I was disappointed by Paul Golin’s piece dismissing in-marriage advocates, although presumably I should be thanking him for not listing me as one of the superannuated, failed has-beens whom he claims made up the meeting on the Pew survey and its implications for the Jewish community (“In Marriage Advocates Are Living In The Past,” Jan. 31).
Yes, I participated fully in the meeting he mocked as some kind of gathering of the Elders of Zion. Would it shock Golin to know that about half the group consisted of activists younger than him? Most of them were next-generation social entrepreneurs, involved in research, start-ups or programs engaging less affiliated (including intermarried and interfaith people), and at least as hip as he is.
But that is not the main point of contention. In fact, the overwhelming focus of the group was to outline the need for intense educational and magnetic experiential programs that enrich lives. Then the group explored how to get the community to generate and fund initiatives that provide meaning and offer content that all kinds of Jews might seek for themselves and their families. In short, the conference was about the kind of programming and Jewish substance that generate engagement and inclusion, the very approach that Golin affirms is needed.
The difference between Big Tent Judaism’s spokesman and most of the group is as follows. The group heard research showing clearly that – all else being equal – families with two Jewish parents are strikingly more engaged in Jewish community and life, more affiliated with Jewish causes, more identified with and supportive of Israel. Therefore, many in the group concluded that the community should be encouraged to tell its children this truth. If you are proud to be a Jew (94 percent are, according to the Pew study), if you want your future children to identify as Jews and/or support Israel and/or live active Jewish lives, you can significantly increase the odds of achieving your goal if you marry a Jewish spouse. The intended message? Whoever you choose and love, we love you and want you both to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny. We also owe it to you to tell you how to increase the chance to achieve this together.
Golin believes that even sharing these facts and hopes will be a terrible turnoff to most young Jews. Possibly, possibly not. Would the Reform movement, pledged and practicing “audacious hospitality” to all, really lose its children if it told them about the advantages of in-marriage? I doubt it. I suspect that articulating the advantages of in-marriage, in combination with warmth and assurance of welcome no matter what, would be experienced as full disclosure with integrity – especially if this message is communicated early in life. I believe that truth telling would improve in-marriage rates and later participation in Jewish life.
The insistence on not sharing this information, or communal preference, is an unjustified, absolutist demand that pressures the community to ignore one of its best tools for Jewish continuity. Studies show that Birthright Israel trips powerfully affect participants. Participants come back more committed to prefer in-marriage, to prioritize and choose Jewish identity, and to identify with Israel. So apparently there are programs that intensify Jewish identity and lead to higher rates of in-marriage. And this is done without turning off the large numbers of participating children of intermarried or interfaith families. (Many of them respond positively in the same ways.)
Golin and others have every right to argue for their objections. But taking seriously the Pew survey’s indication that non-Orthodox Jews, in particular, face a devastating demographic plunge in the coming generation – unless they lift their game – should not be dismissed with snark. There should be an urgent and serious community-wide conversation about mounting an effective response to our crisis. Advocating in-marriage, on the merits, deserves to be on the table as a policy for consideration.
We are all in this crisis together. We all need — and the whole Jewish people will benefit from — expanded programs and effective policies. This was the spirit in which those who met – including the rather distinguished group of participants that Paul Golin named – convened and acted.
Dr. Yitz Greenberg is a writer, theologian, and author of the soon to be reissued book, “The Jewish Way.”