Jewish Journal


The Shavuot Challenge: Connecting Liberal American Jewish Males to Jewishness

by Shmuel Rosner

May 14, 2013 | 5:15 am

Photo by Reuters

There’s no better and more timely reading recommendation for Shavuot eve than Patrilineal Descent in American Reform Judaism, a paper recently published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (which I incidentally work for, in case you didn’t know). Its author, Prof. Sylvia Barak Fishman, will give you a lot to think about as we enter the annual celebration most identified with the topic of Jewish conversion. “The American Jewish Reform movement’s 1983 Patrilineal Descent decision declaring that the children of Jewish fathers have the same Jewish status as the children of Jewish mothers affected all of American Judaism”, the paper states, and then attempts to understand the impact of this decision on American Judaism.

It's not a short paper, but it is definitely worthy of your time. If you read it, you will better understand why Reform Judaism decided to accept patrilineal descent thirty years ago, and what happened as a consequence in the three decades since the decision was reached. One of the most striking elements of the paper is the discussion of gender and the feminization of Judaism. The author sees a connection between patrilineal descent and the problem of the declining Jewishness of many families:

Both statistical and qualitative research show that Reform Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women are often deeply ambivalent about their Jewishness, and might be considered the “weak link” in American Jewish life today. The Jewish weaknesses of Patrilineal families are apparent in life cycle and social network aspects as well as religious aspects of Jewishness. Patrilineal Descent has brought more Jewish father/ non-Jewish mother families into Reform congregations, but it has not made intermarried Jewish fathers as a group more engaged by Jewishness…

In other words: if the assumption behind patrilineal descent was that there’s no difference between a Jewish mother and a Jewish father – namely, that one Jewish parent is one Jewish parent – then this assumption doesn’t quite stand scrutiny:

In intermarried Patrilineal Reform families, 30 % of Jewish fathers said they made decisions about their children’s religion on their own, with more than two-thirds of them (68 %) saying they and their non-Jewish wives made these decisions together. However, the answers were exactly and dramatically reversed in intermarried Matrilineal Reform families. Nearly two-thirds (64 %) of Reform mothers married to non-Jewish men said they made the decisions about their children’s religion by themselves.

While the study doesn’t make an ideological argument for or against the patrilineal decision, it does highlight some of its unintended results, with an eye on the needed improvements to policies enacted by Jewish institutions:

Patrlineal Descent accelerates declining numbers of mothers in Jewish families who identify as Jews in two ways: (1) It is associated with lower rates of conversion into Judaism by non-Jewish wives of Jews; and (2) It is associated with high rates of intermarriage in which there is no advantage to marrying a Jewish woman.

This can be problematic as “homes with Jewish mothers are statistically much more Jewishly active and connected than homes without Jewish mothers” and as “Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women--thus creating Patrilineal Jewish families -- are among the least Jewishly connected Jews in America today”.

Since no one seriously thinks that the Reform movement will reconsider its patrilineal policy – the policy isn’t an outreach tool that one can scrap if it doesn’t work well, but rather a decision based on core beliefs of its practitioners – there’s basically no other choice but to look for “strategies for connecting liberal American Jewish males -- including those in mixed married families – to Jewishness”.

Any ideas?

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