So much hysteria has surrounded the latest developments concerning the Western Wall and so much energy has been expended but, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the headlines this week resembled a rehash of previous ones from the last thirty years, and had a feeling of déjà-vu. The only change is in the identity of the activists, reporters and spokespeople. Each new person comes along to revive the same information. Once again, we are told how “furious” our brethren in the Diaspora are, once again we are warned of the “threat of a split between us and North American Jewry”, and again there is “tension in the coalition” and an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Of course, a picture of women at the Western Wall wearing a tallit makes good headlines, but is this issue really the most pressing one for the Jewish people in 2017? I agree that the government’s handling of the entire issue is not serious and the threat of North American Jewry turning its back on Israel is rather embarrassing, but is this the real narrative? The true problem is assimilation and it is a far more painful subject, it has fewer photo-ops and is not fueled by a battery of PR advisors, it is a silent Holocaust. While we were reporting on press conferences on the subject of the Western Wall, the younger generation of Jews in the US continued to disappear.
As this “stormy” week comes to a close, I wish to address a far more significant storm. The issue is not the relationship between the Jews in Israel and the US, but whether there will even be any Jewish community remaining there in the future. Prayer arrangements at the Western Wall are not the real question, instead we have to ask whether the young Jews in the US even know what the Western Wall is.
A few facts and figures: the birthrate among most adult Jews in the US is zero – they do not have children, with the obvious exception of Orthodox Jewry. Even those who do choose to set up a family are almost always married to a non-Jew. Without counting Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71%. The Jewish community is shrinking and disappearing, it is losing its connection to Judaism, to Zionism, and to the State of Israel. Here in Israel, while this week’s discussions focused on the different “streams” of Judaism in the US, the number of non-affiliated Jews continued to increase. How distressing that the Reform movement in the States approves of interfaith marriages jointly officiated by a Rabbi and a priest, and welcomes non-Jews into their communities.
In 2014, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rick Jacobs gave a speech in which he declared: “I still hear voices who talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease” and was roundly criticized for his total acceptance of intermarriage, even to the point of encouraging it. The criticism was not voiced by Orthodox Jews alone. For example, Dov Elbaum wrote that he was saddened by this significant rejection of a central tenet of our identity and feared for the future. Did anyone ask Jacobs questions on this issue this past week? As he repeatedly declared that Israel is responsible for causing divisions among Jews, did anyone pause to consider his responsibility for causing the disappearance of the Jewish people? Just maybe, the appropriate response to the frightening intermarriage rates would be to desist from attacking Orthodox Judaism and instead, to try and learn from them how they succeed in passing on their heritage from one generation to the next?
To illustrate the gravity of the situation, let’s mention two young, talented, and famous American Jews, both of whom are called Mark. Marc Mezvinsky is married to Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hilary’s daughter. His children are not Jewish. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook is married to Priscilla Chan, and neither are his children Jewish. Mezvinsky and Zuckerberg (oy, what Jewish names!) they are the most pressing issue.
Mention must of course be made of all the work done by Chabad emissaries and the Jewish Agency, by “Hillel” on campus, by Bnei Akiva and many other organizations, but it is nowhere near enough. If only we would divert all the hysteria and energies to the really acute issue. Our focus should not be on the Western Wall but on the West Coast, we should be putting all our energies into overturning the mindset of the young generation. Judaism is not a thing of the past, it is the future; it is not the problem, it is the solution; it is not shame, it is pride. For thousands of years, the Jews were persecuted and suffered from anti-Semitism, but they stayed faithful to their heritage and were proud of their Judaism. Our challenge is to take this faith and pride and apply it in this liberal, open-minded generation. Today, being Jewish is no longer a decree of fate, it is a decision, known as “Jews by Choice.” What will cause unaffiliated Jewish students on campus to love and preserve their culture? How do we make Israel and the Torah attractive topics for them, ones that they feel they absolutely must pass on to their children? So many youngsters know that “my granddad was a Rabbi.” But what should we do to ensure that in fifty years they will be able to say: “my grandchild is a Jew”? And how do we get ourselves to focus on the real issue and not be side-tracked by other questions?