Joel Hoffman
Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

The Outreach Imperative

How Bad is the Assimilation Crisis?

According to the latest study of American Jews (Pew 2013) only 60% of non-Orthodox Jews attend a Passover seder, which is down from 68% in 2000; just 13% of non-Orthodox Jewish women light Shabbat candles which is down from 18% in 2000; and only 28% of non-Orthodox Jews marry another Jew, or conversely, a non-Orthodox intermarriage rate of 72%. Note, in 1970 when it was revealed that the intermarriage rate had soared to 17% this sent shock-waves throughout the Jewish community.

In splicing some of the statistics by denomination, only 31% of Jews who identify as being a Conservative Jew say they keep kosher at home, and only 4% of the membership of Reform temples can be found in a temple on a random Shabbat when there is not a bar or bat mitzvah.

Of course there are many other aspects to Jewish life than the ones cited above, but these statistics are very telling — the masses of Jews are less and less active in Judaism and are assimilating.

If it were not for the following four institutions the above statistics depicting non-Orthodox American Jewry would probably be even worse: (1) Birthright Israel — of which over the past 17 years has facilitated over 400,000 North American Jews ages 18-26 going on a free 10-day trip to Israel; (2) JDate — the for-profit Jewish dating website which continuously maintains over 750,000 paid members; (3) Orthodox outreach — of which some of its initiatives include the National Jewish Outreach Program, over 50 community kollels, over two dozen Aish Hatorah branches, and over a dozen independent outreach organizations such as the flagship Etz Chaim in Baltimore; and (4) Chabad — which has over 1,600 rabbis and rebbetzins throughout the United States including serving over 100 college campuses.

Is There Any Good News?

The good news is mixed. It is estimated that 25% of Orthodox Jews today were not raised Orthodox, and during the heyday of outreach in the 1990s approximately 4,000 Jews every year became observant. Today, however, this number has slowed down to just 2,000 Jews per year.

It is also estimated that 500,000 to 700,000 non-Orthodox Jews every year attend at least one Shabbat meal, prayer service, holiday program, class, or event of an Orthodox outreach organization or of Chabad. These interactions have facilitated the Jewish growth of many of the participants to various degrees which is impossible to quantify. However, since there are approximately 4.5 to 5 million non-Orthodox Jews in North America (depending upon which criteria is used), these 500,000 to 700,000 Jews are just 10-15% of the non-Orthodox Jewish population.

An Analysis:

From all of the above numbers, it is clear that we are losing the battle and American Jews are assimilating at a unprecedented pace. This is not because the Torah is an inferior product compared to the other options, but because there are more Jews than our rabbis (and their wife’s) can realistically reach to relay the beauty and meaningfulness of Torah Judaism.

What Can Be Done?:

Rabbi Noah Weinberg z”l, the founder of Aish Hatorah, periodically repeated a teaching from the Chofetz Chaim that says: if a person sees someone drowning then s/he has the obligation to try to save him/her. If the person does not know how to swim, and everyday s/he sees people drowning, then s/he has an obligation to learn how to swim. But if the person is afraid of water or cannot learn how to swim, then s/he has the obligation to hire a lifeguard.

We can not leave it up to the outreach professionals to curb the assimilation crisis. Every committed Jew is needed to participate in outreach. After all, there are approximately four million Jews who do not have any current direct contact with Torah Judaism. They have no idea what they are lacking. The assimilation crisis is a direct result of Jewish ignorance.

The most effective initial outreach activity is getting non-Orthodox Jews to a Shabbat table. Most Orthodox Jews probably know at least a dozen non-Orthodox Jews (and their families) to invite when one considers friends, co-workers, neighbors, and cousins. By doubling the amount and/or frequency of non-Orthodox Jews one invites per year to their Shabbat table this is bound to have a significant impact in the battle against Jewish ignorance and assimilation.

If an observant family isn’t accustomed to inviting non-Orthodox Jews to their Shabbat table, then “tithing” their Friday night Shabbat dinners for having such guests would amount to five Shabbats per year. Of course, a Shabbat dinner experience is just the first step in building a relationship with fellow Jews — of which such a relationship is necessary to expose people to additional aspects of Torah Judaism and to support them in their growth.

A Concluding Charge:

I do not know by which metric we should use for measuring the success of future outreach efforts. Some will say doubling the number of Jews who become Shomar Shabbat every year to its heyday number, and concurrently for the non-Orthodox intermarriage rate to shrink to under 50% by 2030. What I do know is that such numbers can not be achieved with the statuesque. I also know that Hashem wants to have a relationship with every Jew and we are his partners in creation. Therefore, He has to help us with which such an en-devour. We just have to accept our responsibility by having the courage to make the effort.

Assimilation is getting worse every year. The Jewish people are shrinking, the clock is ticking, and more needs to be done. Rabbi Hillel’s dictum is very apropos: “If not now, when?”

(Most of the statistics in this column have been derived from “A Portrait of American Jews,” Pew Research Center, 2013, or cited in Jack Wertheimer, “The Outreach Revolution,” Commentary, April 1, 2013)

About the Author
Joel E. Hoffman is ordained as a rabbi, but works as a special education teacher, and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism.
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