What is the biggest challenge facing the religion today?
by Howard Greenstein
of the major challenges facing the future vitality of Judaism in
America is the increasing incidence of mixed marriage. The
more reliable estimates of marital unions between Jews and non-Jews
now range as high as 40%. Despite the efforts to
stem the tide of such matches, the trend is likely to continue if
not accelerate, given the mobility and openness of American society.
most reliable studies suggest that in the vast majority of cases
in which the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism, the children
of such marriages are raised as Jews, the outcome is not nearly
so encouraging in cases where there is no conversion. Nearly three-quarters
of children raised in such families go on to marry non-Jews themselves,
and only 4% of these raise their own children as Jews. As for their
links with Jewish life, only a minority of children raised by dual-religion
parents identify themselves with Judaism or with the institutions
of the Jewish community. Like their parents, most tend not to join
synagogues, contribute to Jewish causes, visit Israel or participate
in Jewish rituals nearly as much as do the children of in-married
any event, whatever the implications
of mixed marriage, its current phenomenal growth will inevitably
alter the current patterns of Jewish belief and practice.
Much will depend on the frequency of non-Jewish spouses converting
to Judaism and thereby ensuring a better prospect for Jewish continuity
in their own households. Curiously enough, a marriage in which one
partner is a Jew by choice usually results in equally strong ties
to Judaism as does a marriage in which both partners are Jews by
of the most compelling challenges of all in determining the future
form and content of Judaism in America is the impact of Israel.
For Jews in the Diaspora, Israel has served variously as a source
of identity, peoplehood, pride and dignity, as a potential haven
or a spiritual center, and for many others, as a surrogate for Judaism,
if not a “secular” religion. For Israel, Jews in America
and in other western democracies represent an irreplaceable source
of economic, moral and political support. They are also the most
fertile prospects for future immigration as well as for intellectual,
scientific and technological assistance. Israel and Diaspora Jewry,
especially American Jewry, are mutually dependent. Each is essential
to the other, and each exerts a reciprocal influence and cultural
pull on the other.
the same time, the two communities are not without their disagreements.
Some observers attribute those differences and difficulties to
problems in “communication.” In most instances however,
they do not entail problems of language; rather they reflect important
differences on basic issues of ideology.
those rifts evolve out of conflicting expectations about the goals
and purposes of a Jewish state. For
many American Jews, the policies of a Jewish state cannot be divorced
from the moral mandate of Jewish faith. For most
Israelis, the requirements of nationhood and those of Judaism are
entirely separate. And in the eyes of many, both in Israel and the
Diaspora, “ne’er the twain shall meet.”
will challenge the proposition that Israel will continue to play
a central role in Jewish life. The real question is whether or not
that role will exhaust all other indigenous creative ventures within
American Jewry. Certainly the centrality of Israel is paramount
in providing physical and spiritual insurance for Jews in the Diaspora,
and in serving as an immediate haven for those Jewish communities
already in distress.
also serves as the world center to preserve, embody and renew Jewish
traditions and values, to preserve and perpetuate Jewish history
and to infuse new life into Jewish culture. It is the central address
for Jewish existence in the world today which binds all Jews into
a single, unified community.
This mutual responsibility among Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere
is not just a theoretical proposition for public debate. It is a
major building block for more intelligent and productive insights
into the meaning of Jewish identity. The horizon of the American
Jew is no longer limited by two oceans. It now encompasses the whole
the depth of their convictions and the quality of their Jewish lives
will depend upon their own initiative as well as circumstances impossible
to anticipate, American Jews will still find inspiration in knowing
that their covenant with God has endured the best and worst of times.
With sufficient faith and determination, it always will.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.