It’s not watered down, it’s ramps up and doors open

I was surprised to read the latest op/ed by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, whose forward and progressive thinking has become a mainstay of the liberal Orthodox community, as the main voice coming out of the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by his father in memory of his grandfather. Like the institution, Hartman is a pluralist whose grappling with the reality of the 21st century in combination with a deep rootedness in sacred texts and Jewish tradition is often refreshing and inspiring. But this latest op/ed reads—perhaps unintentionally—as a diatribe against entry level programs, especially those for interfaith families and their children, as if somehow these programs are “watered down.”

As someone who has worked with those who have intermarried over the last decade and poured over the statistics and trends emerging from that population, I do agree with part of Rabbi Hartman’s analysis. One of the major reasons that intermarriages have increased is because large numbers of non-Jews are now willing to marry Jews. That was not the case in prior generations. Why would someone want to marry into a community that was vulnerable and at-risk? But the immigration trajectory of Jews in the United States has changed all that. The Jewish community is now mainstream. And young Jews feel fully American. The Holocaust is part of history and not the recent past for them. And the state of Israel came into being before they were born. And if they received a Jewish education, it was an expression of what I call “joyful Judaism” rather than the survivalist Judaism that marked my own early Jewish education, like the rest of the boomer generation of which I am part.

What’s more, as my colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula is fond of saying, Judaism has entered into the marketplace of ideas. And with that free market economy, there will be ramifications—positive and negative. Rabbi Hartman may want to anguish over its dark side but we must also celebrate its bright side and recognize that such light also causes shadows. This light has also caused Jews who come from secular or minimalist families to embrace more ritual than had their parents or grandparents. It is thrilling to know that Jewish thought is being considered an option by so many, including those who were not born Jewish, something that might have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

But my real complaint is that Rabbi Hartman, like others, claims that programs of outreach to those on the periphery are “watered down” without identifying specific programs. And such a description reveals a lack of understanding of the sophisticated methodology of outreach practice used by many organizations, including the Jewish Outreach Institute.

It is also important to respond to his challenges about intermarriage as if it is the root cause of all diminution in the Jewish community today. Intermarriage is not a result of a diminished Jewish identity as he would have it. Intermarriage in an American phenomenon, and not solely a Jewish issue. And those who are raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage are actually affirming their Jewish identity, something we need to support. They want to raise Jewish children because they care about the Jewish future.

None of this is about “dumbing down.” None of our programs, nor the programs of others who are trying to share Judaism with those on the periphery of the community, are dumbed down. They are not watered down. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to isolate the core concepts in such a way that they can be “tweeted,” another criticism of Rabbi Hartman. What is indeed missing from Jewish life are mission-driven institutions and programs that are not lost in rabbinic rhetoric or require extensive literacy and background to even enter the playing field.

We at JOI would welcome the opportunity to enter into dialogue with Rabbi Hartman and those at the Hartman Institute who share his opinion. We want to help them to understand what we have learned. The gap in the American Jewish community is not between those who are intermarried and those who are not. The gap is between those who are inside and those who are outside. (Those who are intermarried and inside the Jewish community look a lot like their in-married counterparts and those who are outside of the Jewish community and are intermarried look a lot like their in-married Jewish counterparts on the outside.) And to close that gap we need to start with entry level programs, multiple entry points for people across the spectrum of the community. Not all are interested in programs of immersion. Some people want to put their foot in the water before diving into the deep end.

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