I really wanted to understand how non-Orthodox Jews are understanding this new Pew poll on Jewish identification. For us, it looks like an assimilation bomb went off, decimating American Jewry. It has essentially conformed our worse fears about the vast majority of our Jewish brothers and sisters disappearing into Assimilationville. Those of us in the rabbi field especially have had to do some soul searching about what we’ve been doing wrong and how we can address the problem and bring jews back to Judaism.
So far all of the articles I’ve seen from the non-Orthodox world, the trend I’ve been seeing overwhelmingly is one of denial. In possibly the worst example the Forward actually published an opinion piece that this was good news for the Jews! Even their math confused me, saying that intermarriage rates have leveled off at 22% when they said explicitly that Millenials are intermarrying at a rate of 30+%. And that’s the ones getting married. Forget about all of the people cohabiting and never getting married, which believe it or not isn’t a positive development. That’s for a different discussion though.
I wanted to take a better look one particular opinion piece, the one written by R’ Dan Moskovitz for the Jewish Journal. Unlike most of the pieces, he did acknowledge a problem, and not surprisingly as a Reform rabbi he suggested Reform was the answer. That’s a good thing since it means he believes in his product. The problem is that I am having trouble understanding why.
R’ Moskovitz fails to answer the #1 question that must be answered by anyone advocating for the Reform movement: why be Reform Jewish? Once upon a time, the three movements could ask among themselves which movement would a Jew like to belong to. It presupposed that a Jew would stay a Jew. The Pew poll should be the wake-up call that this simply isn’t true. We have to compete with Christianity and Buddhism, Scientology and well…nothing. Nothing is now an option whereas 50 years ago it really wasn’t as much. For any movement, religious or not, it has to explain in positive terms why out of all of the other possible groups. If you can’t do that you have nothing. You’re selling VIP*. The problem with selling VIP is eventually someone’s going to want a real product, and if you don’t have one then you won’t have customers, no matter how good your marketing campaign.
I can tell you exactly why to be an Orthodox Jew: we are the descendants of the Biblical Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and our ancestors were chosen from all of the nations of the World to enter into a direct covenant with G-d on Mount Sinai that we would be His witnesses on Earth and in return we would receive special considerations from Him. It’s a positive message, it’s a compact message, it’s a message to be proud of, and it doesn’t define us in terms of “the other”. If the non-Orthodox movements fail to do this then there is no amount of volunteer time, cultural programming, or money that will fix the problem, and only Orthodoxy will be able to offer a viable solution to the assimilation problem.
*I’m referring to the old Doris Day movie ‘Lover Come Back’. My wife made me watch it and I’m not saying anyone should but look it up if you don’t know the reference.