Straight-Talk About Assimilation: An Exchange

Opinion

By Jack Wertheimer and Adam R. Bronfman

Published October 21, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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In an October 2 opinion article, “Time for Straight-Talk About Assimilation,” Jewish Theological Seminary historian Jack Wertheimer weighed in on the controversy over an Israeli television commercial that warned of high rates of assimilation among young Diaspora Jews. The ad, produced for the Jewish Agency’s Masa program, which brings young Jews to Israel for educational and work opportunities, was pulled from the air after being widely criticized by those who felt that it was alarmist and potentially offensive to intermarried families.

Wertheimer, however, wrote that there is “a large kernel of truth” to the ad’s claims, and that intermarriage is, indeed, a major factor contributing to assimilation. He suggested that the furor over the ad reflects a larger unwillingness to grapple with such issues. “Speaking of threats to Jewish survival has become passé,” he asserted.

Wertheimer wrote that those who “reject the language of crisis” in discussing assimilation tend to argue that the key to retaining more Jews is to create more compelling programs. But, Wertheimer maintained, that approach is not sufficient: “If we want to strengthen our community amidst the prevailing individualistic culture, we had better start with straight-talk about our current condition.”

Wertheimer’s article prompted the following exchange between him and Adam R. Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.


Dear Jack,

You are correct: We must have a national, even an international, discussion about assimilation. However, our first step in having a truly serious and productive conversation must be to ground it in the realities of today. Sadly, you still choose to frame this issue in a context that either does not apply, or simply does not recognize the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of today’s Jewish population.

We must accept that intermarriage is increasingly the norm, and that Jews are now fully integrated and welcomed in nearly every sector of American life, both public and private. Roughly 50% of Jewish students on college campuses come from one-Jewish-parent households. Jews do not marry non-Jews in an effort to assimilate. We do so, as I did, because we fall in love. The true problem lies not in our choice of life partner, or living in a multicultural society, but in trying to find Jewish institutions that will fully embrace our decision to lead meaningful Jewish lives once married “out.”

You argue that creative leaders and innovative programs have failed to engage large numbers of Jews, and that we must move on to new (or perhaps old) solutions. But you fail to acknowledge that strategies of engagement, which meet Jews where they are, have yet to be implemented across wide swaths of the Jewish community. Further, the reach of these programs has not been limited by demand, but by their resources to expand capacity. In most communities, established Jewish institutions still generally speak a language that is foreign to many participants in today’s culture. We live our lives in an integrated society and yearn to share our opportunities for meaningful Jewish experience in a language and environment that is familiar and compelling. All Jews, regardless of background or life choices, must feel welcomed and embraced by the Jewish community.

Twelve years ago, I moved to Park City, Utah. At the time, there was no organized Jewish life there. However, with friends and colleagues, we made the decision to create an organized Jewish community that welcomed all. We designed programs that were engaging and compelling to any person interested in participating. Last June, we opened Temple Har Shalom, a beautiful congregation that has no litmus test for membership. This year, at Kol Nidre, 450 of us chanted the ancient formula together. We now wonder how we will accommodate our rapidly growing membership, and we plan for a vibrant future — a future based on embracing the realities we encounter today.

Jack, if in 12 years a handful of people in a small city in Utah can create a welcoming and vibrant Jewish community, populated by Jewish families of all backgrounds, many of whom are intermarried, why should we believe that such success, with the right strategy, could not happen everywhere?

Adam


Dear Adam,

I welcome your letter in response to my call for a communal conversation about assimilation, even though you have narrowed the topic to engaging only those Jews who are already intermarried. To answer your concluding question, your Park City model is happening in many places: A minority of intermarried Jews is joining synagogues and Jewish institutions. Many synagogues, from Reform to Chabad, and other Jewish institutions eagerly embrace intermarried families.

We part company when you suggest that creating welcoming Jewish institutions is a panacea. Over 35% of intermarried Jews raise their children in a religion other than Judaism. They are not about to flock to shul. And among families raising their children in two religions or no religion, even the most inviting Jewish programs will not convince most to identify exclusively as Jews. So far, only a quarter of adults raised by intermarried parents think of themselves as Jews.

Given the long odds, we need to pay attention to intermarriage before it occurs. You trace today’s high intermarriage rates to the universal reality that people “fall in love.” That puts a very passive spin on what you yourself go on to describe as choices. Jews of all ages are choosing to inter-date. They actively place themselves in situations where the likely outcomes will be intermarriage. And now a chorus of voices is demanding that no Jewish leaders dare to speak of such choices as inimical to Jewish life, lest we offend.

Rather than being the uniform result of living in an integrated society, intermarriage rates vary significantly across different populations. Modern Orthodox Jews, for example, attend top-notch universities and pursue high-powered careers, but their rates of intermarriage are infinitesimal compared with much of the rest of the American Jewish community. And rates of intermarriage among Conservative Jews are lower than those among Reform Jews. A community’s norms, values and approach to socialization matter.

But let’s return to the issue of individual choices: On the Web site of New Voices, a national Jewish student magazine, a young woman recently blogged about how, despite her past inclination “to date boys of my own faith,” she now feels that doing so is unnecessary because if “your loved ones are healthy and happy, maybe even with a dash of Judaism here and there, something tells me you’ll be fine.”

So here are my questions for you, Adam. What would you say to this young woman, who has not yet fallen in love, about her choices? Is there any value to the Jewish people if she chooses to try to find another Jew to marry? And if so, how can we encourage such choices?

Jack


Dear Jack,

Your argument assumes that all Jews are born into vibrant Jewish communities and then at some point many actively choose to leave. This is clearly not true for a large percentage of the Jewish population. You point out that the rates of intermarriage among the Modern Orthodox are minimal, but so are their rates of having a significant number of close non-Jewish friends.

People date, fall in love and marry those who are around them. For the vast number of Jews who do not live their entire lives in a Jewish bubble, those around them will consist of a high percentage of non-Jews. This is not a circumstance of choice; it is reality.

My argument is not just that Jewish communities and institutions need to be more welcoming, it is also that they need to be relevant and compelling. A generation of Jews is now asking, “Why should I be Jewish?” The majority of Jewish institutions that they encounter do not provide meaningful answers. It is not only the intermarried who are struggling to find meaningful connections with Jewish life; people of all Jewish backgrounds are leaving or avoiding traditional Jewish institutions.

My vision is to make Jewish communities so compelling, meaningful and welcoming that they will be irresistible to those who are not currently engaged in Jewish life. It is not my place to tell this young woman or anyone else whom to marry. Rather, I would seek to direct her to opportunities for Jewish learning and community that will enrich her life and the life of her eventual family.

Jack, your solution is essentially to make Jewish communities so insular that those inside never feel comfortable leaving. This is a strategy that will only succeed in those communities for which it is already the norm, while subsequently serving to alienate everyone else.

Your strategy is one of Jewish inoculation; mine is one of Jewish renaissance.





Adam


Dear Adam,

We both hope for a Jewish renaissance but differ on what ails us. Our society encourages individual gratification even as the ties binding people together continually erode. The distancing of individual Jews from their institutions, Israel and the Jewish people are symptoms of a wider disengagement we see all around us.

You imply that I want to return to a ghetto, but nothing is more insular than the me-centered lives many Americans — including Jews — live. I want to challenge Jews through serious learning and community to connect with the transcendent elements of Judaism even as they live as fully engaged citizens of open societies. I trust that once exposed to the counter-cultural richness of Jewish civilization and teachings, they will find sufficient meaning to choose to partake in a full Jewish life. As with all choices, that means embracing some things and forsaking others.

Whereas your strategy is to embrace unfettered individualism and let the chips fall where they may, I try to educate people about the likely outcomes of their choices. Jews who intermarry dramatically increase the odds of their children disengaging from Jewish life.

When a young Jewish woman announces her intention to inter-date out of the mistaken belief that everything will turn out just fine, I would not hesitate to advise that such a decision would vastly complicate her own Jewish life and the Jewish lives of her children. I would further explain that Jews committed to a Jewish future have not abandoned the millennia-old continuity strategy of endogamy.

Like you, I want us to build compelling Jewish communities. I believe, however, that our institutions often fall short because they fail to send clear messages about what they are and what they are not. By all means, let’s be welcoming. But let’s also be clear about what we stand for.

Jack


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