It seems clear from the recent Pew survey (full survey available here) that many American Jews are assimilating. The inter-marriage rate among American Jews has been steadily climbing since the 1970s and has now reached 58% for all Jews, and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews. For those of us who find these statistics sad, scary, or concerning, they should serve as a wake-up call. Our community’s Jewish education is failing, and we must improve it if we don’t want to see the inter-marriage rate continue to grow.
Let me explain. People don’t get married just because they’re attracted to each other (at least I hope not). They get married because they want to spend their lives together. They get married because they have things in common, which generally include similar values, lifestyles, interests, and experiences. Those similarities are significant factors in the decision to build a future together. Therefore I believe one of the primary causes of the high inter-marriage rate is that most Jews feel they have just as much in common with non-Jews as they do with other Jews. Sure there may be differences, like I celebrate Hanukah and he celebrates Christmas, or my family does this and her family does that. But my guess is that most Jews don’t consider the differences significant or important.
For many Jews the truth is, aside from celebrating Jewish holidays (if and when they do), their day-to-day lives are similar to their non-Jewish friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Many Jews are also under the impression that Jewish values are virtually the same as American values, atheist values, and the values of other major religions. We all value charity, kindness, and human life, right? For Jews who don’t understand the uniqueness of Judaism and Jewish values, and don’t live their lives in a uniquely Jewish way, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re inter-marrying. Why wouldn’t they? Jewish educators have not done a good enough job teaching them what it means to live Jewish lives, or inspiring them to do so.
Many Jewish educators discuss Jewish values by focusing on values we share with other groups to the exclusion of values that are uniquely Jewish. They focus on values like charity, environmentalism, or treating others the way we want to be treated, and downplay values like Shabbat, kashrut, and learning Torah. They probably do this because they think it will be more engaging to their target audience. But if we downplay the values that are uniquely Jewish, we’re really engaging them in a less meaningful version of Judaism.
Don’t get me wrong, Jewish values that are shared by non-Jews are still important values to learn and live by. In fact, we should be happy when society at large values things we value. But it’s important to also teach values that are unique to Judaism. We need to teach that Judaism is unique and special if we want to cut down on assimilation. Furthermore, when we teach values that don’t seem unique to Judaism, we can still teach them in a specifically Jewish way. Let’s take tzedakah (giving to those in need) for example. American society values charity as a positive thing, which is evident by tax breaks among other things. But tzedakah isn’t actually the same as charity. Tzedakah literally translates as justice, and the Torah teaches that Jews are obligated to give 10% of our income to those in need. The Jewish obligation to give because we believe it’s just is unique from the American value of charity as a nice positive (but optional) thing.
We need to teach young Jews how Jewish values are unique. We need to teach them how living Jewish lives is special, and we need to inspire them to do so. This needs to be a focus not only for formal Jewish educators, but also informal Jewish educators, Jewish communal service professionals, Jewish parents, and everyone who participates in Jewish life and the Jewish community. We all need to take responsibility for educating the next generation since we all have an impact on the Jewish community and the Jewish lives others experience.
Exact Jewish theology and practice will differ by denomination and by individual Jew. But if we want our grandchildren and great grandchildren to be Jewish, and if we want them to have a Jewish community that’s thriving and not dying, we must teach our children, students, and fellow Jews that Judaism is unique and special. We must teach them values unique to Judaism. We must encourage and inspire them to do meaningful things in their day-to-day lives that are uniquely Jewish. If the next generation of Jews thinks of Judaism as a unique and special part of their lives, maybe the next survey will show us results that give us pride instead of concern.