Commentary Magazine


Topic: intermarriage

The Problem with American Jewry

When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

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When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

Beinart writes principally about the contrast between the well-attended Jewish schools in Australia and the situation in the United States where middle-class parents are often forced to choose between day school tuition and paying their mortgages. Day schools remain the best form of Jewish education and a chance to at least provide kids with an informed choice about their decisions about embracing Jewish life. They are not a magic bullet against assimilation and intermarriage. Given the ingrained secularism of the majority of American Jews, many, if not most wouldn’t send their kids to a day school if it were free. But along with improved synagogue schools, Jewish camps, and trips to Israel, they all provide a comprehensive alternative to a population that is Jewishly illiterate.

As Beinart points out, there is certainly enough Jewish wealth in America to fund all of these programs in a manner that could actually make a dent in the Pew statistics if not completely change the future of a community that is rapidly shrinking. But instead of funding schools adequately, American Jews have funded vanity projects like museums while not doing what’s necessary so that, “American Jewish six-year-olds [can] read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance.”

Beinart is wrong to lump Israel advocacy—which often struggles for support in much the same manner as education—with the money lavished by American Jews on secular universities and museums as examples of misallocated funds. That is a function of his feud with AIPAC, which he despises for its loyalty to the principle of backing Israel’s democratically elected government.

But I find myself sympathizing with Beinart’s joke about being a “self-hating American Jew” when he regards the complacent manner with which most of the community has reacted to Pew. The struggle to change our priorities in order to preserve non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is an uphill slog and it’s easy to be discouraged about the foolish manner in which the Reform and Conservative movements as well as many federations have opted out of the fight. But at least this is one battle that needn’t divide us along the familiar lines of left and right.

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Looking at the Pew Study Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Reactions to the Pew Study on American Jewish life that I discussed in the cover story of COMMENTARY’s November issue are still pouring in. They run the gamut from sensible dives into the numbers, such as the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis’s pessimistic analysis of the future of the Conservative movement in the Jewish Review of Books and former Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s thoughtful criticism of the rise of secularism in Haaretz, to the extremely foolish, such as that of columnist J.J. Goldberg’s attempt to claim that the acclaimed study was fundamentally incorrect in its analysis and conclusions. Goldberg’s piece was subsequently given a thorough fisking by two of the study’s authors. But given the investment that many Jews have in the idea that the rise of intermarriage is an opportunity rather than a calamity, there wasn’t much doubt we would see more such efforts to turn the lemons delivered by Pew into lemonade for the organized Jewish world. And that’s exactly what we have now received from Tablet magazine in the form of a piece by Middlebury College’s Theodore Sasson claiming that the lesson we should derive from the numbers showing the vast increase in the number of Jews intermarrying is that most of them are becoming Jews.

Sasson asserts that if we add up the number of millennials who are children of intermarriage who are Jewish by religion or say they have no religion but identify as Jewish or as partly Jewish, it adds up to 59 percent. Since anything over 50 percent would mean a net population gain for the Jewish people, he says that accounts for the fact that total number of Jews by any definition hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years. That leads him to conclude that not only is pessimism about the future unwarranted but that this should motivate Jewish groups to concentrate more of their efforts on outreach toward this population. But this is not only a misinterpretation of these numbers; it is a fundamental misreading of what this means for the future.

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Reactions to the Pew Study on American Jewish life that I discussed in the cover story of COMMENTARY’s November issue are still pouring in. They run the gamut from sensible dives into the numbers, such as the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis’s pessimistic analysis of the future of the Conservative movement in the Jewish Review of Books and former Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s thoughtful criticism of the rise of secularism in Haaretz, to the extremely foolish, such as that of columnist J.J. Goldberg’s attempt to claim that the acclaimed study was fundamentally incorrect in its analysis and conclusions. Goldberg’s piece was subsequently given a thorough fisking by two of the study’s authors. But given the investment that many Jews have in the idea that the rise of intermarriage is an opportunity rather than a calamity, there wasn’t much doubt we would see more such efforts to turn the lemons delivered by Pew into lemonade for the organized Jewish world. And that’s exactly what we have now received from Tablet magazine in the form of a piece by Middlebury College’s Theodore Sasson claiming that the lesson we should derive from the numbers showing the vast increase in the number of Jews intermarrying is that most of them are becoming Jews.

Sasson asserts that if we add up the number of millennials who are children of intermarriage who are Jewish by religion or say they have no religion but identify as Jewish or as partly Jewish, it adds up to 59 percent. Since anything over 50 percent would mean a net population gain for the Jewish people, he says that accounts for the fact that total number of Jews by any definition hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years. That leads him to conclude that not only is pessimism about the future unwarranted but that this should motivate Jewish groups to concentrate more of their efforts on outreach toward this population. But this is not only a misinterpretation of these numbers; it is a fundamental misreading of what this means for the future.

Let’s first take apart that 59 percent number. Including people who are raised in more than one religion or who identify as “partly Jewish” in the number of total Jews is somewhat suspect. That means the confidence that intermarriage is increasing the Jewish population is a myth. Even more important, by taking these numbers in isolation without looking at them alongside the other data in the study about the behavior of the intermarried and their children, it’s easy to see that this optimistic reading misses the real story in the study. Since the overwhelming majority of intermarried Jews are not raising their children as Jews or giving them any sort of Jewish education, that means most will not have any meaningful Jewish identity in terms of affiliation or behavior no matter what they call themselves at the moment. Moreover, since even Sasson agrees “most of the younger Jews in this category will probably marry non-Jews,” there is simply no way to see this as anything but a trend that will lead to more assimilation, not greater affiliation. Thus to claim the growth in this group is a positive trend is to look at the numbers through the wrong end of the telescope.

The problem with the rise in intermarriage for the Jewish community is primarily because it is the product of trends that reflect that lack of religious faith or identification with the Jewish people by those who intermarry. The Pew authors could not determine whether being intermarried made Jews less religious or whether being less religious made Jews more likely to intermarry, but the connection is not in doubt.

Going beyond the raw population numbers, Pew’s data informs us that the growth in intermarriage must be viewed in the context of a web of attitudes about Jewish life that are indicative of the decline of faith and affiliation. That’s why expecting those who come from backgrounds where both of these factors are not considered important to latch onto Judaism or Jewish affiliation as adults is not justified by any reasonable reading of the numbers.

It is true that more children of intermarriage are willing to admit to ties to the Jewish community in previous generations leading to the increase of Jews of no religion. But that is a function of the general decline in anti-Semitism that has helped break down barriers between Jews and non-Jews that has led to more intermarriage. But, as Pew’s numbers show, the idea that this is a meaningful measure of affiliation or future behavior is more than a stretch.

The most lamentable part of this argument is the conclusion he draws from it about the large number of younger Jews with some ties to the community but no religious faith or belief in the value of taking part in Jewish life. Sasson claims the sheer numbers of the people in this group justifies a major investment on the part of the organized Jewish world in programming and outreach toward them. But if there is anything we have learned in the past 20 years it is that such efforts have done nothing to stop intermarriage or increase affiliation among groups that have already demonstrated a lack of interest in faith or any other aspect of Jewish life. Indeed, the Pew numbers demonstrate exactly this point as intermarriage goes up and the numbers of the intermarried who have embraced Jewish education for their kids has remained low.

As Jack Wertheimer persuasively argued in Mosaic magazine, the outreach industry is predicated on the idea that the Jewish community can do nothing about intermarriage and should give up encouraging endogamy. While the Jewish world should welcome anyone who wants to join, for the past generation the community has squandered scarce resources chasing unaffiliated Jews who don’t care about Jewish life on the margins while doing little if anything to make it easier for people who are still part of the community to stay there. While the community’s doors must stay open, its focus must be on helping those still inside the tent, not chasing a fool’s errand outside of it.

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Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry

In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.

Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.

To read the rest of the cover story of the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, “Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry,” click on this link.

In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.

Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.

To read the rest of the cover story of the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, “Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry,” click on this link.

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American Jews: Laughing But Shrinking

The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

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The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

To acknowledge the dismal future that this charts for the community should not be confused with exaggerated claims about American Jewry disappearing. There are still an estimated 5.3 million people who claim Jewish identity and a critical mass of them are still raising Jewish children, many of whom will affiliate with religious denominations and have an affinity for Israel. But the breakdown of the data shows that among the non-Orthodox majority in the United States—a group that composes approximately 90 percent of the community—most are not marrying Jews or giving their kids a Jewish education. Indeed, the two elements of American Jewry that seem to be growing at the most rapid rates are the Orthodox and those who consider themselves to be Jewish in some way but have no religion, a group that makes up 22 percent of those polled. While, as Pew points out, secularism has always been part of American Jewish culture, most of those with no religion are not raising Jewish children or participating in or supporting Jewish institutions. Moreover, more than half of non-Orthodox Jews are also marrying non-Jews with the overwhelming majority of these families also giving their children no Jewish education.

The problem here is not just the absolute numbers of those Jews drifting away. It is the survey results that make it clear that an increasingly large number of Jews have notions of Jewish identity that are based on values not likely to promote future generations of Jewish life on these shores.

For example, “leading an ethical or moral life” or “working for justice or equality”—elements that 69 percent and 56 percent of Jews say is what it means to be Jewish—are integral to Judaism. But they are beliefs that are also integral to other faiths and even compatible with being non-religious. Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew. Remembering the Holocaust—a point embraced by 73 percent of those surveyed—is also important. But as vital a lesson as the Holocaust is, it is not a positive vision of Jewish life that can serve as a paradigm for the future. Ideas such as being part of a community or observing Jewish law have far less support, but it is those notions upon which a community is built. For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future.

The only theological point upon which the majority of those polled agree is that believing in the divinity of Jesus means you are not a Jew. That’s understandable given that this is still an overwhelmingly Christian nation. But again, this is hardly a factor that can serve as a building block for Jewish identity. If Jewish denominations are all suffering record levels of dropouts, it can be traced to the fact that a community in a free society that is based on such loose notions rather than the strong bonds of faith cannot hope to retain much of its membership.

Israel remains important to most Jews and that is a hopeful sign since it remains the vital center of Jewish life in our time. But here again those numbers are skewed since the rates of interest in Israel are far higher among the Orthodox and lower among the growing numbers with no religion and affiliation. Critics of Israel will point to the fact that pluralities disapprove of settlements and think the government of the Jewish state isn’t doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians. Those are debatable notions, but the far smaller number of American Jews who think the Palestinians are sincere about wanting peace shows that the majority is not completely detached from the reality of the Middle East.

As for domestic political considerations, like other polls of American Jewry, the survey shows the overwhelming majority are liberals and loyal to the Democrats. Since those numbers are reversed among the Orthodox, one should expect a gradual rise in the total of those who vote for the Republicans. Yet even with the Orthodox population growing far more rapidly than the rest of the community, it may take several decades for the GOP to make up that ground if at all.

Overall, the survey tells us that the falloff of Jewish affiliation among the young and the non-Orthodox is already considerable and will only grow in the future. If Jewish organizations want to have any sort of impact on these numbers, it will require them to cast off their illusions about the value of outreach, which has clearly failed. A community that is primarily defined by being inclusive or by values that are not specific to Judaism is dooming itself to irrelevance. Instead of accepting assimilation, Jewish groups must resist it whenever possible and concentrate their efforts on encouragement and investment in those elements that produce Jews rather than people with only a dim grasp of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Only with major investments in those institutions that build Jewish identity such as schools, synagogues, and camps as well as trips to Israel can American Jewry stop or even lessen this demographic slide. The numbers show us that a largely secular, non-religious American Jewish community is well on its way to assimilating itself into a marginal group with only a vestigial memory of Jewish life as well as notions about food and humor that should not be mistaken for communal values.

If these trends continue or worsen, Jewish life and Judaism will not die in America. But it will be smaller, less diverse, and be increasingly unable to support the institutions that have been built here. That is not the same thing as disappearing, but for the majority of those who are not committed to a community of faith however they choose to define it Jewishly, it will be a distinction without a difference.

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Reverse Course on Intermarriage?

There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

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There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

I should note in passing that I come to this issue with some history of my own. More than 18 years ago, when I was serving as editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger newspaper, I stumbled into a major controversy when I wrote a column explaining the policies of that paper regarding the announcement of intermarriages. My decision to reaffirm the existing policy of the paper not to include such events in the paper’s free page commemorating notable events in the community and to place it in the context of the broader debate about the community provoked a spirited–and at times, angry–discussion that soon spread to the mainstream press. It culminated in a New York Times article about the issue that generated a deluge of hate mail and death threats aimed at the paper, as well as vocal support.

In retrospect, the whole controversy seems almost quaint not only because the focus of the dispute seems so unimportant in the great scheme of events but also because it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone outside the Orthodox world taking a similar stance today. Most of us now understand that intermarriage is just a symptom of a broader trend involving assimilation and the decline of a sense of Jewish peoplehood. While few would dispute my arguments about the implications of intermarriage, the boat had probably already sailed on the issue at the time and that is even truer today.

Looking back on the experience and the subsequent year or two during which I was a frequent guest speaker at intermarriage outreach group events (those invitations were probably extended in the expectation that I would be the moral equivalent of the guy in the dunking booth at fairs, but most of the encounters were actually quite thoughtful), I learned a few things about the way the issue could place pressure on Jewish institutions. As an independent journalist, I didn’t have much to lose in asking people to draw a distinction between their personal inclinations and what was necessary to preserve the Jewish future. But others were not so fortunate. Moreover, even though virtually everyone—including intermarried couples—agreed that some lines should be drawn (we just disagreed on where they should be), the dynamic of the debate was such that any action that could be depicted as hurting the feelings of those who had made such a choice or saying no to them was impossible for non-Orthodox institutions.

As I wrote back then and Wertheimer noted in his Mosaic piece, intermarriage is the product of American freedom and the wide acceptance of Jews into American society. For most of those Jews who are not religious, that means adhering to endogamy requires a conscious decision to swim against a cultural tide that not only breaks down most distinctions between people but also wrongly regards any insistence on sticking to your own group as illegitimate if not racist. No one disputes that intermarried families interested in being part of the community should be welcomed. But with intermarriages now estimated to constitute more than half of those unions involving Jews, the trend has a built-in constituency that sees anything but complete acceptance of them as a litmus test of affiliation. While some optimists have claimed that the large number of families with feet in both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities is an opportunity for Jews to increase their numbers, as Wertheimer reports, the statistics point in the opposite direction. Yet even though a generation of emphasis on outreach has produced little but evidence of good intentions, Jewish groups aren’t likely to take Wertheimer’s advice and stand up for principle.

However, the primary obstacle to such a decision isn’t only the potential hurt feelings of the intermarried and their relatives and the way they have abandoned institutions—like the Conservative movement of Judaism—that refused to acquiesce to all of their demands. Just as important in understanding the failure of Jewish groups to face facts is the way the cult of inclusion has become enshrined in Jewish life. As those involved in debates about Israel and the BDS movement that aims to destroy it know all too well, asking communal institutions to draw a line in the sand about anti-Zionism is sometimes even more controversial than opposing intermarriage. With increasing numbers of communal professionals having grown up in an atmosphere in which increasing the size of the big tent is the primary value they’ve been taught to respect, asking them to look inward rather than outward is tantamount to suggesting that this overwhelmingly liberal population embrace pro-life stands rather than support abortion rights. It isn’t going to happen.

Wertheimer is right that those who form the core of the Jewish community already agree with him. Since it this group—which is statistically more likely to have had a serious Jewish education, gone to a Jewish camp and/or visited Israel among other factors—which will make up an increasingly larger percentage of the community in the years to come as the children of the intermarried drift away, perhaps Wertheimer’s views will eventually be heeded. But while I applaud his stand and hope his article marks the beginning of a reassessment of acceptance of intermarriage, I think we are still many years away from that point. Until then, any such initiative is almost certainly doomed.

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