Most of the conversation that we encounter at JOI with regard to intermarriage in the Jewish community is about how the Jewish community can be more welcoming to those who have intermarried. But as much as we work toward creating an inclusive Big Tent for the Jewish community, we must also focus on the message as well as the methodology, by answering: Why would someone want to cast their lot with the Jewish people? Why bother participating in the Jewish community at all?
That is why I am thrilled to be able to participate in a think tank conversation sponsored by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation called “Why Be Jewish?” And I am delighted that both Edgar Bronfman and Adam Bronfman, major supporters and friends of JOI, are the motivators for this project. Neither of them is afraid to push the Jewish community into tackling difficult issues. This notion of “Why Be Jewish?” is the perfect way to frame the discussion. Rabbi Eli Stern, who is the project manager and the creative force behind this particular project, said it this way in a recent op/ed in the (New York) Jewish Week Newspaper:
The misplaced emphasis on demographics has led us down a path of making intermarriage the central issue in Jewish life. Though important, encouraging Jews to marry within the religion will only go so far. The Jewish community forgets that the people who brought us to the demographic quandary we are currently facing are the children of fully Jewish couples — fully Jewish ethnically, but barely Jewish spiritually or intellectually. An unengaged Jew married to an equally unengaged Jew does not translate into Jewish children; it translates into children who will probably not identify as Jewish.
If we want to answer this generation’s real questions, we must move beyond initiatives rooted inmarriage questions alone. We must be ready to engage Judaism in its entirety, through its ideas, practices and texts….
Most importantly, we need to convey that Judaism adds a palpable higher value to our life experience. A strong and enduring Judaism must be able to provide answers, supply meaning and address issues that affect the way we live. A Judaism based merely on survival questions will produce at best short-term survival answers.
My own personal answer to “Why be Jewish?” is clear but complex: it involves the search for meaning, the love of study and the heightened sense of self-awareness, consciousness and choice that result from engaging the world of mitzvot. Such an emphasis does not exclude deep-felt feelings of peoplehood, nationality and community. In an era of choice, these latter feelings are still relevant, but they will most often emerge as the outcome of an engagement with Jewish convictions, practices and ideas, rather than vice versa. My answer to “Why be Jewish?” includes Israel as well, of course, but support for Israel will diminish if Israel cannot convince the Jewish people that it welcomes all types of Jews within its borders.
I look forward to returning from the conference with some more answers of my own.
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