No need to move the goalposts

By Rabbi Daniel Rowe, June 11, 2013

Cecil Roth ended his History of the Jews with a challenge: "Throughout our history, there have been weaker elements who have shirked the sacrifices which Judaism entailed. They have been swallowed, long since, in the great majority; only the more stalwart have carried on the traditions of their ancestors, and can now look back with prideā€¦ Are we to be numbered with the weak majority, or with the stalwart minority? It is for ourselves to decide."

Apathy, assimilation and intermarriage present some of the greatest challenges to Jewish survival today. One approach is to redraw the goal posts, and embrace intermarriage. Its short-term benefit is as obvious as its long-term cost; it is the approach of the "weak majority". However well-intentioned it may be, it is the road to disappearance.

There is another approach, and that is to re-invigorate the Jewish connection of those who are disaffiliating. In contrast to defeatism, this approach believes that being Jewish is a privilege, and that intermarriage is cause for concern but not despair; that the battle for the Jewish future can be won.

Focusing on revitalising the community, does not mean saying goodbye to those who have left. Conversion should be encouraged where it is sincere. There are few things more incredible than watching the experience of a convert as they learn more and more about the beauty of Judaism, typically bringing their Jewish partner up with them. Nevertheless, when we stop asking how we stem the tide of intermarriage and begin finding ways to simply live with it, we admit defeat in the battle for Jewish continuity.

In every generation, people have argued that Judaism was not sufficiently "with the times". The Roman historian Tacitus mocked Judaism for repudiating infanticide. Christian thinkers mocked Jews for maintaining belief in a return to Israel, while 19th-century German academics saw Judaism as far behind humanist secular ideals. In each generation the "weak majority" submitted to the criticism and assimilated out of Jewish history. The "stalwart" re-invigorated their Jewish life in the face of challenge.

The fight for the Jewish future can be won

Today, we enjoy the freedom to do as we please, the wealth to buy what we want, and the technology to create what we like. But freedom does not tell us how to achieve dignity. Wealth does not bring fulfilment and technology cannot tell us what purpose we are here for. Judaism teaches us how to make every aspect of time special and how to utilise every moment to become a greater person.

Many areas of the community are in demographic decline, but there are rays of hope. The Charedi success in bucking the trend is often dismissed as being due to isolationism, but the observant modern Orthodox communities have also enjoyed strong growth. And there is increasing evidence that Orthodox educational organisations are having a strong impact. Young people are increasingly recognising that Judaism is dynamic, exhilarating and more relevant than ever.

As a community, we have invested strongly in shuls so that there are places where Jews could be Jewish. We have invested in formal education so that young Jews know how to be Jewish. We must not now forget to invest in ensuring that they know why they should be Jewish, something that is achieved at home and via informal education programmes. This is not theory. It has been borne out in practice.

While parts of the mainstream community are disappearing, there is a strong counter-trend. In recent years, the groundswell of informal activity in our schools and communities has grown enormously. On campuses, hundreds attend weekly Jewish learning and leadership programmes. Countless young Jews are rediscovering the beauty of Judaism. If anything, this is a time for optimism.

If Jewish history has taught us anything, it is that what seems impossible today is more often than not the outcome of tomorrow. The quiet revolution taking place in our schools, campuses and young professional communities is encouraging. If nurtured properly it can help shape our future in a way that seemed unthinkable just a decade ago.

There will always be naysayers, defeatists and cynics. Some will mean well. But the immortal words of Herzl must be our response: "If you will it, it is not a dream."

Rabbi Rowe is education director of Aish UK

Last updated: 9:45am, June 11 2013