There is an important debate taking place now about how to respond to the dramatic increase in intermarriage in the American Jewish community. Should it be seen as a fact of life to be accepted, even embraced, or a disturbing trend to be countered?

This isn’t about that debate, which was explored here last week (“’Being Against Intermarriage Is Like Being Against Gravity,’”) Between The Lines, Jan. 17.

This is about an effort by an informal group of about two dozen concerned Jews — rabbis, sociologists, lay and professional communal leaders and journalists (myself included) — who believe the community is in crisis and doesn’t know it — or worse, doesn’t care. That conviction is based not only on the data of the recent Pew Research Center study on Jewish identity, but reaction to it: More of a collective shrug from most quarters than a sounding of alarms to the study’s suggestion of a sharp downward spiral in the number, affiliation and engagement of non-Orthodox Jews over the next several decades. (Orthodox Jews have their own issues and fissures, but that’s for another discussion.)

The group met two weeks ago, and six detailed reports, which offered analysis and recommendations, were given. The presenters covered different aspects of the perceived shift toward assimilation as the norm, with intermarriage seen not as the sole cause, but rather the primary symptom of this thinning of Jewish identity.

The presenters’ reports were followed by an animated discussion during which the group, recognizing that its point of view is politically incorrect, sought a strategy for redirecting the generally benign approach of communal leaders and change-makers, like philanthropists. The challenge, in a sense, is how to convince a largely satisfied and increasingly less passionate American Jewry to strengthen its ties and commitment by promoting earlier marriage, in-marriage, more children and intensive Jewish education — all steps that are contrary to prevailing trends.

The real question here for most Jews: Why should we?

Identifying The Concern

The first part of the day was devoted to Pew data and other indications that the community is loosening its traditional ties, beliefs and sense of communal responsibility.

Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman presented a paper showing, in dramatic fashion, that younger Jews, reflecting wider American lifestyles, are both marrying later and having fewer children. The replacement level is considered to be 2.1 children; fertility rates among American Jews have dropped to somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 per woman, she said, noting that in New York, haredim average six children, Modern Orthodox 2.5 and non-Orthodox 1.5.

It was acknowledged that effecting change in fertility rates is very difficult; even countries that offer significant subsidies to families for having children have not been successful. But one Fishman suggestion was for a sensitive campaign to provide women with accurate information about the realities of delayed parenthood.

Sociologist Jack Ukeles offered a critique of the way the Pew study is being used, noting that it is limited in its usefulness in terms of policy agenda because it was intended, he maintains, to explain American Jews to non-Jews, “not answer questions of concern to the Jewish community.”

Ukeles wrote that the communal response to increasing intermarriage should be encouraging intermarried families to raise their children as Jewish and “focus on the minority of intermarried households that are somewhat Jewishly engaged.”

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was affiliated with the Pew report, concentrated on what he calls “the shrinking Jewish middle,” asserting that “the number of middle-aged non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life is poised to drop sharply in the next 20 to 40 years. And, absent significant policy changes, their numbers will continue to drop for years to come.” He argued that this cohort is “vital to the sustenance of so many major institutions in Jewish life,” including synagogues, federations, JCCs and many Jewish organizations.

Questioning whether the Jewish community can have “continuity without content,” Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jack Wertheimer described a prevailing “culture of non-judgmentalism” that makes rabbis and Jewish institutions “loath to speak of obligations, for fear of alienating — and possibly losing — even more members.” They also noted that our society’s emphasis on individualism, which they say “American Jews have swallowed … whole,” is contrary to the kind of civic responsibility that Judaism values.

Bayme and Wertheimer call not only for an emphasis on an intensive Jewish education, but “a commitment to challenge the larger culture when it is inimical to Jewish life.” They add that rejecting “radical autonomy and individualism” does not mean retreating into “self-isolation and ghettoization,” but rather “learning to negotiate two civilizations,” as Jews have done in the past.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a leading Modern Orthodox theologian, noted that that the Pew study “confirms a crisis” among U.S. Jews that goes back to the 1960s when society became more open. Since then, Jews have recognized that “identity is a choice, not a given.” But for most, with limited Jewish education, “Jewishness comes in as the second choice.”

He suggested that “the continuity agenda” of the past 20 years “did not fail,” but rather the various efforts just “were not far-reaching enough to stem the tide.” He called for intensifying a variety of social and educational efforts, and initiating an “outreach corps” along the lines of Chabad, with far more funding all around.

Daniel Smokler, director of education and engagement at the NYU Bronfman Center, asserted that until now Jewish educational efforts to counter intermarriage were based on “slogans, pedagogy and the discourse of identity,” and were unsuccessful. He described slogans centered on “doing Jewish” as “vague at best”; the fad-like pedagogy efforts that range from “Punk Torah” to farming to online apps are effective for some but lacking “a coherent … guiding vision of educational aims.” And the discussions on Jewish identity are more about individualism rather than the collective.

In response, Smokler suggested seven educational aims for 18- to 29-year-olds, including promoting Jewish social groups, since peers have a profound impact on the behavior of their friends; Jewish mentor programs; commitment to study Torah; living the Jewish calendar; and “orientation toward Judaism as service rather than consumption.” The key word in such efforts is “covenant,” he said, meaning a relationship of obligation, whether it is with God or with one’s fellow Jews.

What Next?

Each of the day’s presentations was compelling, and there was a good deal of overlap in recommendations, primarily in calling for programs that would bring young Jews into contact with each other socially, as well as calls for subsidized child care, day schools, summer camps, and intensive Israel travel; these would provide the experiential and textual elements needed to create literate, caring Jews. (About the only debate was whether to concentrate more on education or on providing social outlets.)

Most of the proposed projects would require many millions of dollars, but members of the group felt the funds are available. The key, they suggest, is to convince those controlling the purse strings that the cause is worthy and sustainable, not doomed to failure.

In the end, I was surprised how many participants expressed optimism about the future, despite the bleak scenario we all seemed to acknowledge exists today in terms of the attitudes and affiliations (or lack thereof) of the majority of American Jews. There was consensus that morally, practically and politically it was best to emphasize the positive benefits of Jewish engagement, including in-marriage, rather than decry the actions of those who marry out.

But at its core the challenge is to convince large numbers of American Jews that a distinctive Jewish life can have unique value to them. That requires passion, knowledge, commitment to the collective, and if not a deep religious faith than at least a desire to be connected to the history, wisdom, homeland and heritage of the Jewish People. Are we up for the challenge?

Inevitably, as the day went on there were concerns expressed about how best to devise a realistic plan of action that could not be accomplished in one meeting. Should the group form an organization? Join an existing one? Do more research? Widen the discussion? Approach potential funders?

The jury is still out on a plan of action, but there was a sense of urgency and a belief that the Pew report has presented a moment of opportunity to try to alert communal leaders to the need for a dramatic response. As one participant noted wryly, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Gary@jewishweek.org