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Op-Ed: Stemming the Tide

The results of the United States National Jewish Population Survey, delineating an aging, shrinking and increasingly intermarried Jewish population are not surprising, but are nevertheless alarming. They represent the extension of trends previously spelled out in the 1990 population survey, especially in terms of assimilation and its offshoot, intermarriage, and the steady loss of Jews from our sm
Published: Sunday, September 21, 2003 7:58 PM


The results of the United States National Jewish Population Survey, delineating an aging, shrinking and increasingly intermarried Jewish population are not surprising, but are nevertheless alarming. They represent the extension of trends previously spelled out in the 1990 population survey, especially in terms of assimilation and its offshoot, intermarriage, and the steady loss of Jews from our small population.

The real value of this kind of survey is not merely a listing of statistics, but appearing as it does before Rosh Hashanah, serves as a shofar call to awaken the Jewish community to what it must do. Let us face the facts - once an individual chooses to marry a person of another faith, that person is almost certainly lost to the Jewish community, as are the children from that marriage. Lighting Chanukah candles once a year is symbolism, but it does not make a child Jewish - particularly if the Chanukah candles are in front of a Christmas tree.

As we know, when the 1990 study was published, the Jewish community was shocked and galvanized into action - yet more than a decade later the figures are still so grim. We understand that the results would have been even worse had these actions not been taken, but we as a community have a long way to go to stem the tide of indifference and lack of pride in one's Jewish heritage that have produced this demographic debacle.

We therefore propose a four-part plan to attack the community's demographic ills. Our plan is as follows:

* Jewish Education: This is the number one priority. Education should be emphasized in all of its forms, both formal education in Jewish schools, and informal programs, such as camping and Israel trips. The OU's highly successful National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) for years has emphasized these informal approaches, directed both at Orthodox teenagers and non-observant or unaffiliated young men and women. These programs work. In contrast to American Jewish society as a whole, the intermarriage rate of involved NCSY members is close to zero.

The emphasis on Jewish education must include not only its quality and expansion, but its funding as well, as tuition costs continue to climb, making formal Jewish education unattainable for many families and causing severe economic consequences for others.

* Strengthening of Synagogues: Synagogues have to determine how best to relate to their communities, how to build their congregations, how to improve programming for all levels of observance, and how to be friendly and welcoming places. The OU's Department of Community and Synagogue services will redouble its efforts with our synagogues on these approaches, providing advice and programming; working with them on building leadership; creating more opportunities for positive growth both individually and communally; and ultimately bringing them closer to our Torah and to Jews worldwide.

* Strengthening and Encouraging the Jewish Family: Assimilation and intermarriage do not happen overnight. The Jewish family is the first defense against these threats to the community. The Jewish community must emphasize programs to help singles marry other Jews, to help families flourish, to help them cope with their challenges, to give them resources to turn to. To give two examples: For the past several years, the OU has presented highly successful programs nationally in positive parenting; this summer, a successful pilot program was held for strengthening healthy marriages.

* Outreach Programs Must Reach Out Further: We must intensify contacts with indifferent Jews, adults as well as young people, and develop programs for them. NCSY is an example of how to interact with youth. Even as we serve Orthodox youth through NCSY, we will increase our emphasis on outreach to Jewish young men and women who know little or nothing of their heritage. The purpose of NCSY outreach efforts is to make these young people aware of the beauties of Jewish life and observance, of the richness of their traditions, of the importance of Israel in the life of the Jewish people, of the delight of the Sabbath and the holidays, and of the way they can live as committed Jews and still be modern young adults. NCSY makes it clear that you can be young, cool, aware and a devoted Jew.

This is not a problem any one of us on our own can solve. The community as a whole must devote its resources toward assuring improved results in the next survey.

Let us all respond, therefore, to this tekiah gedolah of the National Jewish Population Survey with a concerted effort to step up our work to preserve the Jewish people as an integral part of American society ? to see us grow, to see us flourish and to produce a community imbued with the beauties of our Jewish heritage and with the goal to live our lives as devoted Jews.