Thursday, June 16, 2011

Combating Assimilation

Not long ago I wrote a post that dealt with assimilation in America. I maintained that a certain amount of assimilation is a good thing. But as in all things, too much of it is bad and can lead to disastrous results.

The one downside to the freedom this great country offers its citizens is that too many Jews have opted out of their Judaism rather quickly. For Jews in pre Holocaust America it was particularly difficult to remain religious. Combined with an appalling lack of formal Jewish education for Jews the assimilationist pull of the ‘melting pot society’ was almost impossible to overcome. Jews were leaving observance in droves – happy to run away from the ‘embarrassing’ old country ways of the parents. They could not wait to become full fledged Americans in every sense of the word – and live the good life that this country promised them.

Of course this all changed after the Holocaust with the influx of many survivors who were intent on retaining their heritage. The time was ripe for a system of education where young people would learn to appreciate rather than reject their parent’s religious ways. Thus the day school as we know it today was born.

Holocaust survivors provided the student body for an explosion in day schools all over the country. Pioneers of Jewish education were quick to respond to the sudden change in demographics, established day schools and sent their best educators to cities all over America.

That stopped the hemorrhaging of Jews leaving Judaism. But the damage had been done. Even though the day school phenomenon had turned the tide and religious Jews growing in number, the numbers of Jews whose parents and grandparents had immigrated to this country and stayed religious was minuscule.

Even after over six decades of Orthodox growth I believe the percentage of non observant Jews in this country is still well over 90%! Intermarriage is at an all time high. The only segment of Jewry that is growing is the Orthodox minority. Other Jewish segments are declining in population.

The swing away from the melting pot society of the 60s helped a bit. Everything is about ethnic pride now. There are more Jews than ever finding their roots and becoming observant. But I believe that number is tiny by comparison to those opting out of any connection to their Judaism.

How does one combat this? How can we get assimilated Jews in the 21st century to return to their roots and appreciate their heritage? Is it too late? Should we just be resigned to the eventual loss of the majority of our people and concentrate on building from within?

There are some people who suggest that we have no choice but to do that. The numbers are simply too great to change anything. They argue that the future of Judaism is in teaching the children of the already committed. Not that they eschew outreach. They do believe it should be done, but they believe – with some justification – that the percentages of Jews that we can reach is tiny and that most assimilated Jews simply do not care that they are Jewish.

The entertainment media that is filled with many Jewish screenwriters are constantly portraying intermarriage in a positive light – in many cases reflecting their own marital situations. That certainly helps to explain the increasingly high intermarriage rate.

It is interesting to note that both the Conservative and Reform movement have noted the decline of their own numbers and have tried to combat it in ways that are almost opposite of their original principles. Many Reform leaders are openly advocating Mitzvah observance albeit voluntarily. Conservative leaders have looked at the success of Orthodoxy and realize that it is very much tied to the kind of education we give our children. They have therefore had a major push in setting up their own day schools. Even the Reform movement has tried to set up religious day schools for their children.

The question is what do we Orthodox Jews do about all this? Do we just keep doing what we have and ‘tend to ourselves’ leaving it outreach organizations to do what they can with their limited results (as a percentage of the whole)?

My answer to that is no. Kol Yiosroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh. We cannot in good conscience write of 90% of American Jewry – millions of people! First we should not only support the current outreach organizations but redouble our commitment to them.

But I believe we can do more. The answer is to promote the day school. Jewish education should be the goal of all young Jews starting from nursery school through at least high school. We Orthodox ought to stop being so self centered and open up our doors. We ought to hearken back to the beginning of the day school movement and invite all Jewish children in.

Instead of closing doors via the current elitism that plagues us we ought to be opening doors. If Beis Yehuda in the Detroit of the 50s and 60s could have a student base where 70% comes from non observant homes, there is no reason we can’t have the same thing today.

There is enough money to do it. To paraphrase Orthodox feminist Blu Grenberg: If there is a rabbinic will there will be a financial way. The problem isn’t so much financial as it is motivational. We need to be motivated ourselves and we need to motivate assimilated parents to allow their children to attend such schools. If the educational pioneers could convince the assimilated parents of the melting pot 50s and 60s, how much more so should we be able to convince the ethnic conscious assimilated parents of today.

Where will the money come from? Consider that since its founding an organization that was created to do just that spent $65 million since its founding. They were in the main unsuccessful. But their failure should not be looked at as the last best hope - and then abandoned. I believe that in the right hands it could be more successful than their wildest dreams.

The leaders of that organization need to think out of their current box and look to some of the early pioneers for ways to go about it. We may not get every Jew in America to return to their heritage. But we can certainly do better than abandoning 90% of American Jewry.

Exactly how we go about it is above my pay grade. The devil is definitely in the details. But if enough of our best and brightest from the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy put their heads together, you never know what can be achieved. That will take Achdus – which has always been an elusive goal. But what better way to achieve Achdus than with this?