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Fighting Assimilation

Fighting Assimilation

Give American Jews a 'birthright honeymoon.'

by

It's the unofficial scorecard for American Jewry, and the tally right now is not looking too good. Each Sunday, the New York Times publishes announcements regarding weddings and other "commitment ceremonies."

These brief items, in which the proud couples and their families inform the world about their newfound marital bliss, also serve another important, albeit unintended, purpose: they provide a rich source of anecdotal data about the current crisis of identity that is enveloping many American Jews.

Of course, you can't always tell by the names. But they are nonetheless a pretty good indicator as to just how extensive, and pervasive, intermarriage and assimilation have become in the land of the free.

Week in and week out, there is a steady stream of people with names such as Cohen and Friedman marrying McCarthys or O'Connors, instead of each other.

There are listings for joint ceremonies presided over by rabbis and priests, and then there are ones that are led by special "interfaith ministers," whatever that might mean. Some nuptials are officiated over by rabbis, while others merely involve a local judge.

For some Jews I know, scanning the Sunday Times wedding section has almost become a fixation. Like a sports fan studying the results to see how his preferred team is doing, they check up on how the Chosen Team has fared over the past week.

And most of the time, the results are not encouraging.

Though the number of Jews marrying Jews occasionally exceeds those who intermarry, more often than not the reverse appears to be the case. And this portends a crisis of unprecedented proportions, one that will only worsen over time if drastic steps aren't taken, and soon.

Admittedly, leafing through the matrimonial listings is hardly a scientific way of gauging where American Jewry is headed. But the sad fact is that the findings from this weekly survey match those that demographers have been warning about for quite some time.

Indeed, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 47% of American Jews who had married in the previous five years tied the knot with a non-Jew. And studies show that over the past four decades, the intermarriage rate has spiraled upwards from single-digits to nearly one out of every two Jews getting married.

And even those Jews who still do marry within the faith aren't entirely immune from an erosion of their identity.

Take, for example, an article that appeared in the Times a few days ago by Cindy Chupack, who was a writer and executive producer of the hit television series Sex and the City.

With nary a bit of shame, she describes quite exuberantly how she and her husband, "two newlywed Jews," decided "to embrace" Christmas, buying themselves a tree and decorating it with all the trimmings.

"Some nights," Chupack writes, "I put on our Starbucks Christmas CD, light a fire, turn on the tree and play with the different settings, put liquid smoke in the train's smokestack and turn on the choo-choo sound effects and then I sit back and enjoy my first Christmas, in all its kitschy splendor."

The crisis facing American Jewry is real and it is profound, and it is only growing worse from year to year.

After reading this, all one can say is: Gevalt. The crisis facing American Jewry is real and it is profound, and it is only growing worse from year to year.

Decades of neglect, and of failing to invest in Jewish education and Israel programming, have produced a generation largely cut off from its roots.

Indeed, the recent debate that has erupted over the actual size of American Jewry is largely beside the point. A study published in the 2006 American Jewish Yearbook now claims there are 6.4 million Jews in the US, which is higher than the 5.2 million estimated by the NJPS.

Five million or six million -- what does it really matter, if most are assimilating or intermarrying in any event? The crisis right now facing American Jews is more one of quality rather than quantity, of keeping Jews Jewish rather than bean-counting. But all is not lost, and submitting to despair won't help to bring back any of our people. What are needed instead are some bold new initiatives that will re-engage young American Jews with Jewish life and with Israel.

One of the most successful such efforts has been the birthright israel program, which brings young Jews aged 18 to 26 for their first visit to the Jewish state.

Launched by a team of visionary philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, this blessed undertaking has reconnected untold thousands of young Jews with their community and their heritage.

I suggest that it's time to replicate this success and take it one step further, and to create a "Birthright Honeymoon" for every American Jew who weds.

The idea is very simple: the American Jewish community would give every Jew who ties the knot a free 10-day trip to Israel to be used within the first year of marriage.

All American Jews, regardless of whom they marry, would be eligible to participate, with the goal being to spark their interest in all things Jewish as they set out to build a family.

Rites of passage, or life-cycle events such as marriage, present a great opportunity to reach people who are otherwise disconnected from the Jewish community and from their heritage.

Offering every American Jew a free "honeymoon in Israel" will not only help to strengthen their ties and sense of identification with the Jewish state, but it will also have an enormous impact on the kind of home they fashion and the children that they raise.

Sure, the financial and logistical challenges of launching such a program are immense. But those are not reasons to shy away from doing it, because the alternative is continued communal drift and decay.

It is not too late to influence thousands of young new Jewish husbands and wives across the US, and to draw them closer to their roots.

Of course, getting them to visit Israel is not a catch-all solution, and much more work will need to be done.

But based on birthright's experience with college-age and post-graduate youth, it certainly seems like a good place to start.

Published: December 30, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 89

(85) David, November 28, 2013 3:47 AM

Brilliant Essay About Greatest Threat to Judaism Today

Thank you for well written piece about the cancer called
Assimilation. My parents, may they live and be well, who survived labor and concentration camps, are among the many who are deeply disturbed by intermarriage. Don't we remember how many children were tortured and murdered for being Jewish? To honor the millions that wanted to LIVE can we please remember our history and try to marry a fellow Jew avoiding so many conflicts and help rebuild?
Be true to your past and make sure your future includes giving your children the faith of your ancestors. Studies show the mother will decide the religion of the children. Peace.


(84) Jonathon, September 15, 2013 5:33 PM

Child of an Interfaith Marriage

My mother, who is a Holocaust survivor, married an Irish Catholic in her 20's. My mom born in 1941 and her family escaped Germany before she was a year old. She was raised in an orthodox family but rebelled and married a Catholic. She was ostracized by the Jewish community and her own family did not speak to her for two years. Upon the birth of their first grandchild, my grandparents decided to try and accept the situation. Unfortunately, during those two years decisions were made as to how the children would be raised, so by the time she was speaking with her family again... it was too late. All four of us were baptized into the Catholic Church, attended mass every Sunday, were confirmed and attended Catholic schools. My grandparents decided to give us a limited Jewish education and made sure that we were invited over to their house every Friday night for Shabbos dinner. We celebrated every Jewish holiday in their home. Due to their efforts, when I was an adult, I embraced Judaism and left the Catholic Church behind. My sister has raised all five of her children as Catholics. My brothers practice no religion and have not married Jews either. I realize today that the Jewish community has changed and they are trying to welcome the interfaith couples and their children, for my family it was too late. When the community turned its back on my mother... they not only lost her but most of her children and 9 of her grandchildren. I make sure that all my nieces and nephews are exposed to Judaism, but that is all I can do. I am glad that the there are programs now for interfaith families. I think that the Jewish community needs to look inside itself and realize that part of this problem is of their own creation. I know much has changed since the 60's but how much? I cannot help but wonder. I also wonder for how much the individual is responsible. These are difficult questions that I feel we as a community need to ponder.

Anonymous, November 28, 2013 3:54 AM

Great you're so giving!

Happy Chanukah! Hope you have a happy, meaningful
holiday.

Hilary Lee Fergenson, March 31, 2014 8:56 AM

Interfaith

Although interfaith might have been less common during your grandparents' generation than it is today, one should realize that if the mother has an ethnic background in Judaism whether or not she practices it, the children are technically considered as Jews and would have the opportunity to attend Hebrew school and have bar/bat mitzvahs. I'm more or less in the same boat as you when being part of a diverse family and feel that it's totally possible for numerous families to have the best of all worlds when combining Chanukah and Christmas together while still having bar/bat mitzvahs and participating in Birthright Israel as I see this all the time and am very fortunate and blessed to have had this privilege myself. Last but not least, the Reform community is very liberal and accepting toward interfaith families when preparing my nephew for his upcoming bar mitzvah although his mother is Catholic. Every individual is entitled to their own personal choice.

(83) Shraga, December 18, 2012 5:10 PM

Good idea, with one tweak

I would give a birthright trip to any Jew gets engaged, to be used ONLY prior to the wedding itself. That way, their Jewish identity will be aroused, and if their "intended spouse" is not Jewish, we may be able to prevent some intermarriages...

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