Insanity, it has famously been said, is to do the exact same thing twice, but to expect a different result each time. Put down as insane one of the responses to the recently released Pew Research demographic survey of Jewish life in America.
When a survey shows an intermarriage rate of 71% outside the Orthodox Jewish community, the same old Jewish arts-and-culture-identity-Birthright-shortcut feel good approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. It’s not going to work. It’s been given some 23 years to work — since the alarming 1990 demographic survey. It has failed. It would be insane to try it again and expect different results. With high intermarriage in 1990 and even higher intermarriage in 2013, “Jewish continuity” doesn’t cut it.
There is no better evidence than the counsel of despair offered by one person interviewed for the study, as quoted by Yossi Prager (Lively Opinion, pp. 4-5, October 10, 2013):
“Six months ago I told a friendly Pew pollster that I consider myself Jewish but not religious, that my wife is not Jewish, and that my daughter is being raised ‘partially Jewish,’ in Pew’s terms.
“And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition — even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”
Those who agree with this need read no further. Our counsel, not of despair, but of hope, will not interest them.
Prager’s own view comes closer, but hardly close enough, to a positive path to the future of American Jewry. He writes:
We should measure the likely success of programs based on whether they offer the intensive and immersive education needed to give participants an understanding of the power and beauty of Jewish values and practices.
Anything less will fail to give participants sufficient motivation to make the commitment of time, energy and money needed for engaged Jewish life.
Programs that attempt to “meet people where they are” can only be justified if they actually succeed in attracting Jews to more substantive ongoing programs.
Missing from Prager’s prescription is this, from the late Abraham J. Heschel: “I am commanded, therefore I am.” That is the language of G-d and chosenness. “Intensive and immersive education” and “Jewish values and practices” are vague. They could embrace attendance at an ulpan that holds a Purim party —necessary, but hardly sufficient, to reverse the radical decline in American Jewry.
Nor will demographic words games to do the job. Suddenly, according to Pew, there are some 1.5 million more American Jews — yes, if the definition of a Jew is self-selecting. And that is meaningless. We make the point because it is equally misleading to base communal policy on how many Jews currently are disaffected from “I am commanded, therefore I am.” Face it: American Jewry numbered six million people in 1950. We should number in the tens of millions now. We don’t. The reason we don’t, aside from the assimilationist forces working against us, is our minimalist policy response. Our policy has been been lowest common denominator — how to reach the disaffected, no matter the dilution of the approach. We’ve tried that for over 60 years. It hasn’t worked. It would be insane to try the same thing again.
We need to stop being afraid of talking about “I am commanded, therefore I am.” That is, about G-d, Torah, spirituality, normative ethics, chosenness, the redemptive quality of Shabbos. Every Jew is capable of responding. Who knows, perhaps if we set forth the message undiluted, not only would the current minority respond — but the disaffected would, too.
Copyright 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News