Monday, 17 February 2014

American Jewry Not Going Anywhere, So Stop the Panic Attacks Already!

I recently came across an article in an Israeli publication saying that American Jewry could cease to exist within a generation:

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4488219,00.html

The headline is very unnerving, especially if you don't go on and read the whole article, which doesn't actually say that U.S. Jewry won't exist within the next generation, but rather that the majority of U.S. Jews will not be considered Jewish under the Halacha, or Jewish religious law.  This law requires that a person have a Jewish mother for him or her to be considered Jewish.  My immediate reaction to this impending reality is this: so what!?

Now, you may be asking why I'm so dismissive of this issue and why I'm not worried about the fate of U.S. Jewry (or Canadian Jewry for that matter).  One reason is simply that the Jewish communities in both the U.S. and Canada have never been stronger and more vibrant.  Only Israel has a larger Jewish community than the U.S.  In fact, it was only a few years ago that Israel's Jewish population eclipsed that of American Jews. 

Another reason is that in this day and age, I don't think we need rabbis telling us who is a Jew and who isn't, and I think there are many American (and Canadian) Jews who will agree with me on this.  Unfortunately, there are still quite a few people that still think that there is only one way to be Jewish.  This is particularly the case in Israel where Orthodox Judaism continues to retain a monopoly on the personal status of the country's Jewish citizens.  I am Israeli myself and I honestly can't stand the fact that my country gladly accepts the moral and financial support of Diaspora Jews, but then says to these Jews that the State of Israel does not consider them Jewish because they belong to a non-Orthodox congregation.  Such hypocrisy is beyond me.  In fact, all non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora could conceivably withhold their support for Israel based on the fact that the way they practice Judaism is not accepted by the Jewish state, and this withdrawal of support would be legitimate.  But of course, neither I nor any other person who values the continued existence of the Jewish nation would advocate such a boycott because we know how important Israel is to the present and the future of the Jewish people, despite its shortcomings.

Yes, I understand that many Jews are concerned about preserving Jewish identity.  All peoples of the world are concerned with maintaining their identities, especially peoples whose very existence has been historically threatened.  I still contend, however, that as Jews, we need to be less rigid about who we consider to be members of our community.  So I reject the notion that to be Jewish is to shun everything that is not Jewish.  Such intolerance and rigidity leads not to the continued growth and prosperity of a people, but rather to its demise.  I point to the dwindling Samaritan community in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as a case in point.  Because of their refusal to welcome others into their community and their refusal to be less rigid about who they consider to be members of their community, their ability to grow and replenish their population has been extremely impaired, even to the extent that birth defects among their people are becoming more and more common since the members of the sect refuse to intermarry.  This is certainly not the future that we want for the Jewish people.

For those of you who are having a panic attack because you hear about growing rates of intermarriage and Jews with Christmas trees in their homes, your extreme anxiety is unwarranted, and I'll explain why.  Some of you may be old enough to remember the when you were forced to say the Lord's Prayer in school and when saying, "Merry Christmas", was a lot more common than the more politically correct "Happy Holidays".  Ask yourself, did saying the Lord's Prayer or partaking in the celebrations of another religion's holidays make you any less of a Jew?  My mother recited the Lord's Prayer when she went to school.  In fact, she even allowed the nannies who lived with us during my childhood to have a Christmas tree in our home, and she didn't have any issue taking me or my siblings to the mall during the holidays to sit on Santa's knee.  Yet, my mother is a strong advocate of preserving Jewish traditions, whether that means celebrating Jewish holidays, like Passover and Rosh Hashana, or simply remembering to light candles on Friday nights.  My point is that being immersed in other cultures and traditions does not have to make you less Jewish, unless of course you allow it to.

Also, contrary to what many Jews still believe, I do not feel that it is necessary to belong to a synagogue to maintain your Jewishness in the Diaspora.  Yes, the synagogue is still a main focal point for Jewish communal life, but it certainly isn't the only one.  There are countless Jewish clubs, societies, associations and other groups throughout the U.S. and Canada that Jews can be participate in if they want to feel part of the greater Jewish community.  Hence, it is not necessary for a Jewish individual or family to spend a small fortune every year to be members of a synagogue. 

In fact, I even think it is possible to be a Jew without being one from a religious aspect.  Yes, that means I think it is possible for someone to be a Jew while adhering to another religion or without adhering to any religion at all.  For those of you who are familiar with Jewish history, you know that in ancient times, Jews adhered to other religious traditions aside from their own and yet remained Jews in an ethnic and cultural sense.  I should also mention that intermarriage was not shunned, even by our greatest leaders. King Solomon, for example, married the daughter of Egypt's Pharaoh to cement an alliance with his kingdom's southern neighbour.  And let's not forget his famous love affair with the Queen of Sheba.  Coming back to our own time, we should remember that many leaders and organizations in the Zionist movement shunned religious traditions and preferred to focus on the cultural aspects of being Jewish.  So if our ancestors, both in the ancient and near past, could define being Jewish as something other than observing religious traditions, why can't we?

Don't get me wrong, I think being concerned about the continued existence of the Jewish people is perfectly reasonable.  But the threats to our existence come from dictators who talk of wiping our country off the map and from terrorists and antisemites who attack us and our cultural and religious institutions, not from people who aren't going to synagogue enough or who marry non-Jewish spouses.  


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