The Jewish people, having survived for thousands of years in the most adverse circumstances, including the Holocaust, is today threatened by intermarriage and assimilation. Jewish communities throughout the diaspora are experiencing demographic decline. Why has this happened, and can anything be done to reverse the trend?
The particular challenge facing Jews today is how Jewish identity may be sustained in an open, secular society. The greatest danger is failure to recognize that times have changed and that, in consequence, communal priorities need to change also.
Times have changed, and we are beginning to sense how suddenly and radically they have changed. We had grown used to a situation in which Jewish identity was passed on through the generations by habit, memory, external events and an inescapable sense that being Jewish is what we are. Belatedly we have discovered that for our children, being Jewish is no more than a matter of choice. They know that they can choose otherwise, if not for themselves then for their children. They will choose to be Jewish for one reason only, that knowing the drama of Jewish history, the richness of Jewish life, the grandeur of Jewish ethics and the majesty of Jewish faith, they are proud to be Jews.
There is only one cogent argument against intermarriage, and it is this. To be a Jew is to be a member of the people of the covenant, an heir to one of the world's most ancient, enduring and awe-inspiring faiths. It is to inherit a way of life which has earned the admiration of the world for its love of family, its devotion to education, its philanthropy, its social justice and its infinitely loyal dedication to a unique destiny.
It is to know that this way of life, passed on from parents to children since the days of Abraham and Sarah, can only be sustained through the Jewish family; and knowing this, it is to choose to continue it by creating a Jewish home and having Jewish children. No one who has been touched by Judaism's wings of eternity would willingly break the link between the past and the Jewish future. This and only this will ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren.
FORGING THE PLAN
How do we achieve this? At the very outset, I knew that this would be the greatest challenge of my Chief Rabbinate, and the greatest single challenge facing today's diaspora as a whole. Despite the fact that the core of the solution is education, the process of acculturation is already too far advanced for this to be our sole response. Most of our children attend, and in the future will continue to attend, non-Jewish schools.
There is the question of those who have left school and perhaps have gone to university, or who have already begun their careers. There is the problem of educating parents as well as children, for what will we gain if our children hear one message at school and another conflicting message at home? What about the many social contexts in which young Jews can stay Jewish and which are not primarily educational, such as youth clubs, friends, meeting places, organizations and social events? How will any of this help if we do not make our synagogues genuine centers of community, warm, welcoming and all embracing?
A vast global policy is needed, with learning at its heart, but wider than anything normally associated with the word "education."
It will be difficult. But it will be possible, if we are prepared to change our priorities because times have changed.
RENEWED OR ABANDONED
Two factors might sabotage a solution. The first is despair, which we must resist at all costs. If we believe nothing can be done, then nothing will be done. The Jewish people has never in the past yielded to despair, and now is not the time to begin.
The second factor would be a failure to understand that times have changed. Let me candidly admit that I did not go to Jewish schools. Neither did my parents. My generation, and that of our parents and grandparents did not need intensive Jewish education to remind us that we were Jews. But our children belong to the fourth generation. What was enough for us is not enough for them. In the fourth generation, Judaism is either renewed or it is abandoned. There is no other alternative.
We are not our parents, and our children are not us. Our parents sought to give us the things they did not have when they were children: material comforts, a good secular education, the chance to pursue a profession. They tried to give us the opportunities which they themselves had missed.
We in our turn must try to give our children what we lacked, namely the chance to experience, live, know and understand our Jewish heritage. That is the challenge.