IN 1994, the former chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, wrote a book entitled “Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?” expressing his concern of the dwindling Jewish population in both the United States and in Great Britain. This was partially in reaction to the 1991 analysis of the U.S. National Jewish Population Survey reporting a rate of intermarriage at 52% in America.
Worldwide Jewry reacted to these statistics and we saw increased investment in Jewish education by Federations and newly created foundations supporting scholarships for Jewish Camps, Day Schools and the creation of Birthright and Masa. PJ Library was created for the young and Moishe Houses sprung up to assist Hillel and Chabad in their college outreach…or in reality inreach.
I remember working within the Conservative Movement framework before I made Aliyah in 1993. A booklet was put out urging Rabbis and Educators to discourage rather strongly against inter-dating for young people. Ten years later the same author wrote another booklet for the same movement, encouraging the concept of in reach…to bring the non-Jewish spouse into Judaism by way of education and eventually conversion.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported an intermarriage rate in America of 58% and an even higher rate of 72% for those outside the Orthodox movement. It also revealed that where only one parent was Jewish, the intermarried rate was near 90%.
Statistics, statistics…but think of people you know. It’s not just numbers, it’s real people we are speaking about. Living in a welcoming society, living in a time where most people are not dwelling on religious theologies or ideologies, but in a society that emphasizes individual choice, free thinking, informed decision making.
A few years ago when I was working with American families who wanted to have a non-traditional Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Israel, I wrote the following for them to consider: “In this post-modern world of Jewish choices, I believe we all need to empower ourselves with our own form of Jewish identity. We are connected to our historical and cultural past, but we are truly free to choose personal meaning. How do we find ways to internalize this? How do we pass this on to our children and grandchildren?”
There are religious Jews in America and I include in this statement religious Orthodox, religious Conservative, religious Reform, religious Reconstructionist, religious Humanist…you get the idea. In my opinion though, these are the minority of our fellow American Jews. Religion per se just isn’t on the agenda for most and their Jewish identity hinges more on culture, tradition, history, Israel and other non-religious elements of our peoplehood.
But back to the question…Will our grandchildren be Jewish?
Here at the Merage JCC of Orange County, we search our ways to model positive Jewish identification in an open minded setting. The Aronoff Preschool celebrates Shabbat each week, commemorates the holidays and by way of traditions and storytelling explores and lives the values, morals and ethics of our people. The Club J Afterschool Program offers electives to do with Judaism and Israel. The JCC Global Teen “Amitim” program just returned from a trip to Israel this past summer. The Young Philanthropists program allows for teens to explore the concept of Tzedakah and learns about Jewish and non-Jewish non-profit organizations here in the Orange County Community.
And for young adults… we think we have found an honest solution. The reality is that most young adults are not driven by religious affiliation but are leading their predominately assimilated lives as successful young professionals. When they fall in love, they fall in love with compatible partners. Discussions regarding religious differences usually fall to the wayside. It’s not on their radar or in most cases not on their agenda.
We have created a course here at the JCC entitled “Finding Common Ground—A Couples Workshop.” Our goal is to provide a forum in which interfaith couples can safely explore and discuss a myriad of issues as they explore their relationship, their future and their religions. We discuss raising children, sensitivity to parents and grandparents, and we discuss universal values that are based on our mutual traditions. There is no end game; conversion is not the goal. It is acknowledged though that if a couple is interested in having this discussion, and in having it in a non-religious yet Jewish institution, the idea of the relevancy of one of the partners to Jewish Peoplehood is of concern.
How will we have Jewish Grandchildren? Maybe by exploring non-traditional paths and conversations. I encourage your young couples to attend our November workshop.
“Finding Common Ground—A Couples Workshop” is held the four Monday evenings in November.
Mark Lazar is Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage JCC of Orange County. Besides working with the youth at the center, Mark offers numerous adult learning opportunities as well.