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Time to Face Facts, and Pay Attention to All the Talk About Assimilation

October 15, 2009 By:
Jack Wertheimer
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Jack Wertheimer

From now on, Jewish groups will likely think twice before using any variation on the word "assimilation." That's one lesson learned from the recent brouhaha over a 34-second commercial on Israeli television promoting the Jewish Agency for Israel's Masa program, which brings young Jews to Israel for sustained periods of work, study and volunteering.

The advertisement, which paired photos of young Jews on posters of missing persons with the statement that "more than 50 percent of Jews abroad are assimilating," drew a firestorm of criticism on blogs and in news reports. Facing mounting international controversy, the Jewish Agency quickly killed the advertisement.

The issues raised, however, will not go away so easily. While the ad may have been clumsy in its execution, its central point is essentially correct: Large numbers of Jews around the world are disconnected from any Jewish communal activities.

Most established organizations have seen their membership numbers and donor base implode. And the many new initiatives that are rightly generating much excitement tend to attract only relatively small proportions of the Jewish population.

When we add up all the activities of synagogues, federations, service programs, national organizations, cultural providers, educational institutions and the myriad start-ups, it is clear that vast populations of American Jews are steering clear of organized Jewish life.

So why, then, if there is a large kernel of truth to its claims, did the Masa ad elicit such a sharp reaction? In large part, it is because it was inferred that the 50 percent assimilation figure the ad cited refers to intermarriage rates, which in the United States reached that level in the late 1990s.

Critics contend that the ad -- though it does not actually mention the word "intermarriage" -- gives offense to the children of Jews who intermarry by implying that they are somehow "lost." Many children of intermarriage, these critics note, are raised as Jews and go on to identify strongly with the Jewish people.

This is, of course, true -- but only up to a point. Unfortunately, this optimistic reading describes only a minority of intermarried families. The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism, or in two faiths or no faith at all. Not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.

Few would dispute that the Jewish community has a far better chance of retaining the allegiance of individuals raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish than in those where one parent identifies with a different religion.

Indeed, wherever Jews are a minority community, intermarriage is a major factor in the contraction of the Jewish population. How, then, does it serve Jewish group interests to silence all discussion about the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation?

This hesitance to grapple seriously with the issue of intermarriage is part of a broader phenomenon: Speaking of threats to Jewish survival has become passe. Many argue that such discussions no longer serve to rally Jews; if anything, they turn off people.

Moreover, advocates of this point of view tend to argue that if Jews are disengaged, it's because of failings in our institutions.

If only we had more compelling programs and wiser leaders, they say; if only we would cater more to the desires and preferences of younger generations, then we would retain larger numbers of Jews, they say.

These are serious arguments, but the reality is that while creative leaders and innovative programs aimed at young Jews have brought in some people from the periphery, large numbers of American Jews -- in some age groups, the majority -- still do not participate in any form of Jewish public life.

Those who reject the language of crisis when describing this state of affairs in favor of an appeal to individual preferences must explain how they propose to re-create a culture of Jewish responsibility on that basis. If we want to strengthen our community amid the prevailing individualistic culture, then we had better start with straight talk about our current condition.

The reactions to the Masa ad have exposed a series of complex issues worthy of extended conversation within our community. Rather than view the ad solely as a dragon successfully slain, we would do well to see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves some tough questions about the best ways to build Jewish social capital and draw in disengaged Jews -- as a chance to converse about what we expect ourselves and our fellow Jews to contribute to Jewish life.

Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This piece originally appeared in the Forward.

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