A couple of weeks before my bar mitzvah in September 1962 I made the mandatory visit to the rabbi’s study. It was as much a rite of passage as the bar mitzvah itself.
At that meeting, the rabbi would try to get to know you a little bit better so he could say nice things about you during his speech following services. And then the question came: “Stevie,” he said, “do you know how many Jews there were in the world before the war? Do you know how many Jews there are today?”
I looked at him and said, “I don’t know.” What 12-year old boy would know the answer to those questions? He said, “About 17 million before the war, and about 12 million today. You have to remain part of the Jewish world.” The message was clear: Rabbi Shoulson was telling me to marry a Jewish girl.
Fast forward to this past summer. As I sat waiting for a wedding ceremony to begin, the outrage in Western Jewish communities about an Israeli government minister’s comments on intermarriage came to mind. He used the “H-word” – Holocaust – to describe the effect of intermarriage on the Jewish population. He quickly took back his use of the word in the face of outrage from certain organizations.
But I think the minister hit on a something. In my own suburban New Jersey world, I have heard a repeated refrain from parents who watch their children marry out. It goes along the lines of “As long as he/she is happy.” The parents have a smile on their face when they say that. But the smile soon disappears when the first grandchild is born. There’s no brit, and there’s a baptism. Then comes that first winter after the baby is born and the menorah is put next to the tree.
Thanks to the high rate of intermarriage, American Jews with children of marriageable age are faced with the crazy situation of seeing their children date a boy named Josh Cohen who is not halachically Jewish and a girl named Rachel Napolitano who is halachically Jewish.
Thanks again to intermarriage, synagogues are not attracting young married couples. They are forced to choose between the risk of losing members or bending over backwards at bar mitzvah time. Can the non-Jewish spouse come to the bimah? Can congregations where the Torah is passed from family member to family member to the bar mitzvah boy skip over the non-Jewish parent or grandparent?
Twenty years ago, a woman, quite active in the Jewish community, asked me what she “did wrong” because her “children are more interested in saving whales than Jews.” It was the first time I heard that lament, but it was not the last.
The fault, I’m afraid, lies with my parents’ generation and mine, that of the Baby Boomers. Our parents, who lived through the depression and World War II, moved from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens to the suburbs as they earned more money. They were already looking at their parents’ faith as time worn, and moving to the suburbs where there were no front porches where people gathered to talk weakened a shared experience.
And then my generation attended afternoon Hebrew schools where the teachers, making $25 per week for a few hours of work, appeared to be resentful of their lot in life. We were taught to pray in Hebrew and memorize Chumash. We didn’t understand a word we said. Boys lived in fear of the dreaded “tzitzit check.” Heaven forbid you didn’t have them showing when you came to class.
And, thus, I didn’t know how many Jews there were in the world in 1962.
Another good portion of the blame, though, must be assigned to our philanthropic communal leaders who from the 1950s onward believed it was important for them to donate or invest money in Israel to help the country grow, yet failed to understand that Jewish life in America would wither without similar investments in Jewish education.
Yes, Jews in America spent millions on JCCs, federation campuses, synagogue buildings, and the like. But nowhere on the scale of what has gone to Israel – not to mention secular universities.
Where would be today if some of those millions had been spent in our communities to ensure that boys and girls had a Jewish tradition-based education – the kind of education that doesn’t only teach about the chagim but the whys and wherefores behind them?
It is those “whys and wherefores” that lead to personal observance and strengthening of Jewish character and knowledge. In the absence of the investment here, we have lost thousands of Jewish boys and girls to intermarriage, assimilation, and caring more about whales than Jews.
The music started and I was brought back to the present. The chuppah was set up outside. The weather was delightful, the speech was kept short, the sheva brachot were said, we sang Im eshkachech, Yerushalayim, and the glass smashed at the appropriate time.
As the young couple, whose parents had spent their lives investing in their child’s education, turned from under the chuppah to walk through the gathering, all I could think of at that moment was these kids are going to score one for the home team.