Commentary Magazine

Engaging the Non-Orthodox

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin is incorrect in thinking that the future of non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is in doubt [“American Jewry’s New Chance,” April]. It is just changing. While everything Mr. Tobin says about today’s non-Orthodox Jewish community might be true, he does not consider the consequences of additional Pew study demographics. Currently, 27 percent of Jewish children under 18 are Orthodox. Also, for every hundred Orthodox Jews age 50 and older, there are 230 Orthodox 10 and younger. For the non-Orthodox, that number of children 10 or younger is only 70. This means that in two generations, the majority of American Jewry will be Orthodox.

The Pew data indicate that 20 to 30 percent of those raised Orthodox will become non-Orthodox in the future. So while most Jews will be Orthodox, their numbers will not overwhelm non-Orthodox Jewry. Also, a majority of the affiliated members of the non-Orthodox community will have Orthodox parents and grandparents—not unlike the demographics of non-Orthodox American Jewry in 1960. These changes will by themselves result in lower intermarriage rates overall, and probably even among the non-Orthodox.

The consequence of these changes must be acknowledged by the umbrella of Jewish philanthropies known as the Jewish Federations of North America and by Jewish organizations such as those represented by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. If these groups don’t accommodate the concerns and spending priorities of the Orthodox community, their relevance will be circumscribed. On the upside, the implication of these demographic changes is that the commitment of American Jewry to the State of Israel will not only remain intact but will probably increase.

Finally, if the Reform and Conservative movements really wish to duplicate the success of the Orthodox community in resisting assimilation, they need to “up their game.” They should focus less on Mordechai Kaplan’s vision of social Jewry with its emphasis on “shul and a pool,” summer camps, and Israeli-identity trips and more on allocating a greater share of their resources toward universal full-day Hebrew day-school education. Anything less is unlikely to turn the tide.

Daniel Bronheim
Great Neck, New York

To the Editor:

Jonathan S. Tobin makes a diligent appeal to American Jewish leaders (and laymen) to address the startling rate of intermarriage among American non-Orthodox Jews. Unfortunately, it is for naught. My wife and I raised our four children, now in their twenties, in the Conservative movement, and none of them will intermarry. But this has little to do with the Conservative movement and everything to do with how hard we worked to instill Jewish souls within our children. We keep a kosher home where Shabbat is observed; all the children went to Jewish day school; all “grew up” at Camp Ramah; and all went to Israel almost every summer as well as to high school and college semesters there. Our children saw that being Jewish was an integral part of our—and then their—lives, and thus it is something that they deeply feel and desire to incorporate into their adult lives. They realize that only by having Jewish partners is this possible

That being said, it would surprise us if all our future grandchildren married Jews. Living within the general American community, it is too easy for children to meet smart, attractive people who are not Jewish and fall in love, and all children will not feel the “calling” of living authentic Jewish lives. If parents are not absolutely diligent in their devotion to Judaism and in incorporating it into their children’s lives, it is only natural for children to integrate into the secular population; it is, after all, the American way. The truth that one must acknowledge is that there are only two ways for a non-Orthodox Jew to ensure that his grandchildren are Jewish: become Orthodox and thus be fully immersed within that community, or make aliyah. The best way for non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders to prevent intermarriage is for them to make themselves irrelevant by encouraging their congregants to become religious or to move to Israel.

Sloane Citron
Menlo Park, California

To the Editor:

Thank you, Jonathan S. Tobin, for your article and for raising the alarm regarding our co-religionists. As someone who has front-row seats to the coming demographic disaster, I unfortunately don’t think there is much that can be done to turn the tide. The biggest problem is the complete lack of importance of Judaism in the lives of most American Jews. This stems from the left-wing, Enlightenment views of the parents of the current generation as well as from the attitudes of rabbis at Reform/Conservative synagogues and teachers at various Sunday schools. Unfortunately, leftism has become a religion for most American Jews while Jewish identity has been subsumed by equality, social justice, and all the other drivel one hears out of left-wing quarters.

When Jews growing up hear that Shabbat and kashrut aren’t important, what is to be expected? How can one expect someone from any religion to propagate it when they see how little it means to their parents, grandparents, and rabbis? When a young Jew starts to become more religious, or even faintly interested, many parents act as if the child is going to turn into a misogynistic caveman.

On a bright note, I don’t know if Mr. Tobin or his colleagues have looked at Detroit’s Jewish community, from which I hail, but we have the lowest intermarriage rate in the country and the fewest number of intermarried couples. Part of that may well stem from the severe contraction the Detroit Jewish community has had in the past two decades, with most of the young people moving to other cities. But there is a new generation that is coming of age, which appears, at least, much more active than mine was 10 years ago.

Is it too late to stop the intermarriage rate? In the short term, the task at hand is getting the parents of young children to find Jewish observance important and to send their children to Jewish schools. Unless this is done, all of the programming in the world will not get us out of the Egypt of our times.

Michael Fridman
Birmingham, Michigan

Jonathan S. Tobin writes:

Daniel Bronheim is right to assert that non-Orthodox Jews have to “up their game” and that Orthodox Jews will eventually (though perhaps not as quickly as he thinks) outnumber the adherents of the more liberal denominations in this country. But amid his Orthodox triumphalism, he ignores the impact of the collapse of the communities that currently make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry. Even with the rosiest predictions of Orthodox growth, the consequences of such a demographic disaster will create—at best—a far smaller community with less political influence and less wealth to spend on Jewish projects. This will do incalculable damage to non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews alike. When an overwhelming majority of those who claim some sort of Jewish identity will have few ties to or interest in Israel, the vital U.S.-Israel alliance will not be strengthened.

Though a critique of the “shul and a pool” culture of mainstream Jewry may be in order, Mr. Bronheim is wrong to deprecate the value of both Jewish camps and Israel trips. Day schools are a vital component of reinforcing Jewish identity, and the community has not done nearly enough to make them more affordable. But camps and trips are also important. More to the point, the unfortunate truth is that a large percentage, if not a majority, of non-Orthodox Jews won’t send their kids to a day school no matter what it costs. Unless we are prepared to write off the non-Orthodox majority completely without a fight, efforts directed at engaging this large population must continue.

Sloane Citron is not wrong to observe that—as I pointed out in my original article on the Pew study published here last November—Israel and Zionism provide the only foolproof answer to assimilation and intermarriage that is the product of American freedom. It’s also true that even the most thorough immersion into non-Orthodox observance and affiliation is no guarantee of Jewish grandchildren in a free country. But the point of my article was that it is still possible for Conservative Judaism, as well as Reform and Reconstructionist movements, to try to change the conversation about intermarriage and to emphasize precisely those behaviors and programs that diminish rates of assimilation.

As Michael Fridman points out, it is never too late for a community to try to embrace those measures that will enhance its chances of survival. A Jewish population that has adopted secular liberal values and no longer considers faith or exclusive identity to be priorities is not giving itself a chance to succeed. Though treating liberalism as a substitute for Judaism plays a part in this process, the impending collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry that Pew highlights is primarily caused by the rise of irreligion, not politics. What is needed most of all is a sea change in the culture of the community that will help motivate more of its young members to believe that Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and raising Jewish families are imperatives. While skeptics are right to wonder whether such an about-face is possible, the point of the effort that I discussed in my article was that an opportunity still exists for North American Jewry to begin the process by which its funding priorities and its rhetoric could reflect that hope.

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