May 12, 2013

Jewish community collapse disorder

A Guest Post by Dr. Harold Goldmeier

By Dr. Harold  Goldmeier, February 14, 2013
12/3 Nachal Luz, Bet Shemesh, Israel
Am: 773-764-4357
            Intermarriage is so prevalent in America, Europe and South America, once vibrant Jewish communities in small cities and towns are collapsing and disappearing. The numbers from recent population studies so alarm Israel’s leaders they spent one million dollars on an ad campaign called MASA to convince Jews to marry Jews. Israel’s Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky, an expert on assimilation witnessing communities of Russian Jews disappear, is giving up on large scale aliyah from Western countries. He is funneling resources to strengthen Jewish identity and salvage Jewish communities outside Israel.
            Adding traction and intellectual gravitas to intermarriage is a vexing new narrative from Rachel Shukert, a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine (February 1, 2013). She extolls intermarriage and attacks small-minded parents for feeling bad when their child marries out.   She and other like-minded authors shroud the lifestyle in scholastic authenticity. They cloak it as a non-religious, democratic, spiritual energy field casting aside Jewish law and 3,000 years of tradition and continuity. Intermarriage is the brick wall just ahead of Leo Tolstoy’s observation, “The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”
                        The union of Jew marrying non-Jew bore the Fiddler’s mark (as in Fiddler on the Roof) of vilification, rejection and parental heartbreak throughout the centuries. Screaming past grudging justification and acceptance in the twentieth century, advocacy and virtue are the watchwords in the twenty-first.
             The movement finds its roots in the democratic notions of free society with its antipathy for all forms of discrimination. The movement disavows personal sacrifice for commitment to group identity that preserves culture and tradition. The result is Jewish Community Collapse Disorder. On the brink of extinction, one Reform Rabbi in a mid-size Midwestern city laments to me that if it not for the “shiksas” active in his temple, the last congregation would have closed years ago.
            On a cold February evening in 1992, seated over dinner in a Chinese restaurant, Jamin Dershowitz tells his father that he and live-in, Irish-Catholic girlfriend Barbara are going to marry.  Harvard Law Professor, freehearted advocate for Israel and the Jewish people, and father of Jamin, Alan instinctively responds in Hebrew, “Mazel tov.” Theirs will be an interfaithless marriage, since none at the dinner professes a religious faith in God, as he tells the story in The Vanishing American Jew.
             Jamin’s Orthodox grandmother was devastated at the news, and asked, “What did I do wrong?” Alan knows his grandchildren will likely abandon their Jewish heritage. What bothers this father is a world without Jews will be “a less noble, a much poorer place in every way that matters.” With a sigh, the memory keeper accepts that I’m happy if my son is happy.
               Blissful anecdotes about interfaith religious traditions fill the Internet and family magazines.  Moving from defense to offense, intermarriage is the latest liberation movement from unjustifiable prejudice, racism, and prideful disdain for all the hurt religion has brought mankind. 
             Shukert has notched up the literature creating a manifesto for intermarriage. She pillories Jews who oppose intermarriage wanting to maintain the tribe on the basis of antipathetic religious and cultural intolerance.  To her, they harbor the same shocking, noxious feelings as homophobes repressing gay people. Her comparison turns the stomach of those who give no quarter to racism and intolerance, but love and practice religious preference in soul mates and lifestyles. Shukert is “puzzled…why would you possibly care who someone else wants to sleep with?” Is that all marriage is to her, really?
             On the attack, she charges opposing intermarriage is furiously divisive in a global environment, sanctimonious, pissy, and tribalist. Do not, she warns, disapprove of your child’s abandonment of his religion, tradition, and continuity.  “A child’s happiness should never be conditional on her parent’s limitations,” and it is  “wrong (to) demand that their children choose partners on the basis of what makes their parents comfortable.”
            This dribble appears in Tablet Magazine that offers “A New Read on Jewish Life.” TM   Together, they promulgate a manifesto for the Jewish community swan song. There is no arguing with her logic from an intellectual perspective, nor from parent point of view. It is an epic waste of time and message, but there are things the Jewish leadership can do before it is too late.
              We need new action plans in the face our Community Collapse Disorder. Momentum is on the side of intermarriage. It cannot be prevented in a free society, but Judaism need not take a back seat to modernity. Ours is an enriching and fulfilling lifestyle, one many turn to at lifecycle events.  One critical time is when PTA meetings replace lust. The successful baal tshuva movement reaches out to drifting Jews, and it must employ the same tactics of love and acceptance to intermarrieds. Persuade them to accept Judaism and bring Jewishness into their lives. We have to extend our horizons, displace our emotions of guilt, shame and rejection when Jews marry out. This will require a concomitant change in how we currently handle conversions.
            The conversion process today is pharisaic regulated by the Orthodox adhering to the strictest narrow interpretations of Jewish Law. They purposely exclude potential converts issuing proclamations that vastly outnumber those from previous generations. They make conversion exhausting, exasperating, and nearly impossible.  A return to reason and sanity after the last fifty years of religious delirium can give new trajectory to Jewish continuity. Instead of abandoning them bring them in. If they don’t become part of our community will their children return, or are we writing them off too?
             Shukert is considered “a hugely funny, wildly smart, and menacingly original writer.” She and her husband, Ben Abramowitz, cast curses on Republican Jews during the last election. Let’s hope one of theirs will not likely be our destiny:  “May your grandchildren baptize you after you’re dead.” Shukert knows how to spin a good curse.

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  1. The orthodox rules of conversion are simply one tiny part of why Jews are wholesale rejecting Judaism as a religion; although not as a race.

    Those who do convert, through any stream other than orthodox, are not counted as Jews by Israel, where the question of who is a Jew? is controlled by the strict ultra-orthodox.

    The recent attacks on the women of the wall is another example of the narrow minded control that the ultra-orthodox demand. To say nothing of the stories of spitting on women, throwing stones at cars driving on shabbat, discriminatory schooling, special rights regarding army service, schooling, finances... all the while, demanding and controlling the definition of the term JEW.

    So if the choice is, as Israel has made so clear, a Jew as the ultra-orthodox defines it, or a Jew merely as a race, I and so many other will continue to reject the religion of Judaism while maintaining our pride in our heritage as a people. And if that means that my children or grandchildren will not be counted as Jews, whose fault is that really?

    1. I was hoping you would "way" in on this post...

    2. Definition of who is a Jew is not "controlled" by the ultra othodox, but by true Torah law.

      Acceptance of those who converts out of convenience without a sincere devotion to the Jewish religion and acceptance of its observance including respect for the holiness of shabbos and laws of kashrut is a sham. It will only lead to the further destruction of the Jewish poeople as we know it. What is the point of converting just to "look the part" in a marriage of religious convenience where both parties to the couple really are not that commited Jewishly in the first place. Failure to properlhy educate children and not sending them to Jewish Days schools is a forumla for disaster for the future of our religion.

  2. Halacha has kept us together until now, and it will continue to keep us together in the future. Bending or stretching the rules is already done to a certain point, but it is forbidden to publicize this because it will simply be exploited by the masses. Even voting in Rav Stav will not change anything. Rav Stav has already stated numerous times that he will not stray one bit from Rav Ovadia's psaks.

    I made aliyah almost 20 years ago. Just before aliyah, I was seeing a non-Jewish girl. Here, I met an Israel, got married and have many children, definitely many more than I would have even dreamed about there.

    Judaism is blooming in Israel. Please come and live it, you don't know what you are missing.

  3. Josh

    Thats a pretty dogmatic statement from someone who is clearly a believer with no attempt at critical thinking: Halacha has kept us together and will continue to do so. Except for the fact that it is simply untrue, its a fine statement for those who don't actually know history and therefore cannot extrapolate reasonable possibilities for the future.

    BTW, I live in Israel too. And living here it is only too clear that while the race of Jews may be growing, the religion of Judaism is in its death throes. The religion is controlled by groups that bear little or no resemblance to actual judaism- between the idolatry of rabbis and the Islamic/christian forms of sexual fundamentalism, just 2 clear examples of how Judaism today has been transformed and hijacked.

    1. You need serious therapy. If there are others like you, we would not survive.

  4. why do you say religion is in its death throes?
    you or I may not like certain things that happen in the name of religion (probably different things), but to me it looks like religion is growing around Israel. I see traditional people becoming more religiously involved all around the country.

  5. For a few reasons:

    First, secular and atheist Judaism and atheism in general is growing and becoming more publicly accepted.
    Second, Organized religion, both judaism and in general, is growing less respected and less believed - as every research report shows
    Third, as the fundamentalist groups continue to become more extreme and segregated they have become and will continue to become less livable lifestyles, practically, emotionally, ad financially.

    Sometimes when you live inside the eye of a tornado, everything looks just fine. But from the outside, orthodox judaism is collapsing and becoming more strange looking and harder to accept by the rest of world jewry. not out of hatred for god or the orthodoxy, but out of repulsion for it's non-jewishness

  6. please point me to such a study. I'd like to see it


    just a few, google studies on the decline of religion, can check worldwide, american, european, Israel, general etc....

  8. Thoughtful piece Harold. Great responses everyone. Tough call: 1) On one hand, the "stick", i.e. shunning and expelling Jews who intermarried historically did work. And there is only so much a tradition can bend before it breaks. 2) On the other hand, given the facts on the ground, the "carrot strategy" that many Conservative and Reform synagogues have adopted, of "better to gain a non-Jewish spouse and facilitate their conversation, then lose a Jew" seems reasonable.

  9. Rafi and Danny, I think you are both correct, "religion is thriving" and "religion is in its death throes" in Israel. From my limited perspective as an outsider, it would seem that: 1) Israel is facing a growing divide, the Orthodox are getting more Orthodox and the secular are drifting towards atheism and abandonment of tradition. 2) For this I blame the dualism that the Ultra Orthodox establishment has imposed on Israel via their state sponsored monopoly on traditional functions (weddings, etc). 3) When faced with the choice of Ultra Orthodox ceremonies or nothing, many will opt for the latter. 4) Whereas the pluralistic model in America, that allows for Conservative and Reform synagogues, has allowed for the "religious middle" to have a space to express their Judaism.


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