Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing

Intermarriage, Anti-Semitism

Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


 Most American Jews don't worry 
about intermarriage, assimilation
 or anti-Semitism—Rabbi Kula

San Diego Jewish Times,  Jan. 12, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says three big issues that Jewish institutions worry about—intermarriage, assimilation, and anti-Semitism—make little difference to most American Jews. 

“There is a large disconnect between the institutional part of Jewish life and people who are just Jews,” he told the San Diego Jewish Times during a recent telephone interview from New York.

Kula doesn’t blame the “just Jews.”  He blames the people who run the institutions.  To a large degree, he said, these three issues are ways that institutional Jews avoid their own real problems.

Kula, who will serve as the scholar-in-residence Feb. 4-6 at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, said of intermarriage: “It is the giant issue of deflection by the organized Jewish community.  It is much easier to obsess, agonize about intermarriage than to worry about whether Judaism is making a difference to you, yourself.

“Judaism is not doing anything for most people,” the Conservative rabbi declared.

“Rather than actually engage the question of ‘how is Judaism really, intellectually, helping me on my journey to grow and evolve’—which is a very challenging question—the inside of the Jewish community is in stasis, instead deflecting on the problem of the intermarried.”

He agrees that the high rate of intermarriage will change the Jewish community, but “rather than addressing what kind of difference that will make, they (institutional Jews) simply say, ‘intermarriage is the end of the Jewish people.’ For the first 1,000 years, we had intermarriage!”

He said the low rate of affiliation “is the same problem, but a problem in different clothes. We have something new happening in America—you no longer have to officially affiliate to have an identity… American Jewish Committee statistics say that 93 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish.  It might have been 30 percent in the 1950s.  

”We don’t have an individual problem, we have an institutional problem,” he reiterated.  “They don’t need to institutionally affiliate to be Jewish.  They feel psychologically Jewish already. Once there was only one way to play out your Jewishness—to be a member of a synagogue. Now you can go to a Barnes and Noble and find books…or you can download it from the internet.  Because of the technology and communication—all the changes on the ground—what it means to affiliate has fundamentally changed.”

The issue of anti-Semitism, at least in America, “is the most pathological deflection of all,” Kula said.  “When Auschwitz, or (being called) ‘kike!’ create more connection than Torah and reflection, you have a pathological problem.  By the way, France is different than America. If I am in France, I have a different Torah to teach. In America, there is a lot of ‘anti-other people’ before there is anti-Semitism. 

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an ADL; we should be haredi about anti-Semitism, but it won’t attract most Jews.  It’s just another way of being Jewish—there’s Conservative Judaism, philanthropic Judaism, fighting anti-Semitism Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Film Festival Judaism.”

Kula said when he visits congregations he often is asked by board members how they can attract more people to Shabbat services.  “I ask people on the board, how many of them are coming to Shabbat services.  Perhaps 10 percent. So I say the board and the synagogue match up.  If for one year straight, 20 percent of the board would come, 20 percent of the synagogue membership will.”

The fact of the matter is, “most Jews who make programs don’t come to the programs that they create, and that is the dirty little secret,” Kula said.  “The programs that they are creating are boring to them…

“When you really get down and dirty, for the people who really are at the inside of Jewish life—‘Jewish’ is not actually doing anything for them.  We have this odd thing—their psychic reward of Jewishness is to worry about other people’s Jewishness.”

Judaism, Kula contends, “is the radical challenge to be constantly evolving ethically and spiritually.  If you are satisfied and have decided the real issue is not yourself, but someone else, than YOU have lost the connection.”

On the other hand, he said, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative congregation on New York City’s Upper West Side, packs in 3,000 people every Friday night.  “It doesn’t worry about outreach.  It believes in constantly challenging its own members to be more spiritual, more loving.  Here is who we are.  It is so engaging, people want to come.”

In other communities, he said, the answer “might be the Jewish film festivals.  They are attracting thousands of people.  Why?  Because the people who organize them love Jewish film—it is their passion.  That’s true with book fairs too.  The people who push them love books!”

It’s not a question of building a better mousetrap, Kula says.  It’s a question of building something that you yourself love.  Then people will come!