Think Again: Can the death spiral be reversed?

A new Pew reports on US Jewry shows that out of every five marriages involving a non-Orthodox Jew, more than four are intermarriages.

Couple holding a wedding rings 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Couple holding a wedding rings 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The release of the Pew Research Council report on American Jewry last week merely confirmed what anyone paying attention already knew: In the natural order of things, non-Orthodox American Jewry is in an irreversible death spiral. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is now 71 percent.
That means out of every five marriages involving a non-Orthodox Jew, more than four are intermarriages.
The largest study of intermarried homes found that the religious orientation was primarily Jewish in only 14% of them, and even in those “Judaeo-centric” homes, 60% had Christmas trees.
In the October 2005 issue of Commentary Magazine, Jack Wertheimer, then the provost of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, gathered additional harbingers of American Jewry’s demographic demise in Jews and the Jewish Birthrate.
The median age of American Jews is seven years above the national average; Jewish women are less likely to marry; and when they do, they are less likely to have children. For the past 50 years, the American Jewish population has remained stagnant, despite the influx of 500,000 Jewish immigrants, and of those identified as “Jewish,” close to 20% do not meet the halachic criterion.
Among synagogue-affiliated families, there are more Orthodox Jewish children than among Reform and Conservative Jews combined.
The demographic decline has been powerfully felt in Jewish communal life. In the 1990s alone, Jewish organizational membership fell 20% and the number of households contributing to the Federations by one-third. A 2003 study found that only 6% of Jewish megagifts went to Jewish causes, however defined.
THE HIGH INTERMARRIAGE RATE should occasion no surprise. “Jewish” has long since ceased to be a primary, or even tertiary, identity for most American Jews. Those things that most American Jews associate with Jewish identity – a sense of humor, a taste for certain foods, commitment to social justice, Holocaust remembrance – are by no means exclusive to Jews. If politics or a sense of humor or taste in movies are primary to one’s self-identity, then one is likely to choose one’s spouse on the basis of those things, not religion.
Nor is it any surprise that “Jewish” should rank so low on the totem pole of self-identification. For the one message that most American Jews have never heard is: Judaism is unique; Judaism has a message that differs from the prevailing zeitgeist.
Rather they have been told that Judaism is trivial and its rituals and proscriptions outdated and primitive.
Each time, “Jewish” or “marriage” is redefined to “keep the kids within the fold” or to maintain the demographic numbers, the message is conveyed that Judaism is meaningless and exists only for its own self-perpetuation. Judaism, our young understand, makes no demands and will accommodate them however far afield they travel.
AMERICAN JEWISH LEADERS, including a large swath of the clergy, have not followed Wertheimer’s minimum prescription for the preservation of American Jewry as a distinct community: To speak directly about where, how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethic of the culture at large, by “speaking on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia... have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart.”
The Jewish leadership has not done so because few in its ranks actually believe in those distinctive commandments. But where Wertheimer’s advice has been followed, it turns out that the Torah still has the power to move Jews and fill them with pride in being members of a people with a unique mission.
Last Shabbat, South African Jewry united to keep one Shabbat in full compliance with halacha (Jewish law) under the motto “Keeping it Together.”
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s “Shabbos Manifesto” declared forthrightly: “We will endeavor to keep it in its entirety. In all of its detail and splendor as set out in The Code of Jewish Law.”
An instructional booklet produced by Rebbetzin Goldstein went into the fine details of warming food, making sure to have pre-cut tissues for the bathroom, the preparation of tea essence, the operation of Shabbat clocks. A hotline was made available for those with questions about Shabbat observance and anyone could sign up to be hosted or for a private coach on the laws of Shabbat.
The Chief Rabbi pointed out to me that Shabbos is the only mitzva specifically referred to by our Sages as a matana (“gift”) and he was determined to share this gift with as many South African Jews as possible. Again in the words of the Manifesto: “Together we embark on this great adventure to rediscover our G-d-given gift of Shabbos.”
And it worked. South African Jewry responded to the challenge with enthusiasm. One woman expressed gratitude to the Chief Rabbi for his confidence in the more secular community and belief “that you don’t have to be ‘frum from birth’ to share in the magic of Shabbos – you just have to put in a bit of effort and make it happen.”
In the week leading up to that Shabbat, the excitement built and the sense grew of a community coming together “to own its precious heritage, wearing it as a badge of pride and honor.” Close to 3,000 women gathered for a communal hallah- baking on a blocked off street in Johannesburg, prior to Shabbat, and between 4,000-5,000 gathered for Havdala (end of Shabbat) services and a concert on the grounds of Yeshiva College at the conclusion of Shabbat.
The large synagogues of Johannesburg were as filled as on Kol Nidre night, except this time, the parking lots were empty and there were no traffic jams after services. As many as 20,000 Jews in a community of about 80,000 was estimated to have kept a full Shabbos for the first-time in their lives.
A woman wrote to a friend of mine who is the rabbi of a shul in the Sandton suburb of Johannesburg of growing “emotional as she and her family walked to shul shouting out good Shabbos on the streets of Sandton, knowing we were part of something much bigger.”
“Having done it once,” she confessed, “the thought of doing it again is not as daunting and I am also less intimidated to ask questions as I learn along the way.”
I AM NOT SUGGESTING that the South African success could be replicated to the same degree elsewhere. The South African community is a homogeneous one – almost all descended from Lithuanian Jewish stock, with 85-90% of the children attending Jewish schools and almost all affiliated with Orthodox synagogues. Goldstein commands enormous respect for his energy and sincerity. He has consistently provided for the entire community.
The Sinai Indaba (annual Torah convention), which he initiated four years ago, has become a mecca for the finest speakers in the Jewish world, and attracts over 6,000 Jews annually in Johannesburg and Capetown.
Beginning in the 1970s, there was a major teshuva (return to Judaism) revolution in the traditional, but non-observant South African community.
Today, close to 20% of the Johannesburg community is Shabbat observant. That means most South African Jews have close family members who are religious.
One key aspect of that revolution was a requirement initiated by the Chief Rabbinate that all couples married under its auspices must attend courses on Jewish family life, including the Laws of Family Purity, and the woman must go to the mikve (ritual bath) prior to marriage.
One might think that restrictions on marital relations would not be a big selling point, especially among younger couples. But the opposite turned out to be true. Many couples intuitively felt the power of the Torah’s rhythms of separation followed by joyous reunion.
That experience has been replicated in Israel as well. The organization Lahav provides pre-marital classes for brides, in a one-on-one setting, with highly trained and sensitive counselors, to approximately 3,000 couples a year. At the end of the sessions, each bride is asked to rate the sessions and describe their anticipated impact on her subsequent married life. On a scale of 1-5, the average rating was 4.929.
But even more interesting were the written comments of the participants, most of whom either had no concept of a Torah approach to marriage or harbored a number of crude distortions prior to the course. Many commented that they never imagined that the course would have the slightest impact on their subsequent married lives and expressed their surprise at their eagerness to keep the mitzvot they had just discovered.
Once young Jews discover that the Torah may actually have something to offer them in the most important aspects of their lives, they are open to expanding their knowledge. One secular high school teacher wrote, “I have started to get interested in mitzvot in general, and, in particular, the mitzvot that are related to women, and I have even started attending classes on Judaism.”
The story of American Jewry today is just one more chapter in an old story: Where Jews remain connected to Torah, Jewish life continues to thrive, and where they lose that connection, it withers and dies. The South African experience points the way towards another possible conclusion.