Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, writes the following in an article that appeared today in the Jewish Chronicle:
The real issue facing world Jewry is the one no one talks about. It is not antisemitism. It is not the isolation and condemnation of Israel. It is not assimilation and outmarriage. These are all symptoms, not causes.
The real issue is that for a large proportion of the Jewish world, in Israel and the Diaspora, Judaism no longer makes sense. It does not move them, inspire them or transform them. It does not speak to them at the deepest levels of our being. The crisis facing Jewry is not social or economic or political. It is spiritual.
The distinction between identifying intermarriage as the symptom, and not as the root cause, is a critical one that is often overlooked. And when the Jewish community seeks to resolve the symptoms without addressing the real illness, those attempts will fail to succeed.
I am, incidentally, married to a Jewish woman, and I am very pleased with my choice. But how did that relationship come to be? How is it that I ended up marrying a Hebrew? Did we meet at a Jew-do? Did we lock eyes over a social action volunteer program? Did we share a moment in the bedouin tent on Birthright? No, no, and no.
I didn’t find my Jewish bride because of an opportune encounter at a Jewish program (or a program with a lot of Jews around). Our relationship is not a result of circumstance. Rather, I found a Jewish girl because I have a deep connection to Judaism and Torah, and I knew that I needed a spouse who shared that connection. For someone to understand me, they need to understand the glasses through which I view the world. I couldn’t imagine living my life with someone who did not share those values and that lifestyle, and so I naturally looked for a Jewish spouse. Intermarriage was not an option. It wasn’t headed off by an opportune encounter with a Jewish woman. It was, for someone with my deep connection to Jewish life and beliefs, not even on the table.
We need to start addressing the root cause, not the symptoms. If we want to address intermarriage, it’s not enough to get Jews in the same room together and hope for the best. We don’t need to be promoting Jews. We need to be promoting Judaism. If Judaism is at the core of an individual’s identity, then that individual will seek out a Jewish spouse, even if they need to look hard to find one.
Even Birthright, now eleven years old and having taken over 300,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel, is showing mediocre results in strengthening Jewish continuity and reducing intermarriage rates. In a recent piece in The Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach made several recommendations for how to make Birthright even better. Here’s one of them:
Birthright needs substance, and I suggest a stronger values-based component. A young woman sitting next to me on the plane got all excited about our conversation until she discovered that she was with a different Birthright provider. She had shunned the group I was with, all non-observant Jews, because she read that the provider was orthodox. Here, a young woman who feared religion was denied the pleasure of my engaging company (please stop the laughter and show some dignity) because she’s afraid of religion being shoved down her gullet. Now, of course Birthright should not be in the business of peddling religion so much as attachment to Israel and Jewish identity. But that should not make the trip free of substance. The impact I was able to make on my group stemmed from engaging them in values-based discussion that related to everything they saw. You’re at Yad Vashem. Six million Jews dead, murdered. Question, anyone here believe in vengeance? Hands go up. OK, what about forgiveness? Can we forgive something this gruesome? Jesus said love your enemies. Is that something we Jews ought to embrace? Which are the real Jewish values? To be sure, the many speeches I gave were delivered amid healthy doses of humor (you can watch them on YouTube and please try and laugh with me rather than at me). But I was intent on making the Birthright experience not just about Jewish history and geography but about Jewish values and Jewish wisdom.
If we want young adults to get connected to the Jewish community, we need to show them how Judaism is relevant to them. If we can connect people with the wisdom and values of their Jewish tradition, then they will seek out the spouses that will enable them to live with that wisdom and those values. Forget the symptoms, let’s go for the cause.