TORONTO — Jews today rarely practise Judaism in the same ways that their grandparents did, so why do people cling to the idea that their hypothetical grandchildren must carry out the same brand of Judaism as they do?
Paul Golin, associate executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, an independent organization that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families and helps the organized Jewish community better welcome them, posed this question to the audience at his May 4 talk about reframing ideas on intermarriage.
Hosted by the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the event was titled “Intermarriage: Optimism and Opportunity” and was held at the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre, drawing about 75 people.
Golin’s presentation stressed that rather than focusing on the fear that rising rates of intermarriage threaten Jewish continuity, as so many in the Jewish community across denominations do, Jews should be asking themselves “how we can show our Jewish kids and grandchildren that we value organized Judaism, not because we’re afraid for its survival but because it brings us meaning?”
Golin began by sharing his personal experience of growing up and being told by his maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, “If you marry someone non-Jewish, you’ll be finishing Hitler’s job.”
Golin said that he “didn’t buy this” from a young age, feeling that it clashed with the values he was learning about judging people as individuals and not according to their race or religion.
He eventually did marry a non-Jewish woman of Japanese origin, and the two have a son together, whom they raise to have a strong Jewish identity as well as a connection to his Japanese heritage.
“I actually think I’m living Hitler’s worst nightmare,” Golin joked. “I’m a free Jew, I’m married to a Japanese woman and we have a beautiful ‘half-breed’ – take that Hitler.”
Though organized Judaism typically sees intermarriage and assimilation as part of a “continuity crisis,” he said, they can be viewed through a more positive lens.
Jews in contemporary North America are “the most embraced, respected and powerful Jewish community the world has ever known,” Golin maintained, and the idea that “we are being absorbed into a larger culture and becoming unrecognizable [as Jews]” is one he finds highly challenging.
“I feel both 100 per cent Jewish and 100 per cent American. I think you can be both – Canadian too – and that you don’t have to choose. That’s an amazing new thing for the Jewish community,” he said.
Further, while intermarriage and other Jewish trends – such as a decreased sense of religiosity, diminished “ethnicity or tribalism” and the breakdown of “fixed Jewish denominational identities” – may change the way Judaism looks and is practised, it doesn’t mean it will cease to exist.
Golin acknowledged that the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans caused something of a panic among much of the organized Jewish community for pointing to significant rates of intermarriage and assimilation, but he emphasized more optimistically that it also shows that “there are 6.7 million U.S. Jews right now, which is more than at any time in history.”
For Golin, the “most damning number” in the report is that only 28 per cent of those surveyed ranked being part of a Jewish community as the thing that’s essential to their Jewishness.
His organization works to counter this widespread sense of disconnect, he explained, “to understand the mindset of folks who don’t see the value of being part of the Jewish community… and to show them the benefit of it.”
While those who feel less connected are often those who have intermarried or are children of intermarried couples, Golin is optimistic that greater inclusiveness for mixed-faith couples and families and strong community outreach efforts can bring people back to organized Judaism – be it through religious, cultural or ancestral channels, or a combination of these elements.
Golin advised synagogues and other Jewish institutions that are interested in being more inclusive to explicitly say in their literature that “intermarried families are welcome,” and to consider holding special programs for mixed-faith families.
“I also think it’s important for us to have conversations about why we’re maintaining certain boundaries,” he said. “I would say [to institutions] to do an audit of all the boundaries you’re maintaining and see which are authentic to who you are as Jews.”