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Focus on Issues: Pondering U.S. Jewry’s Future; How Will the Community Look?

December 11, 1996
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What will America’s Jewish community look like two generations from now?

Will the group of people calling themselves Jews be smaller, more cohesive and intensively engaged in observance and learning than it is now? Or will it be broad and inclusive of a wide range of practices, policies and subpopulations, perhaps even some not considered Jewish by others?

Or will the Jewish community consist of some combination of both?

In the midst of an exciting, creative period, the American Jewish community is also at a threshold as the results of the seminal 1990 National Jewish Population Study begin to sink in. The study found a 52 percent rate of intermarriage and low levels of Jewish observance and affiliation.

Trepidation about the future was clear at a recent daylong symposium where 120 of the Jewish community’s most influential opinion- and policy-makers argued the merits and flaws of two divergent approaches to the crises of intermarriage and disengagement from Jewish life.

At issue are the millions of dollars — no one knows exactly how many — that Jewish federations across the continent are now devoting to “Jewish continuity,” and how that money will continue to be spent.

In the view of some, the right approach is to focus on “in-reach” to Jews on the cusp of engagement, to draw them in to stimulating, challenging synagogues and schools that have clear rules for membership, or expectations of behavior, and help them become more literate, passionate Jews.

Those with this view say it is of little use to use scant funds to try to save those who already have checked out almost completely from identifying as Jews. This camp also believes that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable Jewish behavior — even from a pluralistic point of view — must be clearer if Jews are to remain a distinct people and not simply meld into Christian America.

In the view of others, it is equally as important to focus on “outreach.”

Recognizing that more than half of Jews marrying today have non-Jewish partners, this group emphasizes the importance of creating welcoming communities whose doors are wide open — with the hope that these Jews will walk through and bring with them their non-Jewish spouses and children, with the goal of helping them become engaged Jews.

This camp holds that it is important to offer opportunities for growth to the Jewishly engaged, but that the only way to build a Jewish community that will sustain itself for future generations is to adapt to the existing realities and make the Jewish community’s boundaries more permeable so that people feel as comfortable coming in as they seem to feel going out.

The “Consultation on Strategies to Secure Jewish Continuity,” convened Dec. 5 by the American Jewish Committee at its headquarters here, brought together for debate sociologists, historians, educators, organizational and outreach professionals, and rabbis and other leaders from each of Judaism’s four major movements.

Participants used a policy statement, signed in August by Steven Bayme, director of the AJC’s department of communal affairs and 19 others, as their jumping-off point.

“In a well-intentioned effort at inclusivity, some in the Jewish community seem all too willing to sacrifice distinctive Judaic values and teachings,” they wrote in their “Statement on Jewish Continuity.”

“American Jews, integrated into American society and full participants in its activities, are increasingly not a people apart.

“As boundaries blur, inclusivity runs the risk of degenerating into a vague universalism that is Jewishly incoherent; for example, non-Jews receiving aliyot,” that is, being called upon to bless the Torah as it is read. Some Reform and Reconstructionist congregations allow non-Jewish spouses or relatives this honor.

The statement’s signatories urge the adoption of five values termed “fundamental” to the future of the Jewish community:

Torah, meaning shared commitments to Jewish learning and obligations;

Am Yisrael, meaning a commitment to the notion of Jewish peoplehood;

Klal Yisrael, meaning a community of Jews committed to a pluralism of religious expressions;

Covenant, meaning “strong, visible religious boundaries between Jews and non- Jews”;

Outreach to moderately affiliated Jews rather than to “those who have strayed furthest from Judaism” for fear of “siphoning off funds urgently needed to strengthen Jewish life at its core.”

Among those who signed on to the statement were sociologists Steven Cohen and Samuel Heilman; Conservative Rabbis Nina Beth Cardin and William Lebeau, and historians Jack Wertheimer, Deborah Lipstadt, Paula Hyman and Ruth Wisse.

Some of those gathered at the AJCommittee criticized their approach as elitist and exclusionary.

Deborah Dash Moore, a professor of religion at Vassar College, castigated the “self-appointed gatekeepers with their penchant for drawing boundaries and setting up barriers” for proposing a “theological straitjacket” that she, as a Reconstructionist Jew, could not accept theologically, and that she, as someone married to a non-Jew, could not accept sociologically.

“Why are you so obsessed with boundaries?” she said.

Her son, Mik Moore, who attended in his capacity as national director of the Jewish Student Press Service, also spoke of how meaningful it was for him that his father, a non-Jew, as well as his mother, was allowed to be with him on the bimah at his Bar Mitzvah.

Many speakers made it clear how painful and personal an issue intermarriage is.

Helene Berger, a lay leader who has worked for the Council of Jewish Federations, among other groups, spoke with great pathos about raising her daughter in a home where commitment to Jewish values was part of the air they breathed. Although her daughter as a child and young adult was deeply involved in Jewish activities, she fell in love and married a non-Jewish man.

“For the Jewish community to say we have to spend our money elsewhere is turning their back on a person like my daughter. I am looking for the Jewish community, which I have served with joy all my life, to be there for my daughter,” she said with tears in her eyes.

When Lynn Korda Kroll, a lay leader who chaired CJF’s National Task Force on Jewish Continuity, which issued its report in 1995, asked how many in the room had intermarried family members at their Passover seder table, at least two- thirds of the people present — all of them deeply committed Jews — raised their hands.

Even some of those people, though, criticized an approach that, needing to find a lowest common denominator to make “marginal” Jews and the intermarried feel comfortable, makes it impossible for a rabbi to say from the pulpit that intermarriage is not a Jewish value, or to condemn the practice of Jews having Christmas trees for the sake of their non-Jewish spouse.

“There’s potential for a cultural transformation,” Bayme said in a later interview. “It’s unfortunate that in our well-intentioned efforts to make people comfortable, we make it impossible to discourage mixed marriage.”

“Either Jewish continuity rests upon distinctive Jewish teachings or it risks becoming so diluted as to be meaningless,” he said.

Many participants suggested that there might need to be a communal policy approach toward outreach and intermarriage — particularly when it comes to resource allocation and communal activity — that is different from how people and synagogues handle the issues.

While arriving at consensus worked well when the organized Jewish community needed to hammer out strategy dealing with anti-Semitism or the rescue of Jews in crisis-ridden countries, it quickly became clear at the symposium that such an approach does not work on this issue.

The conclusion seemed to be that there is no wide agreement on one particular approach to the “continuity crisis.”

What did become clear was that different parts of the Jewish community use a multiplicity of approaches and that, no matter what any group of intellectuals says, different strategies will continue to be employed by religious movements and groups that have different perspectives.

In reality, even a single federation or religious movement or synagogue generally uses different approaches to reach different audiences.

For example, at an increasing number of synagogues, worship and classes presuming a certain level of knowledge and observance are available to Jews who are already engaged in Jewish life. For Jews who are not and for non-Jewish spouses, there are basic introductions to Judaism and to Shabbat services.

Several participants said the focus of the entire discussion was wrong: “We have spent all day in the heart of the periphery,” said Leonard Fein, director of social action at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“I don’t think intermarriage is the principal reason for the depletion of our numbers,” Fein said. “It’s boredom.”

David Arnow, a vice president of UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, agreed.

“The critical issue we should be asking ourselves,” he said, “is what do we have to offer people that they will find valuable?”

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