Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 1999 /18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Heed the heart

By Jonathan Rosenblum

AMERICAN JEWRY is busy counting itself again. Soon we will be waiting breathlessly to see how the year 2000 National Jewish Population Study compares to that of 1990.

These censuses reflect American Jews' ongoing obsession with perpetuation. Millions of federation dollars are earmarked for Jewish continuity.

Two years ago, 11 millionaires committed $18 million to create Jewish day schools across denominational lines; more recently Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt contributed generously so that a trip to Israel becomes a part of every Jewish teens "birthright."

One finds no comparable level of concern with self-perpetuation among any other ethnic group. Irish and Italian Americans do not pull out their hair over the declining ethnic identity of their children. They maintain no large apparatus of communal organizations to foster ethnic identity or to commission large-scale studies to document their disappearance and chart rates of intermarriage.


Why are the Jews different?

The answer lies in a profound intuition that continues to animate many Jewish hearts: a feeling that the entire world depends on a continued existence of our tiny people.

The source of that is an experience forever implanted in the collective unconscious of our people: the Revelation at Sinai 3,400 years ago. There G-d spoke for the only time in human history to an entire people. There we were given the mission of bringing knowledge of Him to the entire world through observance of His Law.

Many of those who wring their hands over Jewish continuity no longer consciously believe in the defining moment at Sinai. To them the claim of Jewish chosenness smacks of racism.

And so it goes. The Jewish head denies what the Jewish heart knows to be true.

By now it is abundantly clear that money spent on Jewish continuity has barely made a dent. There were 4.8 million American Jews in 1928. Today those who identify as Jews by religion is 4.4 Million. Given normal population growth the number should be three times that.

And the future is even grimmer. Already in 1975, Elihu Bergman, assistant director of the Harvard Center for Population for Population Studies, projected an American Jewry shrunken by 85 percent to 98 percent by 2076. While that projection failed to take into account the astonishing Orthodox growth rate-it is now predicted it will reverse American Jewish decline 40 years from now-it is depressingly on target for the remainder of American Jewry.

Jewish continuity efforts are doomed to fail as long as Jewish parents convey to their children a message diametrically opposed to the intuitions of their hearts: No matter what you do, Judaism accepts you. Judaism makes no demands; there is no beyond the pale. Judaism is trivial.

Desperate to preserve the illusion that their progeny are not lost to the Jewish people, American Jews demand that clergy officiate at intermarriages, even when their children sign statements in advance that any offspring will be raised in another religion. To convince themselves that their grandchildren are Jewish, they invent patrilineal descent.

They beg their non-Jewish sons and daughters-in-law to convert on the easiest possible terms. When even those terms are rejected, they insist that the temple show an accepting attitude to intermarried couples.

All this is justified in terms of "keeping the children within the fold."

But the fold is being expanded indefinitely to encompass them no matter how far they stray.

And it doesn't help. Only 18 percent of children of intermarried couples are raised Jewish, and 85 percent marry non-Jews. Every time the fold is expanded, the message of Judaism's triviality is conveyed loud and clear. The same message is sent every time a Jewish child hears that the law proclaimed by G-d Himself no longer applies because it is found too difficult or is no longer spiritually fulfilling.

Not without logic do young Jews conclude: if Judaism confirms my every opinion, and accepts my every action, why do I need Judaism? Raised to view their religion as insignificant, they cannot comprehend why their parents give so generously to Jewish charities, and even less why they should not marry a gentile with whom they are in love. And they certainly have no clue as to why for three millennia their ancestors gave up their lives for Judaism.

Until American Jews heed the intuitions of their hearts and figure out why their survival is truly so important, their future as Jews is bleak.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum