Boston University Hillel head on the Boston study

The 2005 Boston Jewish Community Study continues to have legs, showing up in a Dec. 4 story in Boston University’s school newspaper, The Daily Free Press. In it, the reporter, Shari Rabin, quotes and paraphrases quotes from the head of BU’s Hillel House that are so noxious and wrong-headed that I wonder if they’re true. Given that the story claims that Jews make up “one-fifth of the world’s” population, I’m not sure how seriously I should take the following passage:

Rabbi Joseph Polak, the executive director of Boston University’s Hillel House, was skeptical of the survey’s view of Jewish demographics.

“The Jewish community in America is hemorrhaging beyond your wildest imagination,” he said. “We are 50 percent of the number we were in 1960.”

Polak said the population increase includes many Jews whose commitment to the faith is questionable, including the children of Jews and their non-Jewish and converted spouses.

Although he said it is impressive that converts want to join the Jewish community, Polak said he is unsure about how serious they are about passing on the faith.

Although he said it is impressive that converts want to join the Jewish community, Polak said he is unsure about how serious they are about passing on the faith.

“I don’t question anyone’s sincerity,” he said, “but unless you are prepared to tell your kids that you can’t drive a car on [the Sabbath] as the Torah says, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. You’re not going to get a second generation of committed Jews.”

If–and it’s a big if–Polak was quoted correctly, he’s sending an awful message to the 50 percent of Jewish college students who come from interfaith households. College is a time of sometimes dramatic identity formation, and to question the religious commitment of students before they walk in the door of Hillel, simply based on their parentage, is not a way to encourage interfaith children to identify Jewish. And the notion that children of conversionary couples have a “questionable” commitment to their faith is just absurd (indeed, studies have shown conversionary families are often more Jewishly dedicated than born-Jewish couples).

Further, when he suggests that those who won’t tell their children that they can’t drive a car on Sabbath won’t produce a second generation of committed Jews, he essentially is saying that the vast majority of the world’s Jews are unlikely to produce Jewishly committed offspring. He’s saying that unless you are prepared to adopt a fully Orthodox lifestyle, you will not have Jewish children. Beyond that being a pessimistic and intolerant message, it’s simply not true; many thousands, if not millions, of committed Jews drive to synagogue on Shabbat every week, including such noted Jewish figures as Dennis Prager, and they are highly likely to produce Jewishly committed offspring. Which would Polak rather have: families showing their commitment to Judaism by driving to a synagogue that is miles away, or not going to synagogue at all because that’s what “the Torah says”?

While I understand that Rabbi Polak is quite traditional, I still wonder whether it’s possible he would utter statements so alienating and hurtful to such a large portion of his potential audience at BU.

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