Opening the gates of the Jewish community

Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, is one of a few sociologists and demographers who are involved in the ongoing debate about the real size of the Jewish community and the importance and validity of reaching out to those on the periphery. He is a brave soul, taking many unpopular positions, most of which agree with positions taken by JOI.

Tobin is an optimist. While most think that the Jewish population in North America is shrinking, he says it is growing. While most are clinging to the core, he is embracing those on the periphery. While most see the Jewish community as monolithic, he sees its brightly hued tapestry. His latest op/ed, carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and aptly titled “Intermarriage studies may be right; community’s fearful response isn’t” is no exception.

In this piece, Tobin confirms what JOI has been regularly communicating to Jewish communities:

‘Prevention’ of intermarriage is the primary ideology and practice of the Jewish communal infrastructure. This approach is neither desirable nor workable beyond a minority of Jews….[And] Who wants to be part of a community that scolds its members as bad Jews for choosing the wrong partner?… We should be far more concerned about how to help families to be Jewish than about how to keep gentiles away. What do we do to positively promote conversion? How do we advocate for Judaism? How do we attract and involve rather than warn, scorn and criticize?

Perhaps Tobin’s call should be the beginning of the community’s agenda for the next 5-10 years: “The Jewish community should promote the joys, meaning and benefits of Jewish life. We should overcome being afraid of who will be lost to Judaism and instead work on who will join us.”


  1. Is it really fair to characterize that the Jewish communal infrastructure “scolds its members as bad Jews for choosing the wrong partner”? As an active member in a conservative shul I guess I’m (happily) not seeing this occur.

    Perhaps there is a little oversensitivity on the part of those who focus only on outreach in assessing the efforts of those who focus only on doing what they do to enable Jews to marry other Jews.

    How about a more balanced, best of both worlds approach? I realize that today we are a long way from a healthy balance, but a more effective way to achieve it may be to tone down overly critical comments/characterizations.

    Comment by Jeff — February 22, 2007 @ 11:16 pm

  2. Unfortunately we see and hear it all too often, in synagogues of all stripes. This is especially important for the Conservative movement as it is now actively trying to reach intermarried couples and their families. We cant send a message of welcome explicitly or implicitly as long as rabbis (my colleagues) continue to harangue the folks–and their parents, siblings, and friends–who are sitting in the pews.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 22, 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  3. During my stint in the conservative movement, which lasted a few years, I don’t remember any real haranguing about anything at all. I can only imagine how odd it must feel when a rabbi singles out intermarriage for this purpose, when the same rabbi showed little concern for how the congregation dealt with other prohibitions or commandments. At least I think I would have thought it was odd and out of place, and perhaps would have resented it.

    For a rabbi to do such a thing, the rabbi must already have the stature to reach his congregation and they must already be accustomed to interacting with him on this level, and they must desire this form of relationship. He must also do so in a consistent manner or else the method is doomed to failure, which is perhaps what happened in the Conservative movement in the 1960s and onward.

    Comment by marc — February 28, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

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