 percent of the United States population, random samples have to be very large before they can reach enough Jews to see patterns in their answers. Pew’s researchers did that.

“Jewish people today are the most politically liberal, the most progressive, of any social group in the country,” Dr. Rubin said. “They are the most tolerant of other groups. And they are the most this-worldly people, compared with the rest of the country; the least likely to believe in miracles, the most scientifically oriented.”

He offered an example. “The Pew study asked if you think that angels and demons are active in this world. Sixty to 70 percent of Christians said yes. And Jews? It’s somewhere in the 20s. These are not small differences.”

In fact, as with angels and devils, the differences between Jews and other groups can be stark. “In 2008, about 80 percent of Jewish people voted for Obama,” Dr. Rubin said. “Among Protestants, 35 percent voted for Obama.” He thinks that it had to do with race. “There have been many indications that Jewish people are more liberal about race than other groups,” he said.

Jews also tend to be liberal about abortion, he added. “Approximately 90 percent of Jews approved of Roe v. Wade. In the United States as a whole, it ranged from 36 percent to 44 percent approval. There is no majority for it among any group — except for us.

“What I found is that Jews are very distinctive,” Dr. Rubin said. “There is a strong Jewish element that has survived integration on a high level. So there is integration, but not assimilation.

“At the heart of the book is the idea that American pluralism — the pluralism the country was founded on — is very deeply accepted by Jews. Jews are the poster children for this country’s ideals.”

Dr. Rubin, who is 88 years old and has seen a lot, is optimistic. “The Jewish people are unique in America,” he said. “Jewish people have their own way of looking at things. I don’t know what that is yet, but someday social scientists will identify it.

“You can count me in as one of those who is trying to make the point that there is plenty of Jewish culture left. The culture is very strong.”

Who: Dr. Richard Rubin, author of “Jewish in America: Living George Washington’s Promise

What: Will look at history to talk about whether American Jews are losing their Jewish identity

When: On Monday, June 19, at 1 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave. in Teaneck

For whom: Teaneck-Hackensack Hadassah

For more information: On the talk, call Minette Salzman at (201) 837-8157. On the book, go to

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