Opening the door to Judaism's big tent

That question is not “who is a Jew,” but rather “what does it mean to be Jewish.”

MICHAEL DOUGLAS (L) and Elie and Marion Wiesel (photo credit: Courtesy)
MICHAEL DOUGLAS (L) and Elie and Marion Wiesel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pundits and leaders throughout the Jewish world have been wringing their hands for years now, bemoaning the declining number of people who consider themselves or identify as Jewish. But until recently, few have been willing to approach head-on the question that might help us all to solve this problem, to begin growing again as a community, rather than shrinking.
That question is not “who is a Jew,” but rather “what does it mean to be Jewish.” The Genesis Prize Foundation has tried to answer this question by selecting actor, producer and activist Michael Douglas as its second Genesis Laureate.
In doing so, the prize committee has opened the door and invited back in the masses of would-be and could-be and may-be Jews who have slowly and steadily drifted away from their roots.
Jews are right to be concerned about intermarriage. The Pew study on Jewish Identity released in 2013 highlighted the impact of disengagement and dissociation with Judaism amongst millennials. This age cohort, of which approximately 58 percent (in the United States) will likely marry a non-Jew, will require a different community infrastructure than that which existed for their parents and grandparents.
Michael Douglas’ family is reflective of this growing global reality, which must be addressed. Douglas’ life and work embodies what it means to be Jewish in many significant ways. Douglas is an actor and a producer, an artist.
Through his art, he has helped millions of audience members explore and examine no less than their own humanity. To create art is an inherently ethical act and to spur conversation and force examination of both ourselves and the world around us is for today what a gathering of Talmud scholars was thousands of years ago.
Douglas is also that most oxymoronic type of activist: a fighter for peace. His commitment to the peace movement has paralleled his commitment to his art. A passionate activist and humanitarian, he has drawn attention to the suffering of the neediest and most vulnerable in the world with great compassion.
Jews, a people who greet and take leave of each other with the word “peace,” must value this above all.
Finally, Douglas is a spiritual seeker. Raised without a formal Jewish education, he has sought out his heritage, he has reached out to learn about the traditions of his faith, and he has chosen to become a part of the Jewish community. Last year, he and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate their son Dylan’s bar mitzvah, a poignant family moment representing a reconnection to their Jewish origins.
This year, the family will continue its exploration. For his part, Douglas has committed to encouraging young people who have not affiliated with a Jewish community to explore what embracing Jewish life and culture might mean for them and urging the organized Jewish community to open the doors more widely to a big-tent brand of Judaism that embraces all comers.
In doing so, Douglas will create change in regard to how young people who are not deeply affiliated can consider and possibly reexamine their identity and heritage.
Through this approach, the Genesis Prize will continue to serve as an important gateway for reaching young adults who will consider, cultivate, create and carry forward their Jewish heritage.
To me, that is the essence of what it means to be Jewish.
The author is a Nobel Laureate, author, professor, a member of the Prize Committee of the Genesis Prize and Holocaust survivor.