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Are We More Than a Conglomerate of Individual Consumers?

December 1, 2005 By:
Jonathan Rosenblum
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Jack Wertheimer has issued another one of his periodic jeremiads on the state of mainstream American Jewry in the October issue of Commentary magazine titled "Jews and the Jewish Birthrate." In recent years, Wertheimer has emerged as one of the most incisive analysts of American Jewry.

Though he holds a high position within the establishment, he is unsparing in his criticism of the failures of both the so-called "Jewish defense organizations" and the "denominations," including his own Conservative movement. He frequently cites Orthodoxy as the exception to the general pattern of decline that characterizes American Jewry.

Two themes run through Wertheimer's writing: without taking Judaism seriously, there's no hope of reversing American Jewry's decline toward extinction; Jews must learn once again to think in terms of communal interests. The latter requires abandoning the easy assumption of the identity between Jewish and American values; it also requires conceiving of the community as something more than just a conglomerate of individual consumers.

Over the last 50 years, the American Jewish population has failed to grow at all. Even worse, the 5.5 million persons classified as "Jews" by demographers likely includes over a million people who are not halachically Jewish.

The future is hardly more promising. The median average age of the American Jewish population is seven years higher than that of the American population in general. Jewish women are less likely to marry than their contemporaries, and when they do, they do so at a later age and predictably have fewer children. Worse still, two out of every three marriages involving Jews are intermarriages.

The working assumption of Jewish officialdom is that only acceptance of every kind of "family arrangement" can ensure a thriving Jewish life - an assumption Wertheimer calls "not only a gross distortion of Judaism, [but] palpably false."

There were once those who argued that intermarriage would somehow revitalize American Jewry and result in growing numbers. That claim, Wertheimer demonstrates, can no longer be made with a straight face. Three-quarters of the children of intermarriage marry non-Jews, and of those, only 4 percent raise their children as Jewish. The most thoroughgoing sociological study of intermarriage found that only 14 percent of intermarried homes describe their religious orientation as primarily Jewish, and even in these "Judaeo-centric" homes, 60 percent put up Christmas trees.

Wertheimer is scathing when it comes to what he labels the "intermarrieds lobby," driven by Jewish grandparents desperate to believe that their grandchildren are Jewish. So powerful are they that some organizations no longer define intermarriage as a problem.

Rather than combating intermarriage, the community has adopted a variety of strategies to deal with the trend, each more doomed than the last. Those include accounting tricks such as redefining who is a Jew, or labeling as Jewish anyone living in a household with a Jew. Another approach has been to reach out to intermarried couples to ask them how they would feel comfortable relating to the Jewish community, as if the goal of the Jewish community were to make intermarriage less stressful. Equally "quixotic," in Wertheimer's view, are calls for proactive conversion campaigns aimed at non-Jewish spouses.

Jewish religious schools, charges Wertheimer, dare not utter a word in favor of endogamy, "or prevent Jewish youngsters from being exposed to the jumbled religious views of their dual-faith classmates." No wonder, he laments, that of a group of recently Bar and Bat Mitzvahed youth in his own Conservative movement, two-thirds think it's okay to marry a non-Jew.

The bare minimum requirement for American Jewry to survive as a distinct community, in Wertheimer's opinion, is for its leaders to speak directly about where, how and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethos of the culture at large. That, in turn, would require "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."

Sadly, no one seems willing or capable of doing so.

Jonathan Rosenblum is director of Jewish Media Resources, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox organization.

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