American Jews: Embrace Jewish Education, Not Apathy

This week on Slate I read a controversial piece: “American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated: Great News!” which was written about the recent Pew study on American Jews. The author, Gabriel Roth, tells American Jewry to embrace their secular, intermarried selves and that unless they’re Orthodox and believe, there’s no reason to keep this “race purity” going on. He explains that other than Orthodox Jews, Jews will stop existing soon, and that’s a good thing. (Oy!) Roth writes:

And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition—even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all. I’m not talking, here, to religious Jews, because their position is unarguable: If you believe that Jewish traditions are part of a covenant with God, of course you want your children to continue them.

Roth and I both agree that staying Jewish for “racial purity” is abominable and that staying Jewish due to conviction makes sense. But here’s my question: how does a Jew know if she believes in our traditions if she’s never been exposed to them in a meaningful way? Unfortunately, the vast majority of American Jews have no way to fairly gauge if they have any conviction about Jewish practices and beliefs because they never received a quality, relevant Jewish education.

Instead of “embracing our secularism,” isn’t it time that American Jews reclaim our “people of the bookhood” and equip ourselves and our children with enough information to make educated decisions about our Judaism? Every Jew should experience a traditional Shabbos and holidays at least once in his  life. Every Jewish person should take the time to learn Jewish texts in-depth from a teacher who is tapped into Jewish tradition.

But won’t that take a lot of commitment, you wonder? Darn straight it will! But you know what – so does getting a graduate degree, yet Jews are three and a half times more likely to get one than our non-Jewish counterparts. (35% compared to 10% of the general public.) We are an extremely educated bunch, except when it comes to our own books and traditions. The average Jew knows who Jesus’s mother was, not Moses. The average Jew doesn’t even know how to say the word “Jew” in Hebrew! For all the generations when it was illegal to study Torah and practice openly, Jews are finally free to do both, yet the vast majority of us couldn’t care less. Roth closes his piece by saying:

The most passionate anti-assimilationists sometimes say that Jews like me are “doing what Hitler couldn’t”—putting an end to Jewish culture once and for all. In fact, the dissolution of Jewishness into the mainstream is Hitler’s worst nightmare. Today’s American Jews have as great a shot at leading fulfilling lives as any people in human history. The fruits of Jewish culture are the gifts of Jews to the world, freely given. Over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end—not in tragedy but in triumph.

I’m all for Jews being able to freely engage in secular society – to give it our “fruits” and to have our lives enhanced by the parts of it which are “kosher” according to Jewish law. I would certainly not want to be forced back into a ghetto. But Roth, unfortunately, seems to think that the only options are living with observance or secular engagement. There are so many Orthodox Jews who are able to do both!

Hitler did not want Jews to intermingle with secular society, but he also abhorred our traditions and holy books. Wouldn’t engaging in the larger world AND holding true to our faith be the worst revenge? For our many ancestors throughout the ages who were willing to give up their lives to carry on our heritage, don’t we owe it to them to learn enough to possibly understand why they felt it was worth dying for? If we give it up without even trying to understand – why that would truly be a tragedy.

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  • Avatar photo Miriam Spunky Gaenicke says on October 11, 2013

    Interesting.. Controversial is right. The only thing i can think of is those who don't make an effort to integrate more into society. Many ethnic groups do this after they come here and live in their own communities. Yes, continuing the bloodline is important..but not so important that I am fearful my race is going to die out.. (granted there are 1B Indians), individually is different due to my intl adoption.

  • Avatar photo Sara Bram says on October 11, 2013

    Really excellent points. Well said!

  • Avatar photo Ali Hausman says on October 11, 2013

    Racial what? He obviously doesn't realize that Jews from in all races and colors.

  • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on October 11, 2013

    he doesn't believe in it. he's saying that there are anti-intermarriage Jews out there who believe in it for the sake of continuing the Jewish race (whatever that is).

  • Avatar photo Simon Lissak says on October 11, 2013

    If you believe the Torah God made a promise that he'd never wipe his people out (Gen 9:11) and if you believe the Nach then Jeremiah said "as long as the sun comes up there will be descendants of Israel on earth! (Jeremiah 31:36ish)! It's not for nothing we have the saying… They tried to kill us… we won… lets eat!

  • Avatar photo Flora says on October 11, 2013

    Your approach is excellent. and I totally agree. we do not need all Jews to become observant. We need all Jews to — at least at one time in their life- have a deep experience of observance and the celebration that is Jewish life. Then they can decide if it means something to them. I wish someone observant would make THIS message somehow really out there for all the non observant Jews. Someone with the skills to be a guide for Jews who want to do their “graduate studies” in Judaism, their “semester abroad” into their own culture…so that at least when they leave it behind, they are choosing.
    If they could all spend one month in an observant rich Jewish community life…
    Prayers for this perspective to grow.

  • Avatar photo Raising Them Jewish says on October 21, 2013

    I also think that Roth’s prespective may be a touch sad. I was raised Conservative, married a non-Jew, but am raising my children Jewish. Not just Jew-ish, but Jewish, religiously and culturally so. I don’t know that giving each Jew “should experience a traditional Shabbos and holidays at least once in his life. Every Jewish person should take the time to learn Jewish texts in-depth from a teacher who is tapped into Jewish tradition.”

    However, I do agree that it’s time for people to understand what they come from. I’ve seen friends turn Christian because they want a community of people without once taking the time to walk back into synagogue or celebrate Shabbat. I think it’s important for every Jew to have Jewish experiences before giving them up.

  • Avatar photo David J. says on March 31, 2014

    But don’t you realize that there are A LOT of jewish people who have been exposed to orthodox lifestyle and have intentionally rejected it? I applaud Mr. Roth for giving a voice to the millions of secular jewish people who are secular BY CHOICE. Not because we haven’t been exposed to it, but exactly because we have been and reject it either as meaningless, false, immoral, irrelevant or ancient. Whatever the reason, it is so very typical of fanatics like yourself to say that the only/main reason that secular jews are secular jews is because they haven’t been exposed to orthodoxy. All liberal jewish people I know who reject fanatical religion in favor of autonomy and free will do so as a freedom of choice, their choice to embrace equality, worldliness, freedom and personal autonomy. Many are grateful to be born into liberal families who value equality of genders and people of all sexual orientations, and far more orthodox people leave the fold to escape your observance than those who are “enlightened” and join. And it is very well documented that kiruv organizations pray on vulnerable young people so you can’t count them as enlightened either. Anyway, those who practice by their choice are, of course, free to do so, but your assertion that it is simply because they’ve had no exposure is typically ignorant. Keep writing, Mr. Roth. The sooner all humans stop labelling eachother and focus on being good people, the better!!

    • Avatar photo Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on April 1, 2014

      “But don’t you realize that there are A LOT of jewish people who have been exposed to orthodox lifestyle and have intentionally rejected it?”

      Yup. I guess Allison’s not talking about them, is she? Here’s what she says:

      “…equip ourselves and our children with enough information to make educated decisions about our Judaism.”

      She doesn’t commit that every Jewish person will choose Orthodoxy, she only advocates for the opportunity for Jews to know what their options are. (And that’s bad because…?)

      Oddly, you advocate that “all humans stop labelling eachother and focus on being good people” but you call Allison a “fanatic” and label my faith “meaningless, false, immoral, irrelevant (and) ancient.” (I’ll grant you that it’s ancient. We actually like that about it.) Nobody is begrudging you the right to make your choices and live your life as you see fit but you seem to have a problem if others do so!

      • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on April 2, 2014

        Thanks for your comment, David J. I’m just wanted to jump in to clarify some points. As Rabbi Abramowitz noted, I was not saying that everyone would automatically choose observance. If you look at the title, I suggested Jews “embrace education” not “embrace belief and observance.” I said we should “equip ourselves and our children with enough information to make educated decisions about our Judaism.”

        I’ve seen time and time again that there are countless Jews who begin learning say “wow – why did no one ever tell me about this?” It’s how I felt. It was a sense of being robbed. And all I’m saying is that with knowledge one has power and the ability to choose how much or how little they want of Judaism in their life.

        I’m OK with a Jew rejecting Judaism. I believe in free will. I believe we all must find our own way. What kills me is when the rejection comes without fully understanding what the concepts and mitzvos are about.

        In terms of my considering myself a fanatic, DEFINITELY not! I consider myself open-minded, non-judgmental, moderate, “normal,” and relatable. I am *passionate* about my Judaism as I had a beautiful, happy secular life beforehand, but realized that it was leading up to nothing but a grave six feet under! And so I live and I learn Judaism in a passionate, mindful way.

        But the purpose of Jew in the City is not to “convince” people to be like me. It’s to address the stereotypes. To reclaim the term “Orthodox” since it’s been hijacked by fanatics who beat people up and cover up molestation (and more!) and for me to give anyone who’s interested in learning more a look into my happy, meaningful observant Jewish life.

        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on April 3, 2014

          I don’t think that Orthodox kids should be sheltered from the world. My kids know a lot about what’s out there. They know that bacon is delicious and that Christmas lights are beautiful. And as they get older they will learn in school and college about other religions and cultures.

          The biggest difference, though, between your example and mine is that I believe we have a national responsibility to know where we come from. We are a people who anti-Semites in every generation have tried to destroy. And while we are free to walk away from it should we choose to. But I believe that we should at least know what it is we are walking away from.

          • Avatar photo Nathaniel Wyckoff says on January 8, 2023

            Allison, you are erudite, eloquent, articulate, and spot-on. Yes, it’s sad to see that so many don’t know what they are rejecting. Of course, we’re not interested in coercing people to carry out rituals by rote, but true education and immersive experiences that expose Jews to the beauty and truth of their heritage can be vey beneficial.

            I’m glad to have finally discovered Jew in the City, and look forward to reading more!

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