By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard ’round the world.
– from “Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837
With Independence Day just around the corner and Concord’s “shot heard ’round the world” still reverberating two hundred and thirty one years after the fact, the world may want to take note of a gathering that just took place in another part of America known for spawning revolutions. For like “the shot” immortalized in Emerson’s poem, this quintessentially American moment could well mark a civilizational watershed.
Whether its having transpired should be attributed to the decades of scholarly research and quiet preparations that preceded it, to Divine Providence, the dawn of the messianic age, or the California sun will surely be debated. But one thing is clear. On June 18, 2006, in Oxnard, California, Judaism enthusiastically reached out its arms to potential converts.
Invited by a small New York- and Jerusalem-based organization called The Eternal Jewish Family, non-Jews came from all across America and Canada, from all walks of life, and from a diversity of ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Sporting surnames like Gately, Wayne, James and Thompson, jobs like insurance salesman, high-school teacher and attorney, and hometowns like Bangor and Decatur, they could have easily been your next door neighbors.
Many of them brought their children. Others left them with relatives. Some had been trying to convert for years. Others were considering the idea for the first time. Most were able-bodied. Some were not. Yet all had one very special, typically American thing in common. They arrived in Oxnard two by two– each Gentile with his or her Jewish mate.
Intermarriages were once anything but “typically American.” Yet over the last quarter century, the nation that the Puritans imagined as a Second Hebrew Republic has been steadily loving-to-death the exiled remnants of the original one. The result is that today, fully half of all non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying.
Most Americans view this phenomenon with pride, as an affirmation of the nation’s most cherished democratic ideals, and further proof of American exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, reactions of Jewish-Americans range from alarmed to indifferent. But regardless of how anyone feels about it, demographers have made it clear that one of America’s most respected and productive communities is gradually headed out of business.
“Too bad,” one can (almost) imagine The New York Times opining one day:
“We loved our buffalos the same wayFare thee well blessed root that produced Jonas Salk, Sasha Cohen and Richard Feynman. Go softly golden source that gave us “God Bless America,” “Carousel,” and “Spring Is Here.” You had us worried there for a second, you alien, obdurate and discomfiting non-believers who despite yourselves blossomed Groucho Marx, Aaron Copeland and Arthur Miller.”
From a Jewish perspective, however, the most heartbreaking aspect may be that those intermarried Jews who, despite past decisions, fervently wish to retain their identity and their children’s identity as Jews are up against near impossible odds. These include the inescapable reality that there are few more serious violations of Jewish law than marriage to a non-Jew, that such marriages are condemned by the Bible and completely unrecognized, and that the status of the children of such partnerships are regarded accordingly. But can Judaism simply turn its back on sincere returnees who are intermarried?
Those who remember the television program “The Millionaire” will recall that each time the anonymous benefactor’s emissary, John Beresford Tipton, approached someone with the gift of a million dollars (which was a lot of money in the late 50’s), the recipient’s initial response was a blend of disbelief and cynicism (the varying proportions of which kept the series interesting from week to week).