The new study on American Jewry just released by the Pew Research Center reveals very sobering statistics and demand that our community engage in some serious soul searching. 71% percent of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying out.
What is it that’s causing this growing trend? Two distinct elements spring to mind: The first is that American society is one in which all cultures now mix freely and barriers between traditionally separate groups are breaking down more and more. As a result, Jews are more likely to meet non-Jewish partners and vice versa. Having a Jewish spouse has becoming an increasingly attractive option because Jews make for good catches. They’re more educated, more successful and statistically-speaking, they’re more likely to win a Nobel Prize (!) The second issue is Jewish societal acceptance of those intermarrying. Whereas Tevye the Milkman disowned his daughter when she chose a non-Jewish spouse and the Jazz Singer’s protagonist said Kaddish over his son when he made the same choice, these days the reaction from families experiencing intermarriage is usually far more accepting.
All indications point to the fact that the norm has changed. Sadly, however, our approach hasn’t. And therein lies the rub. We live in a society of openness and choice and yet people are not choosing to be Jewish. In part, at least, the Jewish educational system—underscored by Jewish families’ Jewish practices (or lack thereof)—is rendering Jewishness as being irrelevant or meaningless.
For those who discard Judaism (and it is unclear from the research what percentage intermarry out of a distancing from Judaism rather than an attraction to something in addition) being Jewish is often seen as simply “organized religion” in the format that takes place in denominational spheres like the contemporary synagogue.
Many individuals who reject Judaism do so because they were given an abhorrent Jewish education or had no real Jewish education at all. Judaism was either completely infantalized or else was taught through the lens of systemized ritual. This necessarily sets the child up for failure. They’re taught about rituals that their families often don’t participate in so it comes off as either meaningless or hypocritical. Ultimately, if they don’t “get it,” they’ve failed as a Jew. But of course, it’s us who have failed them – we, the adults in the room, the Jewish educators, the ones who were given the awesome duty of passing the baton of Jewish continuity onto the next generation. We’re the ones who failed to provide adequate education so that our children could find meaning in their Judaism.
So our challenge then is to explore ways to turn Judaism and being Jewish back into being meaningful and relevant. The problem is our approach is all skewed – even our measures for determining Jewish affiliation is erroneous. The question that is often posed while determining Jewish affiliation is, “Are you a member of a synagogue?” Indeed, the Pew survey itself asks this question (with the answer being that less than two-thirds of American Jewry belong to a synagogue.) But how is this relevant? Why should synagogue-membership determine your Judaism? After all, many observant Jews I know aren’t even members of synagogues.
Instead, we must arrive at the understanding that in this generation Jews are expressing – and should feel free enough to express – their Judaism through ways that aren’t necessarily in line with the traditional modality of organized religion.
We need to find ways to empower Jewish youth to own their Judaism by making it their own. Peer learning communities – such as youth movements, summer camps and Israel experiences – have enjoyed great successes in this arena, something that I have discussed at length here and here. This is the reason that Jewish youth involved in great informal education are more likely to marry within the faith. In fact, a study conducted on Young Judaea alumni in the late 1990s reveals that a staggering 95% of them marry other Jews. That’s because experiences like Young Judaea teaches children that they can have a hand in designing their Judaism to be relevant to them.
Religious education shouldn’t be limited to explanations surrounding a set of archaic rituals, instead it should be about understanding the place that human beings have in the world and should provide us with the framework and code for navigating that world. Instead of being focused on how to be Jewish we must help to answer the question “why be Jewish?”
Answering that question is what’s going to inspire that child to want to be part of this ongoing – and ever-evolving — chain of tradition and community.
Simon Klarfeld is the executive director of Young Judaea, America’s oldest Zionist youth movement.