So, the gloaters are having a good week. You know who you are. You live in Israel. You read (or read about) the Pew survey. You are feeling comfortable and self-satisfied. Filled with confidence that this can’t happen to you. Or you’re religious. You send your kids to day school and attend synagogue and pay for Jewish camp. You have, you feel, inoculated yourself against mainstream culture. I hope you’re right. I really do. But take it from someone who’s been there. There are some things you need to consider.
Let’s start with the Israelis. It is true that secular American Jews often feel removed and disconnected from religious life. They have a hard time seeing how it could relate to them personally. But secular Israelis often have an active antipathy towards religious life, and even individuals. They resent the ways in which religious practice intrudes into their lives through the mechanism of the state.
This resentment is creeping into the education system as well. One of my closest childhood friends, a secular Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv, told me how a number of the parents in her children’s gan had begun protesting the fact that their children were compelled to participate in Abba/Ima Shabbat programs, as they were not interested in religion. My children attended a Jewish nursery school in the U.S. Some non-Jewish children attended as well. The non-Jewish parents so enjoyed the school celebrations that many adopted candle lighting on Friday nights and Passover seders into their own religious practice.While these examples are anecdotal, they speak to the utter lack of connection that many secular Israelis feel.
Even for those who make the difficult and praiseworthy decision, aliya is not a one way street. In a 2007 poll of Israeli teenagers, 50% said they wanted to live somewhere other than Israel. Not all of them will leave, but a good number will. Within one generation, these immigrants’ assimilation patterns mirror those of diaspora Jews. If the only thing keeping many secular Israelis from intermarrying is that they can’t get a visa, exactly how strong is their bond?
Now for the religious gloaters. Did you even read the survey? Orthodox retention stood at 48%. 48%! That means that more than half of those children will leave Orthodoxy. And this number includes Haredim, who, even when they want to, find it difficult to leave. This does not sound like a guarantee.
And if you are religious AND live in Israel, that is still not a promise of Jewish identity. In a 2011 survey, fully 30% of religious Israelis were said to have left the fold. Are we really willing to give up on that many Jews? All this means we have two choices. We can write off those who reject the religious nature of Judaism, or we can work to bring them in – in other ways.
And finally, in some ways Orthodoxy does better because it is a self-selecting group. There is little room, for, say, a questioning Jew who is not interested in keeping Shabbat or kashrut. Since, in large measure, the frum world has cleansed itself of those people, it will necessarily have a better rate of retention. But who, then, will be left to serve the millions of Jews who aren’t ready to make a total life change? Are they lost to us? Are they not our problem? Is it sufficient to have them visit a Chabad sukkahmobile and call it a day?
Unquestionably, living in a society in which you are the dominant culture somewhat obviates the problem of assimilation. As does living in a society in which extreme prejudice prevents commingling. But as the world is made smaller each day by technology and by a general move towards openness, all but the most insular among us will encounter opportunities outside our community.
Its important to remember that in the U.S. and much of the diaspora, intermarriage and assimilation are not the result of some nefarious plot. Jews take part in the wider culture because they can. Because they are welcome and it has much to offer and Christmas lights are beautiful and Saturday football games are exciting and non-Jews can be interesting, or wonderful, or loving. We can even fall in love with them. We need to affirmatively decide to find a Jewish spouse because we want to live a Jewish life. Make a Jewish home. Raise a Jewish family.
Jews are no longer forced to engage with Jewish institutions because no one else will have them. Those who choose to affiliate, to participate, do so with a full heart. As such, the answer for how to engage people is not to teach them to put their hands over their ears, shut their eyes and yell “la, la, la” like a five year old trying to delay the inevitable. We need to show how opting in to the Jewish community is vastly more enriching, comforting, even exciting than the alternative. Doing that is exhausting work. Each of us, no matter where we live or how religious we are will have to figure out new and creative ways to speak to Jews who might otherwise be lost. I don’t have all the answers, but we will need to find them together.
For a while now, Israel has been the undisputed center of the Jewish world. This latest survey only emphasizes that fact. But no wall Israel builds will be high enough to shut out the enticements of the non-Jewish world. As effortless as it feels to keep kosher in the Holyland, its even easier not to. Gloating may feel good, but it doesn’t contribute much. All of us who care about the fate of the Jewish people need to take our hands off our ears, open our eyes, roll up our sleeves, and start acting like grownups.