Facing The Jewish Continuity Crisis


How would you feel about your rabbi having a non-Jewish partner?

On Wednesday the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College made public its decision “to no longer bar qualified applicants with non-Jewish partners from admission” and to no longer bar rabbinical students “from graduating as rabbis because they have non-Jewish partners.”

After much deliberation and discussion, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the RRC, wrote: “We have concluded that the status of a rabbinical student’s partner is not a reliable measure of the student’s commitment to Judaism — or lack thereof.” She also wrote that “the issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to fight or police.”

Some will see the RRC decision as an enlightened response to the reality of Jewish life today; others will cite it as one more example of the Jewish community’s misguided passivity in the face of a number of “unsettling” statistics that indicate a decline in Jewish engagement.

A “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” signed by 71 rabbis, thought leaders and activists across the denominational spectrum and made public this week, decries “today’s near-inaction” among communal organizations that “bespeaks a self-imposed helplessness.” (See statement and list of signatories here.)

The statement, the outcome of an informal group led by Steven Bayme, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer over the past year, was not a direct response to the RRC decision on rabbis with non-Jewish partners. But it underscores a sense that the American Jewish community needs to take “constructive action” rather than “accept as inevitable” the drift away from Jewish tradition and commitment.

“Despite the evidence of deeply disturbing population trends,” the statement says, “the community is bereft of any sense of crisis.”

It notes that the recent Pew study on American Jews found that: 51 percent of non-Orthodox Jews aged 25-39 are not married; 80 percent of Jews raised Reform who married between 2000 and 2013 have non-Jewish spouses; non-Orthodox Jewish women have, on average, 1.7 children (below the 2.1 replacement level); 2.1 million Jews do not identify as Jews; and in several decades American Jewry may well consist of “many ultra-Orthodox Jews” and “‘partly Jewish’ Jews,” with the “Jewish Middle” — non-charedi engaged Jews — declining rapidly.

To prevent the Jewish community from becoming “smaller and less vital,” the statement calls for a number of efforts to build and strengthen Jewish social networks, provide Jewish content and target “peer groups of Jews at crucial stages of life.”

The suggestions include focusing on “adolescent Jewish education (day schools, supplementary schools, overnight Jewish camps, Israel trips and youth groups).” These are not new ideas, and everyone acknowledges there is no one way to reverse the trends of disengagement. Indeed, the thrust of the statement, bolstered by the impressive quality and variety of its signatories, is that the community must act on multiple fronts. And most of all that it must view the current Jewish condition as a crisis to be confronted. Otherwise we may well continue on the quiet path of least resistance, leading us to a smaller and diminished Jewish community.