The headlines screaming across Jewish newspapers worldwide were an Orthodox kiruv professional’s dream. For a Jew whose job it is to bring other Jews closer to Orthodox observance, the dopamine rush of delight must have been overwhelming. Because if it’s your business to convince wandering Jews to become frum (religious) and one of the key tools in your arsenal is denigrating anything other than Orthodox practice as leading to demographic yiddishkeitasprophe, what could be better than a headline like “USY drops ban on interdating,” as Uri Heilman’s piece in JTA read.
Or as The Times of Israel put it more plainly: “Conservative youth movement lifts ban on board members dating non-Jews.”
The op-eds were fast to come, too – from the strident “Another nail in the coffin of Conservative Judaism” to the more poignant “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew.”Here’s the thing: The headlines, the reactions and the analysis got it all wrong. What those leaders of the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth were doing was bravely acknowledging reality and then taking steps (in this case, through a change of language in the leadership group’s bylaws) to address what’s really going on, rather than enforcing a fantasy of how some would like the Jewish world to be.The reality in this case: that in the culture of the open West, assimilation is entirely natural and dating outside one’s own religion wholly unstoppable. I can already hear the push back: accepting the “reality” of assimilation is what’s driven up the intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox in America to unprecedented levels. What we need to do is fight harder, resist the temptations of secular society, and build higher fences around our self-imposed ghettos. That will work for a few, and maybe that few will grow in numbers to replace the rest who fall away. But that’s not a Jewish world in which I want to live.Here’s the back story: At the annual convention for the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth group, which took place in Atlanta last month, USY’s leadership body voted to update a number of clauses. The updates applied to just that group, which is comprised of only around 100 or so USY leaders, and addressed one in particular that read, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.” That rule was deemed problematic for a movement where members include children from mixed marriages. “We wanted to be sensitive to where members come from and reflect a welcoming environment in [the revised] language,” said Aaron Pleumer, USY’s international president.“The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices,” the updated section now reads. “These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”Which is brilliant if you think about it, both because of what it says (that dating within the community is still the best way to ensure Jewish continuity) and because of what is implied (that not everyone will do that, and the partners of those who date non-Jews should be recognized as being equally created in the divine image).It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. Indeed, assimilation has been the norm in just about every society, whether the minority culture was conquered or welcomed in, from the Babylonians on down to today. Yuval Harari, in his book A Brief History of Humankind, for example, asks what happened to all of the “barbarians” who were captured and brought into Rome when the Empire finally collapsed? Did they return to their former tribal and national identities? Most didn’t – by that time they’d already assimilated into the greater Roman collective and thought of themselves as Romans. How much more so in the U.S. where the “melting pot” is the single most unifying feature of a sometimes fractured nation. And despite the increasing acceptance of the value of diversity in recent years, America is at its core all about assimilation; it’s why immigrants came there in the first place. To deny it is to set oneself apart from cultural currents that run deeper than blood. At the same time, if you care about Jewish continuity, dating within one’s own community remains “the most successful path toward creating committed Jewish homes.” That’s from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. And yet, he goes on, “We can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”Now, I’m not a member of the Conservative movement. But what Wernick says makes too much sense to dismiss just because he’s not in the same camp. His point: accepting reality is the first step towards addressing what to do next. Think about that carefully, because it’s not just about this week’s USY brouhaha. You can find examples throughout politics, relationships and business. In my wife’s work as a financial coach, she finds over and over that only once a client accepts the reality of their overdraft can they take action to change their personal economic position. In business, it took Apple ages to acknowledge that consumers wanted bigger phones. When they finally came out with the iPhone 6, it was the company’s fastest selling device ever. What breakthroughs could we see in the Middle East if the players stopped trying to impose solutions that don’t fit and worked with what’s really happening? (I’m not taking sides; you can – and should – read that from every political perspective and not for any particular conflict.)So, if Jews are going to date and eventually marry non-Jews, then let’s take the melting pot metaphor and make it our own. Moreover, let’s expand the pot and make it easier for people to join the Jewish people. Why aren’t we more welcoming? It’s not like we have such enormous numbers already that we need to exclude interested outsiders. This is not just an issue for the U.S. – Israel has much work to do here too. We have to “provide more entry points into the community than we have in the past,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM – The Jewish-Life Information Center, which assists Israelis with the legal intricacies of personal status. “Conversion must be realistic in its demands, and it ought to be made straightforward and uncomplicated, rather than burdensome and taxing.”But we’re so afraid of change these days in the Jewish world. Where will it lead, we wonder? But that’s the point: we don’t know. History is actually not always the best predictor of the future. To take a trivial but still relevant example: my daughter hated avocado for her first 20 years. Now she loves it. People change. Situations can surprise – in both directions. But like sharks that have to keep swimming to survive, clinging to the status quo is not a long-term strategy. (Again, read that one any way you want.)Following the USY storm, The Times of Israel and Kveller blogger Sarah Tuttle-Singer described her own upbringing with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, one that eventually led to a remarkable and demographically surprising outcome: she made aliyah and is raising Zionist children in Israel. “Don’t tell me ‘intermarriage’ is always a bad thing,” she writes. “Instead, let’s recognize that our numbers are low and that we could change that demographic if we switch our way of thinking, ease the conversion process when relevant, and realize that intermarriage doesn’t have to be ‘marrying out.’ It can be ‘marrying in.’”The new USY wording on dating reflected that flip, and it’s one more thing that we as a Jewish people could learn from. Once the USY’ers accepted reality, they turned the language from a negative to a positive, from a prohibition to an open door that nevertheless emphasizes the “healthy choices” that have kept us strong. That shift from forbidden to permitted, from fearful to inclusive in our expression of Jewish Law and practice, and in the essential Jewish content that we teach newcomers and veterans alike, might make for a less provocative headline than “Jewish universe erupts.” But the future of Judaism has got to be about more than clickbait. Let a realistic conversation begin!