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The constriction of Conservative Judaism is not just a Conservative problem — it’s everybody’s challenge. Without a strong middle core, Judaism will become weaker, more polarized and simply less viable.
• Confront intermarriage. Don’t be assuaged by the Pew finding that the rate of intermarriage hasn’t increased much in the last few years. It is still, at 58%, so common as to be unnoticed. And the revelation that since 2000, 72% of non-Orthodox Jews chose to marry outside the faith should be a dramatic wake-up call to anyone who hopes to see a thriving, egalitarian, pluralistic American Judaism in the future.
Individually, a mixed marriage may seen acceptable (who wouldn’t want Chelsea Clinton in the family?) But collectively and over time, this trend is devastating. Jews married to non-Jews are far less likely to belong to a synagogue, observe religious tradition, contribute to Jewish causes, raise their children as Jews, and engage in the Jewish world. There are examples to the contrary, but to quote a great sage, the plural of anecdote is not data. This data can’t be ignored.
This central conundrum for the modern Jew is impervious to a simple solution, but there is an immediate, modest step that could make a difference: Enthusiastically encourage conversion before or soon after marriage. For centuries, Jews have made it extremely onerous to join the club. Now it’s time to fling the doors wide open.
But to do so, we have to believe that Jewish life is worth embracing. Which brings us to a final point.
• Preserve and celebrate Jewish distinctiveness. After remembering the Holocaust, Jews told Pew that leading an ethical and moral life is the most essential part of being Jewish. But all faith traditions teach ethics and morality. We need to teach, emphasize, model and promote what is distinctive about Jewish tradition — its devotion to community, its belief in the here and now, its rich melding of faith and culture, its time-tested but often counter-cultural values. Divorcing Judaism, however it is practiced, from Jewish life invites more assimilation.
And we know where that leads. Pew found that Jewish adults now comprise 2.2% of the U.S. population, a sharp drop from that 3.4% figure. Knowing so much about ourselves is a gift. Now let’s respond.