Scholar Simon Rawidowicz once called the Jews “an ever-dying people.” It does seem that, every few years, a major American Jewish magazine publishes an article proclaiming the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community–Jewish continuity–in serious danger. What prompts such an alarmist appeal? Is comfort, safety, and acceptance in mainstream society more threatening to the Jewish people than discrimination or persecution.
The American Jewish community is changing through intermarriage. Current statistics show that up to half of all Jews today consider intermarriage an option for themselves. As more and more children are being born to intermarried parents, the denominations have been forced to answer the question of how to determine an individual’s Jewish status. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements have made their views on the issue crystal-clear: a child born to either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father and raised in a Jewish home, with a Jewish education is a Jew. The Conservative and Orthodox movements have not only rejected patrilineal descent, but have also criticized the Reform and Reconstructionist movements for creating disharmony for all of Klal Yisrael (the community of the Jewish people) by taking such a stance.
While the denominations craft formal responses to the question of “Who is a Jew?” individuals have also responded with their own personal experiences. For example, The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration presents the opportunities and challenges of those people raised as “half-Jewish,” citing famous celebrity examples from Paul Newman to Paula Abdul. This book clearly takes a very different view of intermarriage; here being half-Jewish has its own unique character, which allows enjoyment of all of the benefits of Jewish culture, as well as those of the other “half” culture.
Beyond intermarriage, which takes a front seat in many continuity conversations, questions of “Who is a Jew?” and “How do we ensure the continuity of the community?” extend to issues of practice and ethnicity. Among many of today’s twenty- and thirty-something Jews, being Jewish is an ethnic identity, though it may not be expressed by the previous generations’ standards of joining a synagogue, marrying Jewish, or volunteering for the Jewish community. There is clearly a sense that being a “Jew” needs a very fluid definition; for some, it may be living a traditional, observant life, for some it may be living out Judaism’s ethical and prophetic visions. For others, the recipe being Jewish is less clearly defined, but includes the feeling of “belonging” to an ethnic group.
While Jewish ethnicity appears, on the surface, to be a more inclusive philosophy, it actually causes problems for “Jews by choice,” or converts to Judaism. Jews by choice do not have easy access to Yiddishisms, inherited memories of the shtetl, or the “lox and bagel” Judaism of many North American Jews (most of whom are of eastern European descent). They learn Judaism as a religion, and often report feelings of alienation regarding its ethnic dimensions.
Jewish institutions have demonstrated a commitment to addressing the issues of continuity with a variety of outreach program meant to provide Jewish individuals, non-Jewish individuals interested in learning more about Judaism, and families (including interfaith families) with rich and varied Jewish experiences that will draw them into Jewish life. These sorts of outreach programs include, for example, the Reform Movement’s popular “Taste of Judaism” course (a widely advertised, free, three-week class on Jewish spirituality, ethics and community designed for unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews, and intermarried couples searching for an entry into Jewish life) and the various Federation “Shalom Baby” programs, a service that delivers a basket full of newborn toys and information about local Jewish parenting resources to babies born to a Jewish parent.
Local and national Jewish institutions sponsor Jewish camping, Israel experiences, Hillel programs for college students, and all levels of educational programming, from preschool to seniors, designed to encourage participation in Jewish life. Jewish philanthropists are increasingly offering substantial financing for initiatives to strengthen and develop institutions and initiatives with the potential to make significant contributions to “Jewish continuity.” The UJA Federation of New York, for example, has supported a Jewish Continuity Commission that aims to encourage existing Jewish institutions to become more compelling settings for Jewish living and learning by funding innovative continuity-based proposals.
What is the prescription for a healthy future? What communal activities and responses will promote Jewish continuity? What choices should individual Jews be making to ensure that their grandchildren will be Jewish? While the answers vary according to denomination, level of traditionalism, interpretation of statistics, and personal experience, the questions remain at the forefront of the agenda of the contemporary Jewish community.
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