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Denominational Delusions

American Jews are caught in a crisis and their rabbis aren’t helping.  Synagogues are closing, congregations are ageing, and the non-Orthodox majority is dwindling.  For every 100 non-Orthodox Jews in their 50s, there are just 55 children with the same religious orientation. If the Jewish community does not take action, its numbers will shrink.  The era in which Jews played a vital role in American life will end as the entire community becomes demographically diminished and socially insular. 

Relevant Links
New York Jews: Growing in Numbers, Growing Apart  Leslie Lenkowsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. The good news is that New York’s Jewish population is rising again.  The bad news is that this population is becoming increasingly needy. 
Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?  Evan Moffic, Jewish Ideas Daily. It is not too late for Reform Judaism to arrest the decline in synagogue membership and foster a committed lay leadership; but time is running out. 
The Book of Numbers  Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily. Jewish ambivalence about demography goes back to the Bible.  And while the dean of contemporary Jewish population studies has none of the usual hang-ups, he grants that Jewish numbers are indeed in trouble.

Yet the main Jewish religious movements are not grasping the root of this problem—the failure of Jews to marry other Jews.  None is explicitly pursuing strategies to promote marriage within the community. Reform Jews are making matters worse.  The Conservatives are confused.  The Orthodox are fooling themselves into believing that they are the answer.   The decline of their non-Orthodox coreligionists harms them as well. 

Reform Judaism, currently the largest denomination, is encouraging demographic failure.  The movement accepts intermarriage despite evidence that its occurrence leads to fewer Jews.  Most intermarried couples do not raise their offspring as Jews and, not surprisingly, these children themselves marry non-Jews at a rate of 76 percent. The result is that now there are not enough young people in Reform synagogues to keep them going.  According to one survey just eight percent of Reform synagogue members are young adults—while 22 percent are over the age of 65. 

Reform Judaism continues to welcome intermarriage despite this evidence.  Around half of all Reform rabbis conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews, with increasing numbers of rabbis joining their ranks.  Instead of encouraging Gentiles to convert to Judaism to marry Jews, some Reform rabbis question the whole point of conversion.  They even perform marriages jointly with non-Jewish clergy, in contravention of the rules of the Reform rabbinic body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). 

Reform rabbis now propagate the notion of patrilineal descent without any qualification, which is both false to the text of the CCAR’s 1983 resolution on “The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages” and self-defeating.  It is false because the resolution acknowledged as potentially Jewish only the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers who were raised within the Jewish fold.  It is self-defeating because it weakens the Jewish identity and commitment of Reform youth. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, previous president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “if current trends continue, approximately 80 percent of the children who have a bar or bat mitzvah in our congregations will have no connection of any kind to their synagogue by the time they reach 12th grade.” 

Meanwhile, the Conservative movement is in even worse demographic shape than the Reform. During the first decade of this century the number of Conservative synagogues fell by six percent, while membership declined by 14 percent.  In 2010, only nine percent of adult members of Conservative congregations were under 40—those over the age of 65 outnumbered young adults three-to-one.  The Conservative intermarriage rate is 33 percent and rising. 

The Conservative movement is confronting its intermarriage problem with resolute confusion. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue organization, mentions intermarriage as an issue in its latest strategic plan, but makes no suggestions for encouraging marriage to other Jews. 

At the same time, the Conservative rabbinic corps is drifting toward accommodating the intermarried and discouraging the conversions needed to prevent it.  The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted in 2010 to allow the burial of non-Jewish spouses in a separate section of a Jewish cemetery.  The sole opponent on the committee, who lives in Israel, argued that the decision removes any incentive for non-Jews to join the Jewish people: “Why would they bother converting?” 

The only source of good news appears to be the growing Orthodox population.  The Orthodox intermarriage rate is around six percent.  Just as important, the Orthodox have no difficulty reproducing, a task that has befuddled the other denominations.  The Jewish population of New York, Westchester, and Long Island rose by nine percent in the decade to 2011 in large part because of the high Orthodox birthrate, according to the 2011 UJA-Federation study.  Orthodox children are now close to two-thirds of the Jewish children in the New York metro area. 

It appears that Orthodoxy will flourish while the other movements languish or perish.  As Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, has said, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.”  Other Orthodox rabbis have openly expressed pleasure and dismay at the waning of the non-Orthodox.  Rabbi Yitzchock Adlerstein  wrote that the “mixed emotions” stirred by the New York population survey were best communicated by imagining that you are "watching your sworn enemy go over the side of a cliff in your new Lotus.”  Adlerstein hinted that result could be increased anti-Semitism, because without the connections that the non-Orthodox have made to non-Jews, Jewish life would become less easy in America “in times of stress.” 

The Orthodox assumption that they will replace the non-Orthodox is a delusion.  Orthodox Jews constitute less than 15 percent of the American Jewish population.  Their high birthrate cannot compensate for the massive losses among the other denominations and the unaffiliated.  Also, the substantial reproduction rate among haredi Jews, the so-called ultra-Orthodox, may not continue indefinitely.  As they climb the economic ladder, their families are likely to become smaller. 

The decline of the non-Orthodox will damage the Orthodox in three ways.  First, a substantial part of the growth in Orthodoxy, particularly Modern Orthodoxy, has come from non-Orthodox groups.  The baalei teshuva, “repentant” Jews who reject non-Orthodox Judaism, have more than compensated for those leaving Orthodoxy.  They also provide a connection to non-Orthodox communities through their extended families.  In some cases they are the first observant Jews in their families for generations.  This pool of potential recruits would be gone without Reform and Conservative Judaism. 

Second, without Reform and Conservative Judaism, American Jews will have fewer choices in the future for their religious practice.  The options will be Orthodoxy or other religions. 

Third, the non-Orthodox movements, and to a much lesser extent Modern Orthodoxy, connect Jews to American society.  The Orthodox often have difficulties in dealing with other Jews, let alone maintaining any meaningful relationship with other religions.  Orthodox life can be insular because it is so all-enveloping. America accepts closed communities, like the Amish, but the price of social isolation is a lack of cultural and political influence. 

American Orthodox rabbis lead congregations filled with Torah study and bursting with children. After decades of being dismissed as relics or characterized as extremists by the non-Orthodox, the Orthodox are witnessing what looks like the irreversible decline of the religious competition.  That feeling of vindication, however, will prove brief when they realize they will also suffer from the demographic self-destruction of today’s non-Orthodox majority. 

Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C.

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Carl on February 6, 2013 at 1:59 am (Reply)
In other words, except in Israel, when Jews live in a country where they are are not persecuted they tend to assimilate and disappear as Jews.
Yehuda on February 6, 2013 at 6:13 am (Reply)
Excellent article.
Motti Inbari on February 6, 2013 at 7:08 am (Reply)
The only solution for non-Orthodoxy is in mass conversion. They will open the gates of theor shulls and reach out to convert. This will stop the decline. By the way, I think also Israel at some point will use the same thing in order to combat demographic trends..
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
    Although I agree with you that mass conversion is needed, it isn't a panacea, because if the Reform and Conservative movements don't change themselves from within, then they'll just lose the children of those converts.
    Ben Pincus on March 20, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Reply)
    Yes, the secular Israelis would choose to do almost anything that would keep them from having to observe Torah, including the phony conversion route that didn't work in the US and will ultimately not strengthen demographics but destroy whatever 'Jewishness' is left in secular Israeli culture. The way to combat demographic trends is to offer financial support and adoption services to women who would otherwise abort their babies--a choice that 60,000 Israelis make every year. THAT would change demographics. BTW when the so-called 'demographic threat' was posed after the 1967 6-day War the Arabs were supposed to have overwhelmed the Jewish Israelis by now. Why not? Because there were other unaccounted factors like Nefesh b'Nefesh increasing Aliyah, those Haredim having more babies, and finally the moderating of the birthrate of the Arab Israelis as they became more integrated into mainstream Israeli society and economy. This article is yet another example of an 'expert' making bold assertions without backing them up. The facts of non-Orthodox Jewish cultural suicide have been well known for 40 years. The main point of the article seems to be to twit the Orthodox out of any attitude of triumphalism: "Don't enjoy the demise of the ones who hate you, because you will also suffer for it." Gosh, how bleak can you get?! There are 3 things and only 3 things that sustain Jews: learning Torah, doing Mitzvoth, and having Jewish babies. The non-Orthodox American Jews would rather have fun than commit to their own survival by doing what works. They pour money into any kind of education other than Torah, give the bribe of free trips to Israel with a stop at Auschwitz on the way to add 'meaning'---anything to avoid what works. Too, bad and very sad.
Diane Wright on February 6, 2013 at 7:54 am (Reply)
What about the role of the Reconstrunctionists in the mix? They always seem to get left out of the discussion.
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm (Reply)
    Anecdotal info that I have receieved about the Reconstructionists is that during the 80s and 90s they were the fastest growing denomination in American Judaism, in large part due to the fallout from Conservative and Reform, but since then, they've levelled off and stagnated. Few new Recon shuls have been founded since then, and they suffer from an abysmally low birthrate, and an aging population. The fallout with them will happen later, but it will happen unless they return to Kaplan's ideals and jettison the political correctness.
Howard on February 6, 2013 at 8:07 am (Reply)
The problem with Mr. Apostlou's bleak analysis is that it doesn't prove that intermarriage is the cause of the declining numbers. Remember correlation does not imply causation. Intermarriage is probably best understood as a symptom of deeper, more profound (and theological) problems within Judaism.
    Jan Rice on February 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm (Reply)
    I agree with this comment. Howard, you didn't say what your hypothesis(es) about the nature of those deeper theological problems, and I haven't read the rest of the comments to see if anyone followed up.

    I think we put the problem off on the children. Then we have infinite regress. We never get to it.
    Berurya on February 8, 2013 at 12:33 am (Reply)
    I agree with you. Correlation does not imply causation but I think this article misses an important point. Times have changed and younger people have a different attitude toward going to shul or synagogue. The question younger Jews (that I know) ask is why do I need to go? If you look on Jdate or, the usual description for Religion is Jewish but not practicing or spiritual not religious. The vast majority of young Jews I know do not go to a shul or synagogue. So, I think before we take the easy way out and blame someone else. We need to look into ourselves and be able to given them an answer to the simple question of "why should they to go to synagogue". And not just say because I said so, obviously that is not working.
Ellen on February 6, 2013 at 8:53 am (Reply)
The liberal denominations cannot address the issue of intermarriage honestly or openly for a very obvious reason. They bought into the norms of secular liberalism as their guiding philosophy long ago (in the 1960's, at the very latest). One of the main pillars of secular liberalism in America is the promotion and celebration of intermarriage. How can they oppose intermarriage, and yet remain loyal followers of secular liberalism?

In a word, they can't. This puts them into the procrustean bed in which they now find themselves. If they take substantive measures to oppose intermarriage, they will appear as "extremist" and retrograde as the Orthodox (gasp!), but without the compensating virtues of the Orthodox, namely a strong sense of identity and communal purpose. If they do nothing about intermarriage except privately bemoan its inevitability, it will eventually kill them off. However, eventually means after most of the current leadership is retired. Apres moi le deluge, is the operative philosophy of these movements and has been since the 1960's.

Frankly, this whole tired story will come to an end because the Orthodox and Conservadox (what remains of the right wing conservatives) will eventually make up for the loss of the others, but it will take another 50-100 years. So what. It will take Zionism that long to outlive the disintegration of its Arab enemies. History takes its course, but it is never a case of gratification now. Only 1960's types believe you can have everything you want, and right now.
Jonathan on February 6, 2013 at 9:21 am (Reply)
Your attitude that intermarriage is a problem is exactly what drove my wife from Judaism. Lack of acceptance and tolerance made her feel unwelcome and unsupported. Acceptance is the only way forward. Reform Judaism is making the right choice.
Jonathan D. Sarna on February 6, 2013 at 9:33 am (Reply)
I am no fan of intermarriage, but Mr. Apostolou assumes (rather than proves) that intermarriage is at the root of the non-Orthodox movements' problems. In fact, liberal Christian denominations, where intermarriage is not an issue, are also suffering significant declines. There is decline too in Evangelical circles. The great religious revival that fueled growth across American religion for three decades beginning in the 1970s had ended, and young Americans are abandoning organized religious movements in large numbers. The number of "Nones" -- Americans declaring themselves members of no religious denomination -- has multiplied five times (reaching almost 25% of young Americans). To understand what is REALLY going on, see Robert Putnam, AMERICAN GRACE (2010) and recent Pew surveys.
Epi on February 6, 2013 at 9:37 am (Reply)
Intermarriage is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a combination of Jewish illiteracy and disaffection.
John Landry on February 6, 2013 at 9:38 am (Reply)
Thanks for this provocative essay. I wonder what the history of Jewish affiliation can tell us here. As I understand it, there were a number of drop-off periods in synagogue-joining over the course of American history. Then people joined at extraordinarily high rates in the mid-20th century, as did Christians, and we are now seeing declines from those high rates. The historian Jonathan Sarna has called the current dropoff a "religious recession" affecting Christians as well as ourselves. How can we tell whether we are seeing only a cyclical change or something more permanent? As a historian, Mr. Apostolou, could you address this question in future essays?
Dr. Stephen Starlight on February 6, 2013 at 9:46 am (Reply)
This is a very smart piece that's unflinching in its honesty. What those interested in Jewish continuity should cease doing is wasting their time on biological Jews and seek converts from outside the family. Jews were once good at this (see the high percentage of converts to Judaism in the classical world and especially in Roman times before Constantine, and we required adult circumcision, no small barrier). We should make a major effort again, with "Introductions to Judaism Weekends" at hotels and resorts. The USA has the lowest anti-Semitism in the world (just 7% according to Pew) and a great many Christians have left their faiths for a variety of reasons, the scandal in the Roman Catholic church being one of the most obvious. It is also the case that mainstream Protestantism is dying. Many of these people want religion in their lives, and not $Scientology or some other predatory New Age nonsense or an unfamiliar eastern faith. Judaism can speak to them in a familiar voice for obvious reasons. Any project that focuses on Jews is bound to fail because they Jews are the most secular and least spiritual of all Americans. It's one thing if one regards being a liberal Democrat as conterminous with being a Jew, but that's evidently not the case. If if it is Judaism one wishes to preserve, outreach to lapsed Christians is a much better stategy for Jewish survival than any efforts with the people we now count as Jews.
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm (Reply)
    Dr Starlight. I absolutely applaud everything you have said here. Wish more were as clear-thinking as you.
DF on February 6, 2013 at 9:52 am (Reply)
Pretty good article. Actually, the decline of non-orthodoxy hurts orthodoxy in even more ways than the three you mentioned, and in the ways mentioned in R. Adlerstein's outstanding article on the same subject. They are the source for a substantial amoung of orthodox funding. Indeed, large numbers of people within orthodoxy find employment in "industries" such as kiruv, that depend largely (though not exclusively) upon the existence of heteredox Jews. The decline of heteredox Jews deprives such people both from a large source of funding, and a population base to work from.

What I think will be interesting to see is how it affects orthodox observance and culture. The contemporary Yeshivah or charedi culture developed primarily as a response, not so much to non-Jewish culture, but to the way other Jews were responding to that culture. On the one hand, the heteredox Jews provided a necessary conter-balance to the extremisim orthodoxy is sometimes prone too. But on the other hand, with Reform and Conservative no longer seen as a "threat", we will probably see a gradual return to normalcy among the above-mentioned segments of orthodoxy. [By that I mean chiefly a return to a strong work ethic, rather than hiding for years in kollel.] There will be no official "pronouncement" from anyone, because that's not the way it works.

[In the short term, watch for kiruv workers to soon quietly begin working in reform and conservative congregations when they can, and for orthodox rabbis to begin appearing jointly with heteredox leaders, despite their leadership's decades-old ban on such activities. The factors described in the two paragraphs above make this development almost inevtiable.]
Dallas Bell on February 6, 2013 at 10:01 am (Reply)
Your statement, "The options will be Orthodoxy or other religions,"
reflects the real choices without delusion. Each religion has orthodox
or fundamental beliefs based on text (for Jews; Torah/Tanakh) and teachings
(for Jews; Talmud) believed to be Divine authority, if not immutable, by its
adherents. Rejection of those authorities for approved behavior and practices
is to have another religion--heterodoxy. Therefore, the only religious' option is
orthodox for Jews, Christians etc. Judaism or Christian practices that are not
orthodox are not Judaism or Christian. Those are a delusional labels and are
in fact other belief systems. Your stats were very informative but glossed
over, as statistics often do, the difference of beliefs. It seems to project
(orthodox) Jewish beliefs and, in this case, (orthodox) Christian beliefs
as arbitrary religions to somewhat guide behavior depending on where one
lives. It could take more into account that religious beliefs are deep seated
choices that are accepted as the core authority for behavior and practices.
If not, such a category would contain people that are more practical agnostics.
There are real differences between Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Christianity.
An analysis of a convert(s) from one religion to another would be more accurate
to consider the serious nature of such a decision and not expect the choice
to have been or be arbitrary--zeitgeist.
David Eliezrie on February 6, 2013 at 10:09 am (Reply)
The root cause is not intermarriage, that is just the symptom. The core of the issue is that Jews today see little relevance of Judaism in their lives. Gone is the nostalgia of a generation ago that while non-observant Jews were tugged by history, family, tradition and felt rejection due to anti-Semitism. In a modern society where the chief of staff of the White House can be orthodox Jew the sky is the limit. They will not retain a Jewish identity unless it has meaning in their lives.

Here lies the vast chasm between the orthodox and non-orthodox. Orthodoxy’s success is based on Jewish education. The young find meaning and relevance due to their understanding of the wisdom of Torah and its modern application. They struggle to balance the intersection of modernity and tradition. They can balance this if their beacon are Jewish values that they appreciate due to their understanding of those ideals. As the saying goes “you cannot inherit Torah you must study it”.

Sadly the liberal movements draw more inspiration from western culture than the classic teachings of Torah. It’s rare to discover a graduate of a Hebrew School who is proficient in Talmud. In their rejection of the Divine origin of Torah they equate Jewish ideas with the latest whim of the professor at Harvard. They young Jew says to himself “maybe the professor is right and Judaism has little modern relevance” and discards it. With no social boundaries to hold him back why should he not assimilate into the modern culture. Intermarriage is just another step away from Judaism that he sees no importance in.
    Mitch on February 8, 2013 at 1:20 pm (Reply)
    One problem is not that Jews are choosing "western culture" but what that culture is. In the 1800's it was Beethoven. In the early 1900's it was George Gershwin. And today? Most kids now have never heard of Gershwin, and know their Beethoven from an am/pm commercial. The same is occurring with religion. In the past, the surrounding culture respected/expected attending religious services. So Jews who did were fulfilling the expectations of not only their particular religion but the universal society as well. That no longer happens.
ch hoffman on February 6, 2013 at 10:09 am (Reply)
the problem isn't intermarriage - intermarriage is just one of the symptoms.

the problem is indifference.

Most young people to whom a sense of Jewish identity is significant will have the sense and sensibility to date and form intimate relationships only among their own. But to those whose sense of Jewish identity was formed "in passing" - for a few short years of 2 hours a week, culminating in a collection of suits, ties, and presents, by the time they're in their 20s of 30s, their status as Jews is no more defining of them than their favorite hockey team.

The problem needs to be addressed with 8 year-ols, not with 20-somethings or older
Shlomo on February 6, 2013 at 10:09 am (Reply)
The once-celebrated melting pot has done its job. There has been a decline in Jewish ethnic uniqueness and belief in the rabbinic religion. This process has happened to every ethnic and religious group in America. I am socially punished more often by fellow "Jews" than by goyim with incomprehension or derision for any expressions of Jewish ethnicity, whether that be use of Hebrew or Yiddish language or something else.

The emphasis on endogamy is a short-term fix, but it drives people away as individuals seek happiness with no-longer-strange partners outside the small tribe. I've seen this time and time again.

I wish I knew the answers. At age 60, I realize that I can only solve my own problems, not those of the Jewish community. I am now only connected to the Jewish community through a few pro-Israel organization. I am pro-Zionist liberal, like Ed Koch, Alan Dershowitz, or Martin Peretz, an historic relic.
Ellen on February 6, 2013 at 10:24 am (Reply)

Of course you're right that intermarriage is merely a symptom of the larger problem of spiritual and communal decay, and not the problem itself. People focus on intermarriage because it is easy to measure. How do you measure objectively (as social scientists claim they like to do) spiritual decline or decay? That sort of thing is inherently very subjective. My definition of spiritual decay might be your definition of new-age grooviness, for example. Liberals are very good at redefining social phenomena in a way that makes their behavior look acceptable. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this, "defining down deviancy."

Dr. Starlight also points out an important but sad fact about the liberal denominations of Judaism. They have produced not just Jewish illiterates, but terribly unspiritual people. This is particularly sad because the great grandparents of these people made great sacrifices to stay Jewish in a hostile world, and their not-so-great grandchildren would rather go to shopping malls or miniature golf on Saturday morning. That is pathetic in its own way that doesn't reflect well on those secular Jews, regardless of what other positive qualities they may possess.

Many of the most committed and inspiring Jews I have met in smaller communities outside of the New York area, in fact, have been converts. And I would agree with Dr. Starlight that gentile converts are a more promising source of future baalei tshuva than the graduates of our Reform and Conservative Hebrew Schools.
Larry K on February 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm (Reply)
Reconstructionism, although it broke away from the Conservative movement, today is a numerically insignificant variant of Reform -- theological differences of no interest to the laity, operational differences (authority in the community rather than the individual) that may or may not have practical import.
    Diane Wright on February 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm (Reply)
    Actually, Reconstructionism is much closer to Conservative than it is to Reform. My point was that it is a growing denomination and ought to be included, if only in passing.
      Mitch on February 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm (Reply)
      In its philosophy, Reconstructionism is more "untraditional" than Reform. But its members' observance levels are probably more traditional than Conservative. Its theory rejects the very concept of "God" as traditionally understood, but at least on the East Coast, more of its membership keeps kosher, attends weekly services etc. than Conservative. No one is Reconstructionist by default; people must consciously go out of their way to choose it.
TLF on February 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm (Reply)
Our grandparents and their parents got off the boat at Ellis Island and imagined that they could have the best of both worlds when it came to Jewish life - they could have their cake and eat it, too.

They metaphorically said let's enjoy all the benefits that being Jews has brought us - high literacy, low crime rates, marital fidelity and community support, business acumen, cultural accomplishment, etc. We should keep those things!

But let's remove the shackles that have hindered us and caused us pain and suffering. No need to cluster geographically with each other. No need to do those shtetl things that have set us apart - keeping the Sabbath, keeping kosher, daily learning and praying. We will become 'Cultural Jews.' We'll still enjoy Jewish humor and eat bagels -and so be culturally Jewish. We just won't do any of that archaic 'Judaism' stuff.

And it worked for a generation. Jews kept marrying Jews and at the same time achieved great things in the New World! But it did not persist. It turned out that a love of Woody Allen movies, Jackie Mason jokes and bagels with a shmear does not make somebody a Jew, in the traditional sense, and it does not make them self-identify as a member of Klal Yisrael with responsibilities to the community. It makes them Jewish. But it does not make them limit their university choices and job choices and spouse choices to places where Jews are.

Without learning and such old-fashioned practices as Kashrut, Shabbos and regular attendance in shul, Jewish practice fades as does Jewish identity.

Intermarriage is merely one of the symptoms.

You want to have a distinct Jewish people. The way to do that is to embrace observant Judaism. Functional things last. Judaism has lasted because of these physical acts. Brit Milah, kashrut, traditional Sabbath observance.

It would be nice, but you can't have your cake and eat it too. Not exactly the message a rabbi wants to give his congregation.

The best definition I have ever heard to the question 'Who is a Jew' is 'One whose grandchildren self-identify, first and foremost, as Jews' Statistically speaking, it's clear which groups are succeeding by this measure and which are not.
Suri Friedman on February 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm (Reply)
There are several assumptions being made here that may or may not be valid: 1) that intermarriage is a cause of the fall-off of affiliation--that has been addressed. 2) that synagogue affiliation is the definition of vitality in Jewish life 3) that Judaism is some sort of static state unaltered by the ebb and flow of surrounding culture.

Just a cursory examination of these assumptions makes it clear that all of them are open to question--The reality is that we are bringing Twentieth Century mind sets to Twenty-first Century developments. The model of the community synagogue as a place to go to may be obsolete--but the moral and spiritual dimensions of human existence remain. As long as Jewish leadership, in whatever form that leadership takes, continues to address and nurture our engagement with those dimensions, Jewish life will survive and sometimes florish despite the present hand-wringing.
dg on February 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Reply)
I would like to see this issue addressed in the context of Jewish history. How does this fit/relate into the history of our people? Our numbers have risen and ebbed (sometimes severely) over thousands of years. Yet we're still here. I'm not saying that therefore we have no need for concern. But our continued existence has always depended on a small remnant of people, with the remainder being absorbed into the nation or culture at large. That's our history, no?
    Raymond in DC on February 8, 2013 at 8:53 am (Reply)
    Actually, in terms of demographic prominence, Jews probably peaked in the late 1st century. Jewish communities were found across the Roman Empire while they retained a vibrant demographic and cultural center in Judea, and many non-Jews, even in elite Roman society, were adopting Jewish practices. (The process of conversion wasn't yet standardized as we have it today.) By some estimates, Jews numbered around four million (some suggest as high as eight). After the revolts against Rome that lead to Jerusalem's destruction, and even more so after the disasters of the Bar Kochba rebellion, those numbers collapsed.

    Between the rigors of exile, forced conversions, or assimilation in regions where Jewish numbers were sparse, it took almost 18 centuries for Jewish numbers to reach those of the 1st century, peaking around 17 million just before the Shoa. Since then Jewish numbers have stagnated, still less than 14 million. Jews may have reached some 2% of world population back in the 1st century, but they're now about 0.2%.
Baba Sababa on February 6, 2013 at 1:36 pm (Reply)
Time for the tide to rise of a refreshing wave of non-demoninationalism. All Jews for one, and each one for all Jews!
Eli Willner on February 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Reply)
The Orthodox community does not view religion as a numbers or influence game. We do what we do because it's incumbent on us as Jews to follow the Torah, not in order to obtain some kind of political leverage. Numbers are not critical to our survival. Let's not forget that Judaism is thousands of years old while the deviationist liberal movements date back only a few hundred years. We made it to the 1700's without them, with G-d's help, and after they fade away we will continue to make it without them, again with G-d's help.

I mourn the loss of millions of Jews to authentic Judaism because of the influence of these movements over the past few hundred years. I doubt that the rate of attrition from Jewish identification will increase after they are gone. If anything unaffiliated Jews interested in learning about their heritage will have an easier time of it after the imposters leave the scene with their false and confusing "alternatives".

The Orthodox community has long been aware that the window for kiruv is slowly shutting but the cause is the liberal movements themselves, not their demise!
DF on February 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm (Reply)
I love the comments of Ellen and TLF. I think they both nail it. I feel it important to add though, that none of this proves orthodoxy, as it is currently practiced, is "right." There are countless other problems within the world of orthodoxy that are not present within reform and conservatives. It just happens that the very big problem of intermarriage falls within the latter, and not the former.

Some might say that the modern orthodox, or let us say, the traditional Conservatives (a very small group) seem to have figured out how to obtain the benefits of Judaism as described by TLF, while minimizing the "shackles" he speaks about. But I'm not so sure.
Renee Fields on February 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm (Reply)
Intermarriage is a symptom of the problem, not the problem. There is a dissatisfaction with the way that mainstream Judaism (Reform. Reconstructionist, Conservative) attempt to pass on the message of Judaism. What we need to do is speak to the disaffected -- why do parents end their synagogue membership after B'nai Mitzvah? Why do synagogue youth groups fail to attract all but a few of Jewish High School students? What alternative Jewish affiliations will speak to the unaffiliated, the intermarried, the secular?
Empress Trudy on February 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm (Reply)
What's true now is what's been true for 200 years. And that truth is that there aren't any 3rd generation Reform Jews. Never has been never will be. Reform Judaism is a way station between Judaism and assimilation and non-Judaism. It always has been. And if truth were told they've never been coy about it. When millions of eastern European and Russian Jews came here after 1881 the established Jewish community of middle class German liberal Reform Jews wanted nothing to do with them. They were ashamed. At best they'd toss some charity their way as long as none of them came uptown. Now while it's true that many of the descendents of those 1881 and later emigres are no longer Jewish or Jewish in last name only (some not ever that), there's essentially zero uptown western European liberal Reform Jews who've come down to the present day from that earlier group. Not even the grandchildren of the founder of Reform Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn were Jewish. They were, to my knowledge all baptized, including the composer Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny. So none of this is new. Reform experiences a total and constant shedding of members so that every generation there needs to be nearly a complete replacement of Reform Jews. And where do they come from? They come the Conservatives who are tired of Conservative and they come from mixed marriages. But in either case, since their children will be atheists, Buddhists or Protestants, there's little for any of the parents to invest in keeping them in the fold. They themselves are ambivalent at best and are the last people who would try to enforce their values upon them since that flies in the face of what liberal secular quasi-atheist Judaism is.
Dan Ab on February 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm (Reply)
Repeat after me: People self-select their denominations. People self-select their denominations.

There are so few intermarried Orthodox couples not because Orthodoxy does such a great job at preventing intermarriage, but because, when someone who was raised Orthodox marries a non-Jew, they are no longer welcome in most Orthodox communities. From the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, 19% of Jews who were raised Orthodox no longer considered themselves Orthodox. You cannot exclude this group from discussions of denominations and intermarriage. In general, there is a lot of denominational switching in all directions & no denomination exists in a vacuum. How can a historian, who has given any serious thought to this topic, not understand this?
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm (Reply)
    Yes but that 19% you will find is overwhelmingly from the older generations, who were raised by Orthodox parents who were usually immigrants from Europe, not to sophisticated, and the Orthodoxy they followed was likewise.
Orlando Avraham Hernandez-Soto on February 6, 2013 at 5:04 pm (Reply)
In find this article to be disturbing because when "talking" about "American Jews" it only refers to Ashkenazim Jews. Spanish and Portuguese Jews;Sephardim (but different from Israeli Sephardim), Mizrahim, Yemenite and Beta Jews are, I suppose, irrelevant to this this article and to the very general concept and perception of "American Jews". This is a crisis!
V. Rev. John W. Morris on February 6, 2013 at 7:28 pm (Reply)
The title should have included the word Jewish. The word Orthodox was first used by the Orthodox Chrisitan Churches of the East.
Dr. Stephen Starlight on February 6, 2013 at 8:37 pm (Reply)
We all know about the Orthodox Church. This is a Jewish publication. No one engaged in this discourse needs to identify the Orthodox brand we're talking about.
Michael Ben-Av on February 7, 2013 at 12:36 pm (Reply)
Those who think that intermarriage is just “a symptom” are deluding themselves, (and more importantly, may be deluding others).

This is not to say that intermarriage itself does not have deeper causes that must also be addressed.

But to the extent that normative Jewish life is a family and community enterprise, intermarriage is a definitive rejection of normative Jewish life, and prevents the intermarried person from participating fully in that enterprise.

Judaism sets a place of great honour and respect for non-Jews who keep the seven laws of Noah (the minimal standards of common human decency), but that honour and respect does not mean that from a Jewish perspective non-Jews would be able to participate positively in authentic Jewish family life as the spouse of a Jew without going through a valid conversion including a commitment to actually live as a Jew.
Michael Ben-Av on February 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm (Reply)
Respectfully, I don't get it - the title as I read it is "Denominational Delusions" and does not use the word "Orthodox" in the title.
Eric Strimling on February 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm (Reply)
At my synagogue we are nearly 50% intermarried and I would guess that the number is higher than that in our religious school. Some of our RS families have strong Reform or Conservative roots and home practice while others come in with little to no ritual knowledge but want their children to learn what it means to be Jewish. Also, we have "mixed" families of American Reform Jews with Israeli secular ones. The Americans tend to come to services and participate while the Israelis rarely show their faces. But all come in because they want their kids to have rich Jewish lives. Some of the gentile parents convert, but most don't. All of the families practice Jewish ritual in their homes because their kids bring it home.

So, I completely disagree with the premise of the article. If you define Jewish as Shomer Shabbes, affiliated, matrilineal, and insular then yes, we are not producing that. My fully (genetically) Jewish Grandparents met none but one of those definitions. They never lit candles, never visited a synagogue except out of historical or architectural interest, did not even know that Jews don't eat bread on Passover, and yet they produced my father and myself who are both affiliated active Jews who live ritually observant and prayerful lives.

But, my mother is not Jewish. So, I married a Jewish woman, raised a Jewish child with all of the appropriate Jewish life-cycle events, I study and teach Torah, lead services at my congregation, am an active Zionist who travels regularly to Israel,and was converted but by a gay reform Rabbi.

SO, I do not count in your survey as a Jew. According to your survey, you are right. My Atheist grandparents failed to produce Jewish off-spring. May I respectfully suggest that your survey is skewed and is missing the entire future of Judaism? That Judaism is, as it has always been (Moses intermarried), a thriving mix of cultures and values. Judaism has always mixed in with the surrounding cultures, picked up new ideas, and used these to produce new and vibrant forms of worship and culture. And always there have been old people complaining about the decline of the youth and warning that it will all end badly. Old ways do end, and the future always does come.

Please remember, Moses did not recognize Akivah's Judaism. I doubt that Akivah would have understood what the Baal Shem Tov taught. I do not know what my grandchildren will consider Jewish practice (maybe they will be Lubovichers!) but I am confident that the shma will be said, the Torah will be read, and our tradition will continue.
Marc on February 7, 2013 at 5:20 pm (Reply)
The author completely misses the point (as do many people worried about this issue).

Intermarriage is a RESULT of modern Judaism not speaking to it's youth. WHY be Jewish? Why? The Conservative and Reform movements have failed miserably in making a real and relevant Judaism that appeals to folks in the 15-30 year old bracket. EXACTLY the point where marriage decisions are being made.

They run on a platform of fear and not revision - modernity & a real and relevant Torah based Judaism are not mutually exclusive.
They act as Orthodox light OR strip everything away and turn into some kumbaya,Tikkun Olam is everything.
Neither resonate as real to our youth. It's made-up and false and they know it.

What works? Summer camps. Birthright. Jewish Day Schools. These make positive impacts on young people's lives. Let's start their and move forward.
Chaim on February 8, 2013 at 10:18 am (Reply)
Too much of modern Jewish religion is based on a Christian model - the Rabbi as Minister or Social Worker. You go to a building and the "staff" provides a service.

Many young people are more attracted to a do it yourself model - the Chavurah movement, small prayer groups, etc. These young people question the need to pay high Synagogue dues to support the "staff" when individuals can lead services, teach Torah, teach children about Judaism, etc.
    Mitch on February 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm (Reply)
    The problem for many is that they are incapable, not only of leading services, but even of following them. Participation in lay minyanim is terrific for those with the knowledge and ability to do so. But most unaffilated Jews will not (yet) be able to do that.
      Chaim on February 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm (Reply)
      If Rabbis did their job and taught rather than acting as social workers and ministers there would be many more people who could lead services.
Bob Kahan on February 8, 2013 at 11:33 am (Reply)
this article should be emailed to and printed in EVERY Jewish newspaer in america
Rabbi Hayim Herring on February 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm (Reply)
I'm sure that the author is well-intentioned, but is myopic in his analysis. American Judaism should not be defined solely by denominational health. Independent minyanim, Jewish camping, Jewish studies at the college level, Taglit Birthright Israel and MASA, Israel teen experiences, Jewish student clubs in high school-the signs of vitality of American Jewish life should have been a part of this article. The intermarriage rate has stabilized, although it is still quite high. But, we should also remember that Jewish identity has had a relatively strong persistence. Creating a more nuanced view of the dynamics of the American Jewish community would be a welcome addition to this piece.
charles hoffman on February 10, 2013 at 3:42 am (Reply)
with deference to rabbi herring (which, by the way, is the guy who should run the kiddush in my shul), a few people getting together for a few evenings doesn't make for a trend. And a trend among a mini-minority of Jews has little impact on the vast majority.

Even that kid in the Jewish club in high school is there for an hour. Another 2 hours a month are spent at the Jewish clubs in college. And yes, some will be affected by that birthright trip. But most won't. And none of those programs are regular, or part of a continuum. They're "enhancement", but of nothingness, and they're trying to build a lovely structure in the absence of any foundation.
Harold Berman on February 10, 2013 at 9:46 am (Reply)
The question that rarely seems to be addressed is why Orthodoxy has taken off where the other movements have not. I agree with what some others have said that intermarriage is a symptom more than a cause. But that symptom appears far less (although it does sometimes appear) in Orthodox families. What we should be doing is having a real discussion about what Orthodoxy has done right that might be adapted in other parts of the Jewish world. At the end of the day, there is much about Judaism that is incredibly compelling, and if our youth walk away not feeling any of that, then we haven't done our job.

When I met my wife, I was a completely assimilated Jew and she was the Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church. If ever there was a couple that any Jewish communal professional would have written off in a heartbeat as irrevocably lost to the Jewish future, it was us. And yet, 20 years later, we're an observant Jewish family living in Israel. We got from point A to point B simply because we had certain wonderful experiences in the Jewish community that led us there. Those amazing experiences exist, but unfortunately not in the majority of Jewish institutions. We just published a book about our journey from intermarried to Jewish - "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope" - it's a reflection on what works in the Jewish community (at least for us) and what doesn't and pushes people away. Judaism has wonderful tools - we just need to learn to use them.

Harold Berman
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Reply)
    The reasons Orthodoxy are doing well are as follows:

    1) Encouragement of commitment and observance,
    2) Creation of close-knit, supportive communities, with people living in close proximity to each other,
    3) Fostering intensive textual study, thus creating a knowledgable population that loves to learn,
    4) An unwillingness to change the religion to suit politically correct agendas, thus creating an air of authenticity,
    5) A strongly family-orientated environment.

    If Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist communities were to copy this model in ways that suit their own beliefs, then they too, might experience success.
Ellen on February 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm (Reply)

Thanks for your personal story. The first sentence of your second paragraph reads like the beginning of a borscht belt joke. However, the rest of the story has a nice point to make. To be honest, outreach to the assimilated probably wouldn't focus on the very small niche that you and your wife occupied (ie, assimilated Jews married to ministers of music in Bible Belt churches).

I think the conclusion you drew about the importance of personal experiences with religious Jews and a living religious community is the key point in your tale. Thanks for the colorful secondary details, though.
Harold on February 11, 2013 at 5:20 am (Reply)

Thanks. Yes, the importance of personal experiences, etc. was the main point. As for where we started from, I try not to think of my life as a borscht belt joke. The idea is not so much the specific "small niche" that we occupied, but that we came from so far away and still found a way to find our place in the Jewish world. The reality is that there are tons of intermarrieds (and not a few in-marrieds) who are far away in many different ways - many, far more than the Jewish community realizes, can be found in churches; many are completely removed from any kind of religion; and many are just far removed from the Jewish community in all kinds of ways. We didn't write "Doublelife" for the other 3 couples in the world who may have come from the same specific background as we did - we wrote it because the trajectory from point A to point B contains a lot of experiences that have much in common with most intermarrieds at various points in their journey. I'm including a link to the Amazon page here because there's a review that speaks to the more universal nature of what we've tried to say -
Surak on February 13, 2013 at 11:31 am (Reply)
I disagree on one point: the claim that a swelling Orthodox population cannot replace the loss due to declining Reform and Conservative Judaism. Not so. I have constructed my own demographic model, based on data from the most recent National Jewish Population Survey as well as the survey done by the NY area Federation, employing intermarriage and fertility data, as well as defections from one movement to another. My forecast is that Orthodoxy will be a plurality of American Jews within one generation, a majority within little more than two generations, and has a long-term behavior that is steadily linearly increasing. (Their growth is not exponential because of defections from Orthodoxy.)
Ruth Chell on February 14, 2013 at 6:52 am (Reply)
The Reconstructionist and Conservative movements in my moderate size town in upstate New York have found a temporary solution by handing out conversions to the non Jewish fiances of Jewish men. Read a book, dunk in the mikveh they control and you are now a Jew or Jewish-enough. There is a family in my community whose son married a Chinese national, an open atheist, both before and after her conversion, and who have been torn apart by this behavior of the local rabbinate. Their son, by the way, attended day school and Yeshiva University. The issue, as I see it, is that by providing legitimacy to intermarriage, we devalue Jewish women. They are no longer necessary to produce Jewish children since anyone a Jewish man marries can now be the mother of Jewish children, whether she herself has a Jewish mother or has had a phony conversion or no conversion. As a result, Jewish women cannot find husbands in the community and are left to become second wives to older men or to spinsterhood. Women are much mor ereluctant to leave the religion than are men whose dreams of shiksa goddesses or subservient "others" lead them and their progeny away from the fold. This is the real meaning of "the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons" - their children and their grandchildren are lost to us and they lose the great tradition which should be their birthright.
Prof. Ben Shiddech on February 20, 2013 at 6:50 am (Reply)
The only solution is a reconstruction from within orthodoxy. A combination of the orthodox dedication to Torah study with the openness of the liberal.

Who knows if it will happen?
    Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
    An open, liberal Orthodoxy is already happening. Do a Google search for Open Orthodoxy and Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and you'll see.
Jayman on February 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Reply)
Communities such as the Syrians, Spanish-Portuguese, Moroccans, Greek-Turkish Sephardim, Yemenites, Iranians and Bukharians represent tiny percentages of American Jewry and the strength of their communities lies primarily in the very tight-knit family and community ties they have.
Ken S on May 13, 2013 at 12:17 am (Reply)
Has anyone noticed that Chabad is by far becoming the largest "denomination" in Judaism, at least in America. Why are they so successful? Because their Rabbis and Rebbetzins are on the job 24/7. And they really mean it. They live like paupers and serve all. You may not care for their strain of Judaism but love and commitment conquers all. Check out the pay checks of the "9-5" Reform and Conservative Rabbis.

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