Hillel centers on university campuses were viewed not long ago as little more than the local Jewish hangout, a place where students could come for kosher meals or socialize with other Jews. But in a move that Hillel leaders say has been forced upon them by this generation's altered social landscape, the organization is throwing open its doors to everyone, designing programs that appeal to Jews and non-Jews and hyping its contribution to university -- not only Jewish -- life.
Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage argue for increasing Jewish educational opportunities, encouraging Jewish behaviors among both intermarried and inmarried Jews and opening the doors even further to intermarried couples and their children.
But this is 21st century America, not 18th century Poland or 20th century Germany. Pew tells us that Americans are switching religions like never before. Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000-year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage and our dwindling numbers?
The principal authority for contemporary American Jews, in the absence of compelling religious norms and communal loyalties, has become the sovereign self. Each person now performs the labor of fashioning his or her own self, pulling together elements from the various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available rather than stepping into an "inescapable framework" of identity -- familial, communal, traditional -- given at birth. Decisions about ritual observance and involvement in Jewish institutions are made and made again, considered and reconsidered, year by year, and even week by week. American Jews speak of their lives, and of their Jewish beliefs and commitments, as a journey of ongoing questioning and development. They avoid the language of arrival. There are no final answers, no irrevocable commitments.
The results of a new study, "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel," on young American Jews' attitudes toward Israel, were released recently, and the news is disheartening. These Jews, who represent American Judaism's prospects in the next generation, are growing increasingly alienated from Israel, the study finds. They are less concerned with its welfare than previous generations and, unbelievably, less comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.
For years, I've read predictions of doom about the future of American Jewish life, and I've always guessed that the authors of those doomsday scenarios hadn't visited many Jewish day schools. Those of us who do on a daily basis are able to take a magic carpet into the future, where we can see the children of today becoming the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.
In last week's column I proposed addressing the pain of Jewish women approaching the end of their childbearing years who cannot find a Jewish mate. One solution, I wrote, would be to encourage them to date non-Jews, and for our rabbis and community leaders to create pathways for inclusion and conversion for the non-Jewish partners. The idea sparked dozens of responses pro and con, and in fairness to the idea's detractors (and supporters) we reprint a sample on these pages, with a brief coda by me.
And other letters to the Editor.
I know too many beautiful, brilliant single Jewish women in their 30s and 40s.
As I, along with millions of others, sped through "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," I found myself picking up on more than a few new spells and the ingenuity of J.K. Rowling's enthralling writing (don't worry -- it's safe to read on. No spoilers here).
The Bronfman Foundation, which sponsored the conference last week in Deer Valley, Utah, is set to launch something called the Bronfman Vision Forum that will offer new ways to invigorate and revitalize Jewish life, and this conference was designed to help generate new ideas and programs, and, yes, more conferences. What an endearing and Jewish idea -- that talking will save the Jewish people.
You can't talk about Jewish philanthropy without talking about Jewish priorities. For many years now, a huge priority for the American Jewish community has been to fight assimilation -- what is elegantly called "Jewish continuity." It's a priority that is rarely challenged. How do you argue against Jewish continuity?
The Jewish world has a problem with the way Renee Kaplan defines herself: half-Jewish. Kaplan, a television producer in her mid-30s, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who was raised Jewish.
A friend sent me an e-mail telling me I "can't miss" this Jerusalem rabbi's one-man show Sunday night at Beth Jacob Congregation. I opened the e-mail a few minutes before show time, so, on a whim, I ran over to catch "The Four Faces of Israel," starring Rabbi Benji Levene. After two hours of Benji, my head was spinning.
She was absolutely right. Movements don't start with specifics or 10-point plans. They start with people meeting up and talking. Ideas are generated, plans are made and one day, action is taken. It's a slow process. This is where Reboot is now. Perhaps from this generation -- prompted by leaders like Levin -- an articulate minority will emerge and point the Jewish community in a fresh direction, just as Heschel and Herzl did many years ago.
The grunion were running last weekend, so I went down to the Venice Beach breakwater just before midnight to watch them mate. The sight of thousands of slim, silvery fish wiggling desperately out of the surf and struggling to spawn before the next wave crashed upon them made me think, of course, of those birthright Israel trips.
In the past decade, as Jewish leaders grapple with how assimilation and intermarriage have affected the numbers of Jews, many Jewish organizations, temples and synagogues are increasing efforts to reach out to teach Judaism -- both to secular and unaffiliated Jews, as well as to interfaith families.
Charles Dickens' classic, "A Tale of Two Cities," begins with the famous line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Sociologist Steven Cohen's new study on intermarriage has a similar title but a different spirit.
The call for "Jewish continuity" sounded by American Jewish communal leaders more than a decade ago as an antidote to rising intermarriage rates and other signs of weakening identity has spawned a veritable industry aimed at making American Jews more Jewish. There has been an ever-more impressive array of endeavors to promote day schools, send kids to Israel, transform synagogues and bolster adult Jewish learning, to name just a few.