I am not usually paranoid, suspicious or skeptical. I tend
to rejoice at good news and consider myself reasonably
optimistic. So why is it when I read the news emanating from
Boston of a recent study that found that 60 percent of the
children of intermarried couples there were being raised
Jewish, I did not feel a sense of joy or relief?
leaders in the Jewish community have credited the outreach
programs promoted by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of
Greater Boston for this surprisingly high number.
skepticism stems from the questions I have in response to the
data presented. To start with, how was “being Jewish” defined
in the study? What is the level of Jewish life referred to in
the study? Are we talking about the presence of a Chanukah
menorah in a home that also has a Christmas tree, or are we
talking about a level of knowledge concerning the Jewish
tradition expressed in routine rituals pertaining to Jewish
life? Is Sabbath observed? What are the odds that these
children will in turn intermarry later?
need to define what passes for Jewish identity and measure the
scope and depth of that identity before drawing conclusions
that may not only be misleading and unwarranted but actually
potentially dangerous to the continuity of the Jewish
The tone in the newspaper reports suggests
that the outreach efforts in the Boston experiment demonstrate
a major positive approach in response to the problem of a
shrinking Jewish community. The reports indicate a growth in
the Jewish population in the Boston area due to this approach.
This trend is obviously radically different from the one we
are familiar with in the rest of the country, where shrinking
is the norm.
The recommendations stemming from those
who support this approach are that outreach is the way to
promulgate our future as opposed to inreach and active
discouragement of intermarriage. I believe that for those
families already intermarried, an outreach approach makes
sense — but not at the cost of inreach recommendations for
conversion and endogamy.
I am dismayed by the rapidity
with which some Jewish leaders have jumped to the conclusion
that outreach can increase the number of Jews in the
community. Counting the number of Jews who identify as Jews in
a most superficial way and taking that identification
seriously is an enormous danger. Having grandparents, for
example, who “kvell” at a grandchild who is the product of
intermarriage singing a few words in Hebrew does not suggest
even remotely a Jewish identity. It is bad enough to know of
the enormous numbers of Jewish couples who have no significant
ties to the Jewish community or to Judaism. Adding to that
number by identifying the intermarried and their children as
Jews continues the dilution of our identity amidst our
Outreach is, in fact, an effort to decrease the
intensity of the disaster we face. It hardly constitutes a
foundation for the future.
The burden of leadership for
the Jewish community is a most difficult one. On the one hand,
reaching out to Jews who are unaffiliated requires finding a
way to be inviting, to present an attractive face, to be
friendly — in other words to reach out. At the same time
leadership for the Jewish community demands depth, being
educated, being committed, dealing with assimilation and
anti-Semitism, fighting for and supporting Israel and standing
up in the face of adversity. Both directions are requirements
of leadership. Our people must be strong, committed, deeply
knowledgeable and courageous.
Finally, the conclusions
drawn from the Boston experience, which have been touted by
some Jewish leaders as indicating that outreach is the way to
go, are misleading and dangerous for another reason. If the
focus is on outreach, it clearly stands as being contradictory
and even antagonistic to the traditional approach of
discouraging intermarriage and encouraging conversion. That
traditional approach would clearly not be acceptable as a
basic orientation to Jewish continuity. Discouraging
intermarriage while promoting outreach is taking two
diametrically opposite approaches. Outreach, however, may be
appropriate once intermarriage has taken place.
often the case the conclusions drawn from any study always
depend on the way in which the questions are asked. The old
Talmudic adage is applicable here: “It’s not the answer that
matters; it’s how you ask the question.” How does “Jewish
identity” express itself at home, in education, in life
events, in behavior and in depths of consciousness, is the
real question. Until we have a more clear understanding of
what the nature of that Jewishness is all about, we ought not
interpret the data presented to us in the Boston study as
pointing to a definitive conclusion. n
Dr. Samuel C.
Klagsbrun is chairman of the Commission on Contemporary Jewish
Life at the American Jewish Committee.