THE HIGH INTERMARRIAGE RATE should occasion no surprise. "Jewish" has long since ceased to be a primary, or even tertiary, identity for most American Jews. Those things that most American Jews associate with Jewish identity – a sense of humor, a taste for certain foods, commitment to social justice, Holocaust remembrance – are by no means exclusive to Jews. If politics or a sense of humor or taste in movies are primary to one's self-identity, then one is likely to choose one's spouse on the basis of those things, not religion.
Nor is it any surprise that "Jewish" should rank so low on the totem pole of self-identification. For the one message that most American Jews have never heard is: Judaism is unique; Judaism has a message that differs from the prevailing zeitgeist. Rather they have been told that Judaism is trivial, and its rituals and proscriptions outdated and primitive.
Every time, "Jewish" or "marriage" are redefined to "keep the kids within the fold" or to maintain the demographic numbers, the message is conveyed that Judaism is meaningless and exists only for its own self-perpetuation. Judaism, our young understand, makes no demands and will accommodate them however far afield they travel.
AMERICAN JEWISH LEADERS, including a large swath of the clergy, have not followed Wertheimer's minimum prescription for the preservation of American Jewry as a distinct community: to address directly about where, how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethic of the culture at large, by "speaking on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia . . . have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart."
Years ago I went to a student forum at the local university where three local rabbis were asked to speak. The Reform rabbi waxed on about how his daughter lived her Jewish values by volunteering at the local food bank and homeless shelter. Shabbos was a nice idea, of course, but she felt it was more important to express her Jewishness by spending Saturday afternoons helping the homeless. I then asked what I thought was the obvious challenge: when she meets someone non-Jewish who has exactly the same values as her what will keep her in the fold? I saw this myself with an old friend who was raising in the Conservative system through school, camps and youth groups. She was a big leftist social justice type and ultimately met a non-Jewish guy who shared her values. She saw no trouble with marrying him because he was exactly the kind of guy she was looking for and his not being Jewish didn't factor into it.
Much of the fault for this can be laid squarely in the Orthodox community. Our public obsessions with those things that are not relevant to non-religious folks like kashrus, Shabbos and taharas mishpacha give the impression that Judaism is all about personal ritual with no connection to societal concerns. The endless parade of Orthodox Jews in the headlines for various crimes along with the public disheveled appearance of many Orthodox neighbourhoods only helps to make the non-religious feel like there is nothing in true Judaism that is of relevance to the 21st century liberal.
All this also brings to mine the old JFK quote (which wasn't his, by the way): "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The other factor that works against Judaism and spring from this quote is bigger than that. Our civilization is one in which "duty" is a dirty word to be used on other people, not on oneself. The combination of increasing convenience through technology and rising entitlements from oversized government has created a society of folks who are interested in the opposite of JFK's great quote. Young Jews, it would seem, want their local synagogue/temple to do something to entertain them as opposed to seeing it as a place to congregate out of obligation to the community. They look at Judaism and ask "What's in it for me?" instead of "How can I contribute to Judaism"?
Rav Rosenblum's article brings an example of a community which has successfully engaged in efforts to change the slide away from Judaism but, as he notes, the success of the small and homogenous South African community cannot be duplicated in North America for various reasons. This does not mean that the underlying principle, presenting Judaism as a faith with distinct values, is a wash.
What is needed, however, is leadership on both the Torah observant and non-religious sides of the divide to change their presentations. Non-religious leaders are pandering to the secular liberals in their congregations in increasing radical ways but are not gaining any ground. As the kids in my childhood synagogue once told the rabbi when he asked them why they didn't come out for youth activities, "the non-Jewish people have lots better parties and lots more fun". The Conservatives seem to have shrunk after every step they take away from Torah observance in order to accommodate secular liberals. The Reform have reached the point where a good number of those who even participate minimally in the movement aren't even really Jewish.
On the Orthodox side there has to be a step away from the obsession with the minutiae of ritual. We have to ask ourselves a simple question: are non-black stockings on a woman worse than theft and pedophiles? How can we penetrate the klipah of selfishness our culture has wrapped our non-Jewish brethren in if we don't show them that Judaism does speak to their values but only as a whole system instead of bits and parts?
On the non-religious side there has to be a recognition that only Jewish unique values make one's actions Jewish. Helping out at the local shelter because that's what makes you feel Jewish isn't authentic. Helping out because the Torah obliges us to clothe the poor and shelter the homeless and by doing so we are connecting to God, that's authentic. And building that connection to God comes with personal and ritual obligations. At some point Reformative clergy have to swallow a bitter pill and say "Look, if you want to be a good Jew you also have to do the following..." Intermarriage will only drop when the non-Orthodox Jew decides to marry another Jew not because of "Well, I don't want to marry a non-Jew" but because only another Jew can match their values.
The Torah and Talmud have no shortage of exhortations on how to help the poor and enact social justice. Instead of figuring out new ways to make keeping kosher more difficult we should be figuring out how to be machmir on helping the homeless. Instead of worrying about whether or not women and men can sit in sight of one another on a public bus we should be stocking our local food banks, both kosher and not. Somewhere along the way the books of Yishiyahu, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel, uncensored, must make their way back into our curriculum.
We observant Jews have as much an obligation to save our non-religious brethren from assimilated obscurity but we have to change ourselves as well in order to do that.