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Jews Not OK in the UK?

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You will rarely find the intermarriage debate within the Jewish community more starkly defined than in this report from the BBC today. Much of the piece focuses on Orthodox “outreach” to encourage Jews to marry other Jews. That’s not an unusual reaction to studies showing “between 30% and 50% of young British Jews now marry outside the religion.” However, the problem is in some of the statements made…

For example, Rabbi Yitchak Schochet, adviser on family issues to the Chief Rabbi (yes, they have a Chief Rabbi in England) says:

“In North America there is a great opportunity for social interaction which can put an end to intermarriage because of the millions of Jews who live there. In Britain we are considerably smaller, which presents a big problem. Intermarriage rates will continue to escalate and that could put an end to British Jewry full stop.”

If Rabbi Schochet believes he has a way to “put an end to intermarriage” in North America, he’s apparently living on the wrong side of the pond. His quote suggests that when you’re less than one percent of the population (like Jews in England) it’s much more difficult to have social interaction with other Jews than when you’re a whopping 2.5% of the population (like Jews in the United States). BOTH percentages are statistically insignificant.

(While it’s true that there are a handful of cities that contain a substantial Jewish density to produce greater Jewish “interaction” — New York, Philadelphia, Miami — most US Jews live in cities where they are less than 10% of the local population, and the majority are not affiliated with Jewish institutions anyway. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Jews in the UK live in or around London, so his challenge is probably not very different than that of the Jewish communities in, say, Chicago or Boston.)

A more disturbing quote is unattributed and therefore may be the fault of the reporter, though somehow I feel she probably heard it expressed: “many also believe that Judaism can only be passed on from mother to child and ‘marrying in’ is therefore vital for the continuation of the faith.”

Judaism — even Orthodox Judaism — is not ONLY passed on from mother to child. There’s something called conversion. A love of Torah learning is not genetic, it can be learned, even by an adult born to a non-Jewish mother.

It was apparently left to the Reform rabbi, interviewed at the end of this piece, to mention conversion. He also gives a quote that we at JOI can get behind:

“If we cry foul and say [intermarrying Jews] are betraying their faith then we will make sure they opt out of the community but if we recognise that they still often feel Jewish and want to retain their place in the community then they will stay and we will gain not only them but their non Jewish partners as well. It’s all a matter of recognizing the new social reality.”

So which offers the better hope for Jewish survival in the UK: more Jewish matchmaking, or the welcoming of non-Jewish spouses in the hopes that they will join our community? Can we do both at the same time, or do programs that espouse the idea that Jews must marry other Jews “make sure [intermarried couples] opt out of the community”? Obviously, these are not questions unique to the British Isles.



6 Comments

  1. Dr Jonathan Sacks, is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” programme. Through his contribution there, he has brought a lot of respect and understanding to people of all faiths and none.

    I was a bit sad that your readers may have needed telling that we have a Chief Rabbi in the UK, when I read;

    “For example, Rabbi Yitchak Schochet, adviser on family issues to the Chief Rabbi (yes, they have a Chief Rabbi in England) says:”

    But I should be glad you try to keep your readers informed.

    Comment by Patrick Norman Park — March 31, 2005 @ 9:46 am

  2. Hi Patrick. Thanks very much for your comment. I wrote that parenthetical aside because I actually believe many Jews in the US would be surprised and interested to learn that England has a Chief Rabbi. Despite huge numbers of large and overlapping Jewish organizations here in the US, there is no one central voice for American Jewry, and I think most of us actually like it that way despite the frequent appearance of the community being at odds with itself. So I personally find the notion that there is a clear hierarchy in England’s Jewish community to be very interesting - though not unusual because Israel also has one (or two actually).

    Comment by Paul Golin, JOI Assistant Executive Director — March 31, 2005 @ 11:31 am

  3. And today, bearing in mind the news from the Israeli High Court, is a good day. I read the news in the UK paper, The Independent.

    I have also read the comments of some who have studied far more than I have. I am sad that they are sad.

    But I am happy for the many couples who are sincere in their love for Judaism, their love for each other, and were being dealt with less than fairly, purely because of past agreements made between the Israeli government and one (important, but only one) strand of Judaism.

    Comment by Patrick — April 1, 2005 @ 8:15 am

  4. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=625286

    Refers to the Israeli court decision. Seemed relevant to the topic of intermarriage.

    Comment by Patrick — April 1, 2005 @ 10:01 am

  5. Thanks Patrick, it is indeed relevant and we saw it too; our exec just posted a blog entry about it. An amazingly complicated issue, isn’t it? But certainly keeps things interesting!

    Comment by Paul Golin, Assistant Executive Director, JOI — April 1, 2005 @ 5:16 pm

  6. As far as I know, many if not most European countries have a Chief Rabbi. I believe it harkens back to the time of feudalism, when the king and the Church wanted a single rabbinic authority with whom to communicate with, and continued through Emancipation with the secular rulers. In Eastern Europe, Communist regimes continued the hierarchy for their own purposes, but in much of Europe, the tradition of Chief Rabbi remained despite the rise of denominational offshoots.

    Comment by EV — April 3, 2005 @ 6:19 pm

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