An Argument for Optimism

By David Manchester

Over the past few days, I have reread and attempted to internalize the October 1 piece, “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action.” I have learned from many of the prominent individuals identified as signatories of the piece, and I respect their work. Even so, I struggle to understand how they have developed their views as a result of the Pew report. In particular, I do not believe the sense of crisis they describe will generate the long-term engagement they seek. I believe we need to offer instead a positive vision for the role Jewishness can play in the lives of American Jews.

Take interfaith marriage. The signatories describe such marriages as a “challenge” – a very judgmental term – and call for an increase in conversion education, which often causes the non-Jewish partner to distance him/herself from the community. A framing focused strictly on the religious affiliation of whom Jews have fallen in love with ignores their childhood and their previous Jewish behaviors. In 2008, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies found that those who intermarry “had less intense Jewish upbringings than those who marry other Jews.” While we all have stories of family and friends who seem to be exceptions to this trend, it would be more beneficial to consider the impact of our Jewish educational institutions and how we can more effectively connect individuals with their Jewishness.

Notably, the Pew report actually describes many positive trends about initiatives in our community to welcome rather than ostracize interfaith families. For example, the findings of Theodore Sasson and colleagues demonstrate that we have greatly increased the rate at which children of interfaith marriage identify as Jews: Almost 60% of 18 to 29 year olds of interfaith marriages currently identify as Jewish. This is up from 25% of those 65 and older, and just under 40% for those 30 to 64 years old. (This increase likely does not capture the full impact of initiatives following the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-1 as the cohort born since those changes were enacted are still too young to be surveyed.) Labeling interfaith couples a “challenge” minimizes the ways in which many of those parents have instilled an appreciation and love of Judaism in their children. We need to create a community where they are welcome. If we continue to use the term “challenge” when speaking about interfaith couples, we can only blame ourselves when their children feel less connected to their Jewish roots.

We, as a community, are becoming numb to the constant call to crisis. My involvement in Jewish causes is not due to a fear about the future of the American Jewish community; rather, I have committed my time, my money and my career to working in the American Jewish community because my Jewishness has substantially improved my life, and I believe that future generations will also benefit from this work. I work in the community for positive reasons, not out of a fear of the negative.

Nonprofit organizations often discuss mission, vision, and values. Instead of running from crisis to crisis and pointing fingers, I believe it is time we clearly state the positive vision we seek for the future of the American Jewish community and identify the role we hope Jewishness plays in individuals’ lives. In the absence of positive vision professionals, donors, and community members can rally around, I fear we will only prove these alarmists correct.

David Manchester is a Ph.D. student at Brandies University’s Heller School for Social Policy & Management where his studies focus on socio-demographic research, as well as program assessment and evaluation in the American Jewish community. He also works as a Graduate Research Associate for The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.