Wednesday, July 20, 2011


As noted in the Forward and other publications – a survey conducted every 10 years by the Chicago Jewish Federation produced some interesting statistics this year. For one thing Chicago’s Jewish population has increased to almost 300,000 Jews. This is an increase of more than 21,000 people. That’s an increase of 8% compared to an overall population increase of 3.5%. But that is not what piqued my interest. It was the following:

Intermarriage had increased from 30 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2010, and that more than 90,000 of the 148,100 Jewish households had at least one non-Jewish member.

This was followed by another interesting – almost opposite observation:

86 percent of children aged 6-18 have had a formal Jewish education and nearly all the respondents said that being Jewish was important to them.

If this isn’t a clarion call to action nothing is. A while back I wrote about the comparatively little outreach being done in Orthodoxy. With the exception of Chabad and a few very fine but targeted outreach organizations like NCSY there is almost an opposite attitude among Frum Jews. It is a separatist view that encourages isolation and near enmity – an almost ‘them versus us’ mentality. The word ‘Unzere’ used in Jewish parlance tells us that story.

Unzere’ is a Yiddish word meaning ‘ours’. In certain religious circles that word is meant as ‘our people’ which implies a pejorative and exclusionary attitude about anyone that isn’t like their own narrowly defined segment of Jewry. It not only excludes secular Jews, it excludes even major segments of Orthodox Jews!

Excluding other Shomer Shabbos Jews is in and of itself a major problem contributing to much of the divisiveness in the Torah world. But that is a separate issue. As it effects the statistics quoted about intermarriage on the one hand - and on the other the importance of being Jewish expressed by nearly all respondents in the survey – this attitude is the opposite of outreach. It is in not only a missed opportunity I see it as an accelerant. It accelerates the exit of Jews from Judaism.

This is not to say that I blame the increased intermarriage rate on this ‘Unzere’ attitude. There are other reasons for that. But I do blame that attitude for contributing to it.

If being Jewish is important to secular Jews, don’t we have an obligation to enlighten them as to what being Jewish really means? Instead of separating ourselves from them shouldn’t we be inviting them in to our world and showing them the beauty of an observant lifestyle?

This does not mean we barge into our neighbors home and force observance down their throats. But it does mean inviting them over for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal. And in general being warm and welcoming to them without criticizing their unobservant ways. We should instead be teaching by example – showing them how beautiful the lifestyle of a religious family is like, how our children turn out – most of whom get married and have beautiful family lives themselves. It’s called teaching by example.

I can’t tell you how many times a secular Jew has expressed envy. He sees my children living normal family lives while their children are off doing their thing. Some of them intermarrying and others never getting married but living together with a significant other – which sometimes means a lifestyle that is anything but normal.

How often have I had a secular parent tell me that the only child they have any Nachas from is the one who became a Baal Teshuva. That is the one who got married and had a family. Their other children are single and following career or lifestyle paths that precludes having a family. Sometimes this includes leading a self indulgent and even immoral and self destructive lifestyle.

Of course this isn’t always true. There are many fine young secular families out there perhaps even the majority. But in my experience with parents and siblings of Baalei Teshuva versus parents and siblings of religious Jews- a religious upbringing brings a greater chance of one’s children leading a normal family life.

There are many ways to reach out to our fellow Jew that do not require much effort. By coincidence, Rabbi Avi Shafran posted his recent article in Ami Magazine at Cross-Currents with one such example. But outreach by example works best. However one must engage with their Jewish neighbors in order for them to see it.

Nearly all of Chicago’s’ Jews seem ripe for that. Being Jewish is important to them. And I don’t think that living in the Midwest has anything to do with that. I believe it is important to the vast majority of Jews all over the world. But the increase in intermarriage works against those feelings. It doesn’t have to be that way. Things can change if we change ‘Unzera’ to include all of us.