Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week

Fifty-two percent.

Of all the graphs, statistics and charts associated with the voluminous 1990 National Jewish Population Study, that's the one number that stuck. It referred to the rate of intermarriage in the U.S. over the previous decade. And while demographers debated the accuracy of the number, it sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish community, leading to a major push for outreach and "Jewish continuity" programs around the country geared toward combating assimilation.

How successful have those efforts been? One gauge will be the updated figures on intermarriage, due to be released next week as part of the results of the eagerly anticipated and long-delayed 2000 National Jewish Population Study.

Has the percentage increased or decreased over the last 10 years? Has the apparent inevitability of rising intermarriage rates led to a greater acceptance among American Jewry, and a new fallback position - the attempt to appeal to non-Jewish partners to accept Judaism after marriage? Or have the high rates alarmed the community to the point of more openly and forcefully declaiming intermarriage as a direct threat to Jewish survival in the 21st century?

The so-called outreach vs. inreach debate has gone on for years and it is sure to be renewed when the new statistics are released. No doubt proponents from both sides will find ways to interpret the statistics to strengthen their argument. But whether or not the actual numbers and percentages have changed, it seems clear that American Jewish attitudes have shifted, and not in a positive way. Rather, they reflect a combination of diminished Jewish identity and misguided liberalism, tolerance and universalism.

A generation ago Jewish leaders agreed that intermarriage was harmful to the Jewish people in terms of survival, and harmful to individual Jews who would find that marrying someone from another faith could lead to disharmony and tension within the marriage, and identity confusion for their offspring. With the divorce rate already so high, went the argument, why add to the chances of failure?

Today, liberal rabbis tell me they are no longer comfortable speaking out against intermarriage or even addressing the topic from the pulpit for fear of alienating their congregants, many of whom have intermarried children. And Jewish college students tell me that they are challenged by their peers as being racists if they express a commitment to only marry another Jew.

Such attitudes are not surprising in our increasingly politically correct culture, where the notion of in-marrying may be seen as a rejection of pluralistic values, openness and equality.

Now comes a new book, "Why Marry Jewish?" (Targum/Feldheim Publishing), that makes several direct and compelling arguments for Jews to marry Jews. Written by Doron Kornbluth of Jerusalem, it is geared toward American Jews for whom religious practice and historical ties hold little sway.

Holding back on the emotional appeal, Kornbluth focuses on personal happiness and trots out various statistics and surveys to show that intermarried couples report less marital contentment and have significantly higher levels of divorce due to the added stress of not having common backgrounds, goals and values. He also notes that Jews in their 20s are at a lifetime low point for Jewish involvement, often unaware that their interest will increase in coming decades, particularly if they become parents. Children of intermarriage, no matter whether they are raised to embrace one religion, both or neither, tend to lack a sense of identity and belonging and often suffer from a lack of family closeness, Kornbluth writes.

In the second half of the 180-page book, he emphasizes more traditional Jewish angles in the anti-intermarriage argument: the responsibility every Jew has to maintain the survival of an ancient people; the need to foster a strong sense of Jewish identity in the home from childhood to lessen the chances for interfaith dating; and the positive qualities of living an involved Jewish life of "meaning, connections, learning, growth, spirituality, deep rituals and joyful celebrations."

Today, though, there are more and more young Jews who believe they can, in a sense, have it both ways: live Jewish lives and raise Jewish children even if their spouse is not Jewish. Kornbluth makes the case that statistically, that is unlikely.

But as logical as his arguments are, the truth is that there is a world of difference between raising a youngster from childhood in a strong Jewish home and environment and trying to convince a young man or woman who has already fallen in love with a non-Jew that the planned marriage is a mistake. Timing is everything.

I remember my late father, a rabbi in a small town, telling parents it was too late to expect him to do much to dissuade their son or daughter from marrying out when they first came to him after the couple was in love.

If the notion of strongly encouraging our children to marry Jews sounds narrow-minded, old-fashioned or even racist, it is an indication of how much the ideological - as well as numerical - battle has been lost in a generation, and how we misapply the concept of universalism. As Kornbluth notes, it doesn't mean that everyone has to be the same but that people respect each other for who they are, including their differences.

In a community obsessed with our numbers, we need to concentrate more on the quality and content of our Jewish lives rather than just on whether there are more or fewer of us than a decade ago. Unless we have a Jewish heritage, identity and religion worth preserving, it won't matter if we disappear.

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