Commentary Magazine

American Jewry's New Chance

American Jewry is in crisis—and much of its leadership prefers to ignore it. The publication last October of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” confirmed what scholars and demographers had been pointing out for more than 20 years: Rates of intermarriage have risen to such a level that the future of non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is in doubt. While intermarriage has created a slightly larger pool of Americans with some Jewish connections, an increasingly large percentage of American Jews no longer identify with Judaism as a religion or have any sense of Jewish peoplehood.

Intermarriage is the primary indication of decline in communities. Pew shows the intermarriage rate for the non-Orthodox is now at 71 percent. With only 20 percent of the intermarried raising their children as Jews by religion, only 18 percent getting a Jewish education, and the overwhelming majority of the children of intermarriage intermarrying, the math is unavoidable. While the Pew survey’s authors would not say whether being intermarried makes Jews less religious or whether being less religious makes Jews more inclined to intermarry, the result is the same: a trend threatening the future of the non-Orthodox community that still accounts for approximately 90 percent of those who call themselves Jews.

Yet the most interesting thing about the reaction to Pew was the almost complete lack of alarm on the part of the very institutions that were most threatened by its results. Most striking was the response of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism—currently the largest denomination of Jews who identify with a religious denomination. He told his movement’s biennial convention in December that those who even raised the question of addressing intermarriage should be considered the moral equivalent of the Flat Earth Society members. Praising his movement’s outreach efforts, Jacobs lampooned those who wanted to reopen the debate about intermarriage: “In North America today, being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity; you can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life.”

Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, said that rather than focusing on the disastrous decline in affiliation or advocating inmarriage, he wanted Conservatives to “stretch to meet” those opting out of the community “where they are and will be.” His statement showed no sense of urgency or even consternation at the spectacle of the precipitate decline of his movement or the vital center of American Jewry that it once led. Instead, the leadership of Conservative and Reform Judaism was united in a sense of complacency and self-satisfaction and feared being viewed as unwelcoming toward intermarried Jews and their spouses.

Even more troubling than this Panglossery was the relative silence about Pew from the umbrella Jewish philanthropies known as “the federations.” They had reacted to the 1990 Jewish Population Study, the first to suggest that intermarriage had exceeded the 50 percent mark, with something close to panic. But while these entities have since made some progress toward greater funding for programs with a demonstrable impact—such as education, summer camps, and trips to Israel—the very demographics that portend doom have made it difficult for federations to make a priority of strengthening institutions that work against intermarriage. So, rather than using Pew as a rallying cry as they did two decades ago about the 1990 study, the federations have reacted mostly by trying to avoid having any involvement in controversy that might tar them as intolerant or hostile.

Talk about discouraging intermarriage or overtly encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is not only unfashionable outside the Orthodox milieu. It is also considered an insult to the majority (and their families) who have rejected that option. Indeed, where once intermarriage was the focus of communal concern, mentioning it has become the third rail of Jewish communal life.

Yet some leading Jewish thinkers and activists are seeking to push back against this consensus. They believe Pew represents what is very likely to be the last chance to produce a massive response to this demographic shift. A group of some two dozen scholars, community professionals, and journalists (including myself) met in New York in January to discuss the subject. Organized by demographer Steven M. Cohen, the American Jewish Committee’s Steven Bayme, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer, the meeting centered on a series of papers presented by the trio and other participants about how to address it.

For their pains, the participants were mocked by activists like Paul Golin of the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. He wrote in New York’s Jewish Week that those involved with the effort were dinosaurs who have been steering the community in the wrong direction for decades and want to fashion a community that resembles Jewish Brooklyn in the 1950s. Even to preach endogamy was, in his view, a way of blaming the intermarried and must be abandoned.

That was nonsense. Far from jousting with windmills, Cohen, Bayme, Wertheimer, and their colleagues have proposed a raft of commonsense measures that, if properly funded, have the potential to put a major dent in the statistical trends, if not reverse them. If they are not heeded, then the Pew study will not be a mere signpost on the road to the future, but an indicator that it is already too late to revitalize non-Orthodox Jewry. If inmarriage advocates, at this critical juncture, fail to convince funders and mainstream organizations of the urgency of their purpose, then American Jewry may have lost its last chance to avert demographic disaster.

The first obstacle to inmarriage advocacy is not so much practical as it is ideological. While Jews rightly celebrate the decline of anti-Semitism in America (which has made possible such high rates of intermarriage), they must also contend with the preposterous yet by no means unpopular notion that choosing a life partner from only one’s own religious and ethnic group is somehow racist or touched with prejudice.

Having successfully banished the social stigma of Jewish identity in the American public square—if not elsewhere—Jews now find themselves defending a desire to perpetuate Jewish life against a belief that preferring a Jewish spouse is at best small-minded and at worst racist. A certain strain of liberalism that embraces diversity in all its forms with near-religious fervor seems to have also bred contempt in some quarters for the desire to preserve Jewish identity if it also means that fewer Jews should intermarry.

Just as important is the sizeable investment that much of the Jewish community has made in attempts to ameliorate the impact of intermarriage. Chief among these is the Reform movement’s seminal decision in 1983 to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jewish. This decision rejected the post-biblical legal traditions heretofore accepted by both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, which accepted only matrilineal descent. Reform leaders believed it was far better to be able to welcome such families into Jewish communities as full-fledged members than to treat them as transgressors.

Outreach advocates cite the fact that their efforts have made it possible for many children of intermarriage to grow up in the community and assume leadership roles, including in the rabbinate. But Reform leader Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the chief architect of the 1983 embrace of patrilineal descent, did not view the measure solely as a way to mollify the intermarried. Instead, he viewed it as a wedge toward increasing the Jewish population via a program of acceptance that would also involve a major effort aimed at converting non-Jewish spouses. Alas, the patrilineal dynamic has worked against conversion more than for of it—in large part because the atmosphere of acceptance for intermarriage has come to see conversion as either unnecessary or offensive to non-Jewish spouses.

Unlike the Conservatives, Reform is holding its own in terms of numbers, but whether Reform can continue to attract enough defectors from other Jewish movements to compensate for the winnowing away of its own members who have intermarried is doubtful. (And their children and grandchildren, moreover, often removed by more than one generation from active practice of Judaism, fall away altogether from the community.)

Most troubling, the normalization of intermarriage has made it nearly impossible for Jewish groups to advocate for inmarriage. As the initiative of Cohen, Bayme, and Wertheimer showed again this year, all proposals that prioritize efforts to build more Jewish families with two Jewish spouses are viewed as insults to the intermarrying majority. Going against the grain in this manner for fundraisers, whose governance is based on a cult of consensus, may be asking too much of even the wisest of Jewish communal leaders. In a world where accepting intermarriage is likened to acknowledging gravity, opposing it can be a form of career suicide.

But change is still possible. If a critical mass of Jewish leaders across the political and religious spectrum were to embrace the cause of inmarriage advocacy, the impact of such a movement could be incalculable. The diversity of the group that Cohen, Bayme, and Wertheimer assembled to their conclave suggests that a shift in the discussion can still happen. Feminist scholars and liberal community leaders were seated at the table alongside more traditional or conservative Jews; meanwhile, as an editor of Commentary, I sat next to the editor of the Forward, Jane Eisner, a liberal Jew who subsequently editorialized in the paper that instead of treating high intermarriage rates as “irreversible,” it was imperative to declare that “encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is too essential to surrender to the uncertainties of American assimilation.” The gathering’s transcendence of ordinary divisions demonstrated that the “gravity” theory of intermarriage acceptance isn’t as grounded in reality as its advocates claim.

Instead of merely producing angry denunciations of intermarriage, the proposals at the conclave pointed to practical and achievable schemes that could be implemented without shaking the foundations of existing Jewish life.

One such came from Sylvia Barack Fishman, of Brandeis University, who in a paper advocated a series of measures whose intent was to address the declining Jewish birth rate (non-Orthodox Jews reproduce at a rate of 1.7 children per couple) in the United States and to strengthen Jewish families. Along with funding universal vouchers for Jewish early childhood care and expanded financial assistance for Jewish education, Fishman also proposed advocacy that would help inform young Jewish women and men about the consequences of waiting to have children, without “bullying, badgering, or blaming women.”

Another set of proposals came from Rabbi Daniel Smokler, who heads the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University. Smokler took as his starting point a belief that what was necessary was a nondenominational vision of “Judaism as a historical family with a covenant” among emerging adults. He advocated transforming the American rabbinate into a corps of community organizers—following the model established by the Lubavitch Chabad movement—as well as paying Jewish college students to take a 10-week course in Judaism.

Steven Cohen’s proposals were rooted in the simple truth that despite the fear of turning the intermarried off to Judaism, it is not impossible to influence behavior by strategies aimed at promoting identity. The Birthright Israel program of trips, perhaps the most systematically researched intervention, has clearly produced a higher inmarriage rate. The same applies to other programs such as schools and camps that are aimed at younger Jews. To claim, as some like Golin do, that such measures have been tried and have failed to make a dent in intermarriage rates is misleading. The measures have never been funded or promoted on a scale that could have community-wide impact. The demographer Cohen believes the key is what he calls “clumping”—putting enough young Jews in proximity to each other to create social networks that powerfully influence behavior.

Bayme and Wertheimer advocate a slightly different way of looking at the problem. They emphasize enhanced Jewish meaning and content over proximity. They argue powerfully that contemporary American Jewry’s feel-good approach to faith and identity and a “culture of non-judgmentalism” has created a reticence to “define what Jews should stand for.” That allows fallacies, such as the belief that it is possible to raise children in two faiths while still remaining Jewish, to spread. In the present “malaise” of belief, beyond the Orthodox world, it has become impossible to say that anything is unacceptable. The obsession with a “quest for meaning” has, they write, been dumbed down to a matter of “individual tastes” rather than transcendent purpose. Without the tools of Jewish content, they believe, it will be impossible to go beyond “association to commitment.”

Each of these proposals and manifestos is ripe for rich, serious debate. But it cannot be debated that American Jewish groups and their leaders must take heed of the clarion call to action that they collectively represent. After the Pew survey, business as usual in the organized Jewish world should no longer be possible. Anything less than a recognition that the community is in a state of crisis is an unacceptable dereliction of duty on the part of those tasked with guiding both non-Orthodox denominations and the philanthropic federations that fund Jewish life.

It is not possible to pretend that the numbers produced by Pew won’t have a devastating impact on Jewish life in this country. We cannot just watch silently as the groups that have nurtured the 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox wither and die. The collapse of what Cohen calls the “vital middle” of Jewish life will undermine more than synagogues. It will implode the networks of Jewish philanthropies, educational facilities, and political associations that have built support for Israel and various causes. Those who accept astronomically high intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox (now it is at 71 percent, and in the future it could be higher still) are accepting a decline that is incompatible with the survival of a community that has the strength to maintain itself, let alone thrive.

Jews who intermarry should not be scolded, and institutions should do their best to welcome those who care to be part of the community. But a community that treats inclusiveness as its primary value at the cost of having any sense of meaning ultimately stands for nothing.

American Jewry still has sufficient strength and resources to begin the vital work of reinforcing identity and starting a slow but steady reversal of intermarriage statistics. The programs that can do this are no secret. They involve education and experiences that put young Jews together and help inculcate them with a sense of Jewish purpose. The goal is not just for Jews to marry but for them to believe that building a Jewish family—the chances for which are exponentially higher with two Jewish spouses rather than only one—is worth the effort.

The question of how to implement such programs on a scale that will make a difference is not the point. The real question is whether it is possible to begin changing the conversation about intermarriage—to break the silence on the part of those who point out its cost for the long-term survival of the community. The first step is to acknowledge the crisis and to move toward constructive change. The efforts of Cohen, Bayme, Wertheimer, and their colleagues to raise such an alarm are a welcome start.

About the Author

Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.

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