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.
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.
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.
I think we put the problem off on the children. Then we have infinite regress. We never get to it.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 - http://www.amazon.com/Doublelife-Family-Faiths-Journey-Hope/dp/061572115X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360577870&sr=8-1&keywords=doublelife
Who knows if it will happen?
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