By Martin Nachimson
In this issue of Jewish Action, we invited a number of erudite rabbis, thinkers and educators to reflect on the implications of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released this past fall, for the Orthodox community. We cannot simply look at the devastating data regarding escalating intermarriage and assimilation, shrug our shoulders and move on. We have a responsibility and a duty as committed Jews who care about the Jewish future to respond to these findings passionately and effectively.
One of the most startling findings of the Pew report, to my mind, is not the 71 percent intermarriage rate, dire as it is. While the rising intermarriage rate is deeply distressing, it was not unforeseen. Anyone familiar with what is taking place on college campuses and in Jewish communities across the country—aside from the few strong Orthodox enclaves—knows that Jewish young people are intermarrying at a dizzying rate and have little tolerance for those who would question their choice. And while the vibrancy of Orthodox life, as indicated in the study, is certainly wonderful, it is also not news. We know this from observing our own flourishing day schools and communities.
So which statistic surprised me? A statistic that, while overlooked by many, says much about the state of contemporary American Jewry. The Pew survey asked respondents to answer the following: What is essential to your sense of Jewishness? An astounding 73 percent of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust is essential. Put simply, for the majority of Jewish Americans, being Jewish does not mean believing in God, or keeping mitzvot, or caring about Israel; it means remembering the Holocaust.
Is the Holocaust truly a compelling enough reason to be Jewish? Is it enough of a reason to want to remain Jewish? To marry Jewish? To raise children as Jews? I think not.
Picture the typical twenty-something-year-old unaffiliated Jew. Will he really conclude that he cannot marry his non-Jewish girlfriend because six million of his people perished in the concentration camps? Is that a realistic expectation?
So much of secular Jewish education centers on Holocaust education, on Jewish suffering. Thus, it’s quite understandable why, according to the Pew study, young Jews are fleeing from Judaism, and that one of the fastest- growing segments of the Jewish population is the unaffiliated. What does Judaism offer these young people aside from sadness, grief, memorials and Holocaust museums? Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Holocaust memorials and museums are unimportant; what I am saying is that they do little to stem the tide of Jewish assimilation.
We—the Orthodox community—have failed our secular brethren by not educating them about the joy, beauty and optimism in Jewish life. Most of our unaffiliated brothers and sisters have never witnessed the joyful serenity of a Shabbat meal, replete with piping hot chulent, spirited zemirot and intelligent Torah conversation. Most have never been exposed to the deep and lasting satisfaction that comes from living a life that centers on religion, a life punctuated by holidays and rituals, a life rich with meaning and purpose.
To be sure, there are periods in the Jewish calendar that commemorate sad, tragic events. In fact, as I write this piece, we are in the midst of Sefirah, a period of time when we mourn the premature death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. In a few weeks from now, we will relive the loss of the Batei Mikdash and enter a national period of mourning beginning with the Three Weeks and culminating in Tishah B’Av.
But overall, Judaism is a religion of hope, optimism and happiness. The essence of Jewish life is not the despair and anguish of the Holocaust but the hope, positivity and joy that permeate the teachings of the Torah and gave Jews over the millennia a genuine reason to be Jewish.