I am at the older end of what is sometimes referred to as Generation X. My generation has been followed by “Gen Y” and now the “Millennials.” Unlike them, I remember when MTV began broadcasting—and am now too old to actually watch it. But despite the increasing flecks of grey in my beard, I still would have been among the youngest participants had I been invited to the recent “Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” this week in Jerusalem that is garnering intense media attention. And that makes me wonder: Which Jewish people are they actually planning for, and what kind of future?
A funny blog post on Jewcy.com addresses the ongoing challenge of today’s Jewish leadership (which primarily consists of Baby Boomers and older) to engage younger generations in Jewish institutional life. But it wasn’t just a generation gap represented at this “future”-looking conference. While I obviously wasn’t there, I doubt there was a single intermarried Jew like myself at the event despite the fact that half the married households in the United States containing Jews are intermarried. Again, which Jewish people are they planning for?
Sponsored by the lofty-sounding “Jewish People Policy Planning Institute,” there is no question that the conference brought together 120 of the highest-powered names in the Jewish world. The goal was to offer policy suggestions in areas as diverse as “Jewish community, Jewish leadership, geopolitics, identity and demography” to the global Jewish community. And while the conference participants seem to represent a wide spread of movements and ideologies, I wonder how realistic it is to expect a leader like Barry Shrage—who has championed outreach to interfaith families in his community of Boston—to work on issues of outreach with the Israeli academics of the JPPP who use the words “intermarriage” and “assimilation” interchangeably and seem much more about prevention than inclusion.
Likewise, the JTA article about the conference includes this gem: “Participants from Canada, Europe and Israel suggested that the high attrition rate in the largest Diaspora Jewish community, the United States, suggests it has much to learn from non-American communities where the Jewish retention rate is significantly higher, such as Montreal or Johannesburg.” Wow, that would be comical if it weren’t so bizarre. To suggest that retention rates in Europe or even Canada are high because of anything that they’re actually doing about it is simply false. In fact, many Jewish communities throughout Europe are being decimated because they have almost no progressive Jewish institutions and therefore no way to deal with intermarriage other than to preclude those families from Jewish life—a point reinforced to me by my Jewish tour guide when I visited Rome last year. And we at JOI know from our work in Ottawa that Canada is only a few years behind the U.S. in terms of an intermarriage “crisis.”
The suggestion put forth by the JPPP that Israel needs a thoughtful long-term policy toward Diaspora Judaism is certainly an important and necessary goal. But it has become discouraging to me—and I believe many Jews in the younger generations—that everything the organized community does seem to be motivated by a fear of impending doom: in this case, shrinking Jewish numbers. The lead Associated Press article about the conference shows that the JPPP continues to quote the debunked statistic of 5.3 million Jews in the United States as proof of our numerical decline (due in part to intermarriage, they claim), when even the very study that produced that statistic provided a disclaimer explaining that it was an undercount. More recent analyses suggest the U.S. community actually experienced a degree of growth over the last decade. But it is important to the leaders of the JPPP to suggest we are in a crisis, and that Israel is becoming the sole focal point of the Jewish people globally.
Yet what if there are multiple focal points? To me, that is the crux of the challenge in devising grand policy for Jews as a singular people. We are a multiplicity! Those looking for a “common Judaism” are on a wild goose chase. Judaism offers countless paths toward meaning and community, and that’s where its strength lies. At JOI, we continually talk about providing options, as many options as possible. Young people are going to define Judaism in their own way, and should be allowed to. Most Jews born in the U.S. want to stay in the U.S. rather than move to Israel, and many of them will marry non-Jews. The future of world Jewry depends on broadening our big tent to include multiple pathways to Jewish meaning and community. Hopefully some of that will emerge from the conference as well.
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