It must be twenty years ago a Jewish Canadian committee on "Jewish continuity" released its findings on the state of assimilation amongst Jews of the Great White North and recommendations on how to stem the erosion in attachment and numbers. Being a community committee, it was large, long-winded and full of interesting recommendations.
Fortunately our local Rav actually took the time to read the report instead of the newspaper summaries (apparently he suffered from insomnia) and present his disappointment with it. Going through all the advice, he noted one thing was missing: practical Jewish observance. Sure there was stuff about social groups, day schools and trips to Israel but when it came to suggesting the obvious - get Jews to start altering their behaviour and act like Jews - there was only silence. His conclusion was that the committee might very much like assimilation to go away but they weren't prepared to demand anything from their consituency to make that happen. Apparently they were quite sensitive to personal freedoms.
Not much has changed since then as this editorial by Jack Wertheimer demonstrates:
This is, of course, true -- but only up to a point. Unfortunately, this optimistic reading describes only a minority of intermarried families. The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism or in two faiths or no faith at all. Not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.
Few would dispute that the Jewish community has a far better chance of retaining the allegiance of individuals raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish than in those where one parent identifies with a different religion. Indeed, wherever Jews are a minority community, intermarriage is a major factor in the contraction of the Jewish population. How, then, does it serve Jewish group interests to silence all discussion about the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation?
This hesitance to grapple seriously with the issue of intermarriage is part of a broader phenomenon: Speaking of threats to Jewish survival has become passe. Many argue that such discussions no longer serve to rally Jews; if anything, they turn off people. Moreover, advocates of this point of view tend to argue that if Jews are disengaged, it is because of failings in our institutions. If only we had more compelling programs and wiser leaders, if only we would cater more to the desires and preferences of younger generations, we would retain larger numbers of Jews, they say.
These are serious arguments, but the reality is that while creative leaders and innovative programs aimed at young Jews have brought in some people from the periphery, large numbers of American Jews -- in some age groups, the majority -- still do not participate in any form of Jewish public life. Those who reject the language of crisis when describing this state of affairs in favor of an appeal to individual preferences must explain how they propose to re-create a culture of Jewish responsibility on that basis. If we want to strengthen our community amid the prevailing individualistic culture, we had better start with straight talk about our current condition.
The reactions to the Masa ad have exposed a series of complex issues worthy of extended conversation within our community. Rather than view the ad solely as a dragon successfully slain, we would do well to see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves some tough questions about the best ways to build Jewish social capital and draw in disengaged Jews -- as a chance to converse about what we expect ourselves and our fellow Jews to contribute to Jewish life.
This article certainly mentions all the right things. What it fails to note is that modern society, especially in North America, has become extremely selfish. People are interested first, second and last in "what's in it for me?" Why should a person go to shul? What does he get out of it? Why contribute to the community? What's in it for him? For the Orthodox Jew with a sense of knesses Yisrael the answers are easy. For the non-religious one whose Jewish values are actually those of society's around him, they're not.
Yet throughout history there is only one measure and one measure alone that has guaranteed Jewish continuity: observance of Judaism. Amongst the observant portion of the community, the success of this strategy is obvious but even in the non-religious part, those Jews who attended day schools or camps are more likely to marry other Jews and have a semblance of Judaism in their lives than those who didn't.
In a modern multi-cultural society the reason is obvious. One can be a Jewish Canadian or a Canadian Jew. A Jewish Canadian has no reason to feel separate or different from a French Canadian or an Indian Canadian. If anything, the idea of a multi-cultural relationship accentuates the Canadian part of their identity, the major thing they have in common. For a Canadian Jew, however, it's the opposite. The French or Indian opposite me may have some common factors but when it comes to how I primarily identify myself, my Judaism sets me apart, eh?
Years ago a nurse in an ER I worked in asked me why Jews generally don't inter-marry. (I didn't tell her that unfortunately she's wrong) So I explained it to her like this: Let's say we were to date. Okay, it might start out well but problems would develop. As an observant Jew, forget pre-marital sex. Holding hands or even going back to her place alone for a movie would be out of the question. I couldn't eat in her home. I couldn't worship with her on her holidays. I could meet her parents but other than water or juice I couldn't accept hospitality from them. On my holidays she'd find herself left out of most things because the prayers are in Hebrew and the rituals are generally limited to Jews only. So how long could such a relationship last before the mutual incompatibility ended it? Not because one of us was "good" and the other "bad" I emphsized, just that the differences between us would be too insurmountable to developing a deep romantic relationship.
One might oppose this position by pointing out a few salient things. One is the level of drop-out from the Orthodox community and this is indeed a relevant concern. However, when one considers that, despite Reformative revisionism, most non-religious Jews do not have Jewish great-grandchildren, this means that Orthodoxy has been suffering from drop-out for centuries. Somehow we have managed to survive and even maintain our numbers even while supplying the rest of the Jewish community.
One might also bristle at the suggestion that only Orthodox standards guarantee continuity. Well the truth can be annoying, I'll admit. Note that I've already said that even in the non-religious part of the community there are measures that can increase the liklihood of avoiding assimilation. There are lots of Reformative Jews who feel a positive sense of their Judaism and marry other Jews for that reason. However, amonst the non-religious these are nowhere near as effective as within the Orthodox community. A Reformative kid from a good day school is more likely to marry and remain Jewish. An Orthodox kid is almost guaranteed to do that. If you're looking to effectively reduce assimilation, do you want "more likely" or "guaranteed"?
If a Jew's Yiddishkeit begins and ends at blintzes on Sunday morning, then that divide doesn't exist and there is no barrier to intermarriage. Why have continuity when there is nothing to continue? The answer the non-religious community does not want to hear is that traditional Jewish practice is the only guarantee against assimilation and disappearance.
No matter. We'll keep doing our thing for centuries to come and see what happens.