Outreach, and overreach

The headlong rush toward inclusiveness is a strategy both ill-conceived and futile.

haredi man book 88 (photo credit: )
haredi man book 88
(photo credit: )
One sign of the chasm separating the American Orthodox community and much of the larger Jewish world is how the term "outreach" is used by each. To us Orthodox, the word encompasses a broad range of efforts born of our deep concern for, and responsibility to, our fellow Jews. To many non-Orthodox leaders, though, it has come to mean something very different: the courting of non-Jews, especially those living with Jews, in an effort to include them, one way or another, in the Jewish community. Some proponents of such reaching out aim to bring the reached to conversion. Others do not even seek any such end, and are content to accept non-Jews "as they are" into their temples and Jewish communal lives. Reform Rabbi Janet Marder, for instance, makes a point every Yom Kippur of asking non-Jewish spouses of her congregants to come to the bima, the platform from which the Torah is read, where she blesses them with the words of the "priestly blessings" that the Torah prescribes be bestowed on the Jewish people. Her example was lauded at a recent national Reform gathering, where the president of the Union for Reform Judaism made his own plea for "welcoming non-Jewish spouses and converts to Judaism." The Reform leadership's inclusiveness-push was followed, even more quickly than usual, by the Conservative's. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's executive vice president asserted that "if we don't do an effective campaign to inspire the children" of mixed marriages "we'll lose an entire generation" - leaving unclear whether he meant all such children, or just the halachically Jewish ones. THE RENEWED push to further blur the increasingly smudged line between Jews and non-Jews may be fueled by both the mind-numbing numbers of intermarried American Jews and the dwindled numbers of American Jews as a whole projected by demographic studies for the not-terribly-distant future. There is some fear at work here, too - of an Orthodox demographic onslaught. Because, as Prof. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary noted in the October, 2005 issue of Commentary: "If the Orthodox continue to retain the loyalties of their young people, as they have mostly done over the past 30 or 40 years, they will become an ever larger, more visible, and better represented part of the total community." The headlong rush toward inclusiveness, however, as Wertheimer himself bravely noted, is a strategy both ill-conceived and futile. His words are brutally straightforward: "Faced with irrefutable evidence of demographic decline, communal leaders have worked to 'reframe' the discussion. The reframing goes like this: the Jewish population should be seen not as hemorrhaging, but rather as evolving new forms of expression…" "The challenge of demographic decline, then," he goes on to summarize, "is to be met by inclusiveness, pluralism, and a welcoming atmosphere." And he observes: "The worse the decline has grown, the more fervently has this mantra been invoked - and not just invoked but acted upon." Then, throwing all religio-political correctness to the wind, Wertheimer declares that "the working assumption of Jewish officialdom" that "the acceptance and encouragement of every kind of 'family arrangement' will insure that Jewish life will thrive" is "not only a gross distortion of Judaism, it is palpably false." There are other principled voices, too, in the non-Orthodox world. The "Jewish In-Marriage Initiative," an effort whose board of directors includes not only Prof. Wertheimer but long-time Jewish communal leader Shoshana Cardin, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Reform movement and Rabbi Alan Silverstein of the Conservative camp, "is dedicated," says Cardin, its chair, "to educating and encouraging [Jewish] parents to counsel their children to look for Jewish mates." The Jewish community, she asserts, "must make endogamy the first choice." BUT EVEN those voices are all but drowned out by the "inclusionist" chorus, which includes not only Reform and Conservative leaders but independent efforts like the "Jewish Outreach Institute" (someone, please, rescue that poor word!), whose mission statement identifies it as an effort to create "a more inclusive Jewish community for intermarried families and unengaged Jews," and whose executive director says that "conversion… should not be an outreach strategy." Similarly, Hillel, the Jewish campus initiative, recently unveiled a survey showing that Jewish college students are more likely than ever to be "part of an interfaith family,… have a non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend" and "identify as ethnically Jewish rather than religiously Jewish." As a result, the organization hopes "to double the number of students who have meaningful Jewish experiences." Note the pointed absence of the word "Jewish" before "students." TO US Orthodox, this is all tragic. And what it stirs the most caring among us to do is recommit ourselves to… outreach - the original kind. Cynics, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, mock the hope that American Jews estranged from their religious heritage can ever be brought back in appreciable numbers to traditional Jewish observance. "You can't even convince them to marry other Jews!" they scoff. "Do you really imagine them undertaking to keep the laws of the Torah?" But cynicism is an easy dodge. Experience is more enlightening, and here it gives the lie to the assumption that a Jew can be spiritually budged only so much. For among the many thousands of once non-observant Jews who are today living Torah-observant lives are not only those who hailed from Jewishly-informed backgrounds and simply followed the trajectory set by their convictions, but many, too, who came from far, far afield. Dr. David Lieberman, a Ph.D. and best-selling author of books on human psychology, currently of Lakewood, New Jersey, is one. Having been raised without a Jewish education, he describes himself as the last person anyone would have considered a candidate for observance. And yet, beginning with an interaction with an Orthodox Jew, he came, as he puts it, to trade in "a life of insanity for a life of sanity, a life of unreality for one of reality." Another is Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, today of Jerusalem but once (as Johnny Glaser) of Southern California, where, as a hard-partying, surfer-dude youth, he says, he had "tried everything" - only to discover, after being reached out to by Orthodox Jews during a short trip to Israel, that none of it meant anything. And his life was transformed. Reaching out to non-Jews, in the hope that they may hold the key to the Jewish future, is one approach. Realizing, and focusing on, the millions of David Liebermans and Johnny Glasers is another. Radically changed Jewish lives like theirs are unshakeable testimony to the power of Judaism and the resilience of the Jewish soul. No one should underestimate either. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.