Powered by WebAds

Monday, September 07, 2009

Facing the truth

This post is a little different than the normal fare. Although the post was prompted by something that has happened in Israel, it's not directly connected to Israeli politics, except to the extent that the current Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, feels a strong sense of obligation for ensuring the future of the Jewish people - perhaps a stronger sense than his predecessor.

I'd like to show you a chart. If you have trouble reading it, you can find the chart here.

For those having difficulty seeing the chart, the columns are headed Secular, Reform, Conservative, Centrist Orthodox and Hasidic/Yeshiva Orthodox (or what we might call ultra-Orthodox). Each column starts with 100 people (each little person in the square represents 10 people). Each row represents a generation and the number of people represents the number of Jews in that generation. The bottom two rows provide the inter-marriage rate and the average number of children per couple for each group in each column. The results should be self-explanatory.

The chart is based on United States statistics. In Europe, the statistics may be slightly less dismal because anti-Semitism - which is much stronger in Europe than in the US - tends to force Jews to identify as Jews. I have not seen statistics for Europe, and so I do not know for sure. For Israeli Jews who remain in Israel, our statistics are much better. We have higher birth rates, even among the secular (approaching three children per couple), and because the Arabs are considered enemies and because there are relatively few non-Arab non-Jews here, the inter-marriage rate is lower, regardless of how strong your religious identification.

The upshot of the chart should be obvious: Your odds of having Jewish grandchildren (something all parents wanted when I was growing up) are much better if you are Centrist Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, and the more you tend towards the ultra-Orthodox side of that spectrum (there is no bright red line that separates Centrist from ultra), the more grandchildren you are likely to have.

But there are two other factoids that don't appear on the chart that bear pointing out. One is that if you live in Israel, your chances of having Jewish grandchildren without being Orthodox are much better than they are in the US. And if you live in the United States but spent a significant chunk of time in Israel, the chances are greater that you will feel a stronger connection to the Jewish people and will remain Jewish and have Jewish children (giving you a shot at Jewish grandchildren).

With these last two factoids in mind, the Jewish Agency has taken upon itself to start a program called Masa.

If you follow that link, you will see that Masa is directed at Jewish university students with a view to getting them to spend their semester or year abroad in Israel. It is not directed at the two Orthodox groups and it doesn't need to be. For the last 25-30 years, nearly every Orthodox kid between the ages of 18-21 spends at least six months to a year in Israel. Instead, Masa is directed at the non-Orthodox kids, who might otherwise never make it to Israel, except possibly as part of a Birthright tour. It's meant as a follow-up to Birthright. But because it lasts for a longer period, Masa has the opportunity to do a better job than Birthright does in instilling a connection to Israel and the Jewish people.

Why am I raising this today? I'm not raising it because it's ten days to Rosh HaShanna (the Jewish New Year), although that should certainly be a time for all of us to evaluate honestly our efforts at passing on our Jewish values to our children. I'm raising it because of this advertisement on Israeli television, which caught the ire of both Shmuel Rosner and JJ Goldberg.

Let's go to the videotape.

For those whose Hebrew is weak, the advertisement tells you that more than 50% of young Jews overseas are assimilating and we are losing them (a slight exaggeration, but if you look at the chart above and realize that the two Orthodox categories are still the smallest percentage of the Jewish population in the US, not by much). And it asks: "Do you know a young Jew overseas?". And it promises that if you "Call Project Masa" maybe "together we will strengthen the tie to Israel so we won't lose him." In other words, Masa is taking upon itself to reach out to these Jews who are on their way to assimilation, and to try to bring them to Israel to strengthen their connection to Israel and to Judaism - a tried and true formula. In fact, I can think of someone I'd like to sign up, about ten years from now.

Rosner finds the ad objectionable, as does Goldberg. Rosner defers to Goldberg. Here is some of what Goldberg has to say.
The ad campaign has drawn some blistering responses. Masa is a joint operation of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel; half of its $38 million is provided by the Israeli taxpayer and half by donors to Jewish federated philanthropies around the world. Members of both groups have weighed in to protest the ad’s wasting of their money. Major figures in Jewish philanthropy are reported to have sent written messages to Masa officials that can’t be printed in a family journal. Responses out in the field, like this and this, lean in the how-could-this-happen direction. Israeli media accounts report some tart responses over there as well.

As for the third interested party, the potential recruits, their reactions seem to range from disapproval to derision and outrage.
Four of the five blogs linked there - and Goldberg himself - treat intermarriage as if there is nothing wrong with it and as if there is a distinction between intermarriage and assimilation (which reminds of the old Saturday Night Live line in the '70's about becoming bisexual because it doubled your chances for a date on Saturday night - try explaining that to your significant other). The fifth blogger favors Israel programs as a means of strengthening young Jews' connection to Judaism but then throws away a line that "this is not Anatevka" and that if your kids intermarry (God forbid) you shouldn't treat it like the end of the world.

Sorry, but no. Being Jewish was never about how many people we could recruit (something the Jewish Agency itself has hopefully learned; unfortunately they learned it the hard way). You can't buy into being Jewish, you can't become Jewish because you 'feel Jewish' and having one Jewish parent doesn't make you Jewish either unless it's your mother. Otherwise, if you want to be Jewish, you have to convert. We don't recruit and we will try to talk you out of it, because frankly, we think you have to be a little crazy to really want to be Jewish.

I don't want to hear (but I will undoubtedly get comments from American readers) that I don't know what's going on in America. I spent the first 34 years of my life living in the US, and I've been there twelve times in the last five years, probably totaling about a year's worth of time. You can't be half pregnant and you can't be half Jewish. Either you're Jewish or you're not. And if you're not, you're definitely assimilated. If you are, you might be assimilated anyway. But if you're Jewish and you're assimilated, and I have a chance to draw you back to the Jewish people, I'd do it in a New York minute. If you're not Jewish - don't have a Jewish mother - unless you're looking into converting, I wouldn't waste the Jewish community's resources on you. You're gone.

The reason why Israel doesn't have the United States' assimilation rate is because it's a Jewish country. Every child knows what Pesach, Shavuoth and Succoth are because the entire country shuts down whether or not his or her family is personally observant. 63% of Israelis planned to fast on Yom Kippur last year. 94% of Israelis planned to have a seder two years ago and 59% planned to read the entire Haggadah. 74% said that they would not eat leavened foods (Hametz) on the holiday.

Spending a prolonged period of time in Israel teaches a person what it's like to live in a Jewish country, even if they're not keeping the last letter of Jewish law. It's a connection that stays with them. And if Masa is successful at making that connection, I'm all in favor. Here's some proof of the effect of living in Israel from a survey comparing Israelis in New York to non-Israeli Jews in New York:

In New York, on the other hand, Israelis “outscore their American counterparts on almost every measure” with regards to Jewish involvement. This is true even when Orthodox Israeli Jews are excluded from the analysis. A greater proportion of Israelis light Shabbat candles (61% to 30%), keep a kosher kitchen (60% to 27%), and attend a Pesach Seder (95% to 76%). These numbers do not include Orthodox Jews (a larger portion of Israelis in New York identify as Orthodox than do Americans), and still illustrate a significant difference.

Socially, as well, Israelis are more Jewishly connected than their non-Israeli brethren. The study found that “[m]ore Israelis have Jewish spouses and many Jewish friends than do non-Israelis.” The “in-marriage” rate among Israelis is 75%, compared to 38% among Americans. And finally, while a highly subjective issue, it is valid because it goes to the core of Jewish identity, “Israeli Jews outscore their American counterparts when asked how important being Jewish is to them.”

For 3,000 years the continuity of the Jewish people has been ensured by people who studied, kept and lived by Torah - and by nothing else. We cannot and are not going to change that now.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger Abu Yussif said...

wow. with a strict definition of jewishness like that, better be ready to significantly decrease the number of jews who perished in the shoah.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Abu Yussif,

I don't recall Hitler being such an expert on who is a Jew. As a matter of Jewish law, his definition (one Jewish grandparent) was and is wrong.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Abu Yussif said...

i agree. but israel and worldwide jewry accepts the 6 million figure, meaning that if many of those who perished in the shoah were not by your definition jewish, they are not considered jewish and, therefore, cannot be counted in the 6 million and, therefore, 6 million is an inflated number by that standard of jewishness.

i'm not saying you are right or hitler was right. it doesn't bother me 'who is jewish' or not, but you have to be consistent and can't have it both ways.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abu Yussif, when you write your doctoral thesis comparing the lower levels of intermarriage in pre-WWII European Jewry versus the much higher levels of intermarriage in post WWII western Jewry, give us a ring.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Abu Yussif said...

easy there, no reason to get defensive. just observing an inconsistency.

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Reader Danny sent this comment:

"I write you separately via email on certain of your posts because for whatever reason I have never been able to successfully log in and post comments directly on Blogspot for your blog. So forgive me for the extra communication overhead.

"I just wanted to say that the comments posted by "Abu Yussif" were grotesque by any standard, despite their having been written in "mild" language. Who the hell is keeping score? One could argue standards/definitions of Jewishness, but even "6 million is an inflated number" compared to what? We Jews "can't have it both ways" in considering the 6 million number? In what sense? Do our post-Shoah actions to remember, revive, remind, and the like somehow crumble in validity if there issues at the margins in counting who was a Jew? Or even if we're off in the count by, say, 1 million? (A "generous" number to "concede" to the insistent types like Abu Yussif -- I doubt the 6 million number was arrived at "lightly" with a wide "margin of error" relating to the Jewishness definition.)

"And ultimately what is Abu Yussif driving at? A variant of the Ahmadinejad-Obama argument about the basis for Israel's founding? Or, since Abu Yussif is complaining about Jews (as a general term) wanting it "both ways" per the Jewishness definition and the Shoah corpse-count, is he intimating that Jews (worldwide) are insupportable, and not just that Zionists are the baddies?"

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

While intermarriage has been disastrous for American Jewry's numbers, I don't think it is so bad when dreck like Adam Shapiro , Rob Reiner and Robert Novak marry out.

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Abu Yussif said...

chill danny, don't be hysterical. breathe and eat a cookie. read the posts and respond to the facts i brought up.

if you want to know who is "the hell keeping score", i'm not. i'll leave that to you. just noticing that it is ok for some to change the goalposts as it benefits the situation. if that makes me ahmadinejad, then boo!

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Abu Yussif said...

and, for the record, i think the creation of the jewish state was the best thing that has happened in the middle east. it is a shining light in a dark, backwards region that i hope remains for a long time. in fact, if it weren't for this country i'd be as far from the middle east as i could possibly be.

but there are contradictions here and, unlike our islamic one-cell brained neighbors, voicing them is not a capital crime of treason. or at least i hope it's not.


Post a Comment

<< Home