Reading the news about a Pew study which indicates an alarmingly high rate of assimilation for American Jewry, a sports analogy comes to mind:
Now is not the time for being defensive; but rather an aggressive, multi-pronged offensive attack is in order. In this case, calling plays includes admitting demographic realities and risks; admit communal strategic failures; embrace skepticism and doubt; and understand that beneath the desire for meaning is a real hunger for deeper connections to what Jewish civilization can offer searching people.
1. Admit realities and risks. In America, we love and marry who we want. That means intermarriage rates will be high. It also means that those who choose to intermarry play an integral role in increasing the risk of assimilation. How we translate that fact into a sense of responsibility and continuity means everything. For decades, a person who intermarried was seen as having "given up" on Jewish life. In our community in Brooklyn and certainly in countless Jewish communities everywhere, that is simply not true. Marrying someone *not* Jewish often leads to the couple making Jewish decisions together--for their benefit and enrichment as a couple, and certainly when it comes to raising children inside the value system and faith of Jewish civilization--especially if they're embraced by the Jewish community and not harshly judged for "marrying out." What helps no one is excoriation and blame for assimilation. That is the failed endeavor of the twentieth century, fueled as much by the traumas of that century (immigration, assimilation, dislocation, and the Holocaust) as well as antiquated modes of conveying identity--what is nearly universally regarded as the now defunct Hebrew school and religious schools models that could not be re-thought and re-invented quickly enough.
Inside the Orthodox world, there is a "fence around the Torah." Non-orthodox communities don't have that communal mitzvah mandate. Everything in the non-orthodox world is about freedom of choice. This means that whether we like it or not (and I'll admit that there are plenty of days when I don't like it) we have to make Judaism compelling on a daily basis. We have to justify it, even sell it, in an age of marketing saturation and a nauseatingly infinite number of other simultaneous sales pitches. Except we have what most other non-religious civilizations don't have: ritual for every aspect of life at precisely the points of life where people cry out of meaning. Birth, transition, marriage, death, and everything in between. Even taking a day off of work (Shabbat.) That Jews are still here on Earth after 3500 years is in large measure because of ritual--the ritual of both sanctifying life *and* the ritual of defending ourselves against people who hate us. Both have been enormously effective tools of self-preservation. You can try to argue and I'll win. America's great challenge, of course, is that everyone (well, mostly) loves us.
2. Embrace skepticism and doubt. We do such a poor job of not letting people know that the religious exemplars of faith--the Rabbis--had moments of enormous doubt; had questions about divinity and providence that tormented them; and struggled mightily to convey Judaism's deepest truths through the lens of questioning God, law and authority. American Christian traditions, especially the Evangelical movements which traditionally place faith front and center, have influenced American Judaism to place too great an emphasis on pure faith and I find that, to use a colloquialism, this "turns people off." Don't get me wrong--I am often deeply moved by people's stories of faith and find them inspiring. But a larger number of American Jews don't buy it and in unrelenting string of ages of science and inquiry that stretches back in time nearly 500 years, if not more, we'd do well to honor those who lack faith but want very much to remain part of the Jewish civilizational conversation about truth and justice, love and freedom, right and wrong, kindness and compassion, war and peace. Physics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, politics and history. These are equally valid constructs of Jewish civilization as faith. Having lived in every nation at every stage of history--yes, history--we Jews have something to say and teach about that.
3. Admit communal failures. Hebrew school no longer works. Institutional life is bogged down in old models, old structures and an over-abundance of self-defense organizations that the vast majority of American Jews don't support and don't know anything about. There is so much waste and institutional fat it's a miracle we're still here. Of course, the other side of the coin is that we know what works: day schools, summer camp, and trips to Israel. Interestingly, when families stay connected to synagogue life, the synagogue holds people together in Jewish life as well. The reason that families leave the synagogue is that synagogues lose their relevance. Maybe a relationship was merely transactional--bar mitzvah and goodbye; maybe the community failed at keeping people engaged; maybe "membership dues," another outlandish construct of the past that ought to be eliminated, were too expensive. Or, maybe people just don't care. That's part of it too. Non-orthodox Jews can often be arrogant and dismissive and lazy. Hey, it's a two-way street here. We each have to admit our faults.
4. A hunger for deeper connections. We promise that we are there for you at birth to welcome a child into the community. That means a name, a bris, a covenantal relationship; it means meals, friendships, a sense of going on a journey through life with others who join a chain of tradition stretching back 3500 years. That's more powerful than words can describe and when people burst into tears at baby namings and brises, that's what's going on. We can't value that enough. When a child moves into adolescence, one of the worst and challenging phases of life, we have a ritual that is as meaningful as it is incomprehensible. Rote memorization is our own worst enemy, since few have a fond memory of it for reading from Torah. But the relationships that can form with a family, when done correctly are indelible. This is a two-way street--I'll say it again. If you're in it for the party and the presents, you're kind of wasting your time. When you make it matter, it actually matters. Marriage--the biggest decision of one's young adult life, when your parents aren't making you do it, when you're not memorizing lines but saying, in terror and love what you really mean and hope to achieve with another, is our community's first real chance at success with young adults. The Huppah, I always tell couples, is the first foundation of your new home together--and it's Jewish. That's true if both in the couple are Jewish or just one. Again, we have to make it count. And then there's what goes on the rest of way--transitions in people's lives, job loss, divorce, illness and death. As eternal as these human experiences are, Judaism has known responses and endless innovations that, in every generation, has sustained us. We're a people who are best in the trenches of life.
But we have to be there. Sustaining irrelevant organizations, voicing continuity platitudes that no longer work, and being overly defensive about our disappearing numbers--those are the challenges of Jewish leadership. Having been turned away or spurned because of intermarriage or atheism on one hand, or laziness, self-hatred or pure apathy--those are the challenges faced by everyone else.
So goes another study. But we know that what works has always worked. And if people don't realize it, it's our responsibility to work harder it making it known.
The smallest of nations on Earth has managed to survive every empire in every age because we believe that learning, that being part of a greater whole, and acts of love in community, are ultimately the foundation of the world's very existence. It's a truth into which we are born and a truth we will take to the grave. With a perfect mixture of faith, doubt and hard work, another generation will know this truth as well.