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Is Outreach a Dead End?

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Reprinted with permission of the San Diego Jewish Journal. Visit

Dr. Steven Bayme is used to causing controversy. During the height of the firestorm over The Passion of the Christ, he posted an article on the American Jewish Committee's website arguing that a passage in the Talmud claims Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death. Despite Bayme's status as the AJC's national director of contemporary Jewish life, the article was pulled within a week of its posting, after a reporter from the New York Jewish Week started looking into it.

So it's no surprise then that Bayme's opinions on the future of Jewish life in America are neither palatable nor politically correct. But Bayme is more concerned with being right than being fashionable.

He peppers his conversation with his own minor catchphrase--"Don't have any illusions"--when he wants to emphasize that he isn't talking pretty, he's talking truth.

And the truth about intermarriage--52 percent of all new Jewish marriages, according to a 2000 population study--is not pretty. On page 20, our new columnist Sharon Rosen advocates embracing intermarried couples while teaching the joys of Judaism to our children to prevent intermarriage in the future. Nothing wrong with the second idea, but Bayme has his problems with the first.

Outreach to intermarried families has become one of the causes célèbres of the organized Jewish community in recent years. Where others see a problem, outreach advocates see an opportunity: if we can engage enough intermarried families, then perhaps we can even increase the size of the Jewish population. In practice, that means sensitive, educational outreach targeted specifically to intermarried couples and families, like San Diego's own Pathways to Judaism program.

But Bayme has his doubts. He points to a UCLA Hillel study of college freshmen that showed 92 percent of students with two Jewish parents identified themselves as Jews, while in households where only the mother was Jewish, 38 percent identified themselves as Jews; where only the father was Jewish, 15 percent identified themselves as Jews.

"There is not good news with mixed marriage," says Bayme by phone from the AJC headquarters in New York. "The reality of mixed marriage indicates that it endangers a Jewish future. It doesn't provide a great opportunity for numerical growth, as some advocates suggest."

At a conference on intermarriage at Brandeis University in Massachusetts in late April, Bayme offered a three-pronged approach to dealing with intermarriage: "Firstly, the long-term imperative is... Jews marrying Jews. Second, when a mixed marriage has occurred, the best outcome is the Jewish conversion of the non-Jewish partner... Lastly, [when] conversion is not in the cards, the message needs to be raising of children exclusively as Jews."

In Bayme's eyes, the antidote to intermarriage is not more outreach, it's more in-marriage. When in-marriage doesn't happen, couples need to make a definitive choice about how they will live their lives and how they raise their children. There is no middle ground where both traditions are equally celebrated: no Chrismukah, as the folks on "The O.C." have cleverly devised.

"That's the American way to do things, it's the fair way to do things," he says, "but the problem with that is first off, it's theologically undesirable--it's a travesty of both faiths--and secondly, don't have any illusions: minority faiths are not going to be sustained unless children are given a clear identity of what they are and what they are not."

Unlike many outreach advocates, Bayme does not propose Jewish institutions accommodate themselves to fit the needs of intermarried families. "The language of outreach needs to be welcoming," he says, "but not to the point of transforming Jewish institutions.

"A perfect example is if you have a Hebrew school with the children of mixed marrieds: are you still allowed to speak about the importance of dating other Jews? I would say that's absolutely essential.... If we can't articulate the importance of dating fellow Jews for fear of offending mixed marrieds, we have failed in our responsibilities," he says.

And programs like Pathways, which caters exclusively to intermarried families, are not the best approach. Bayme says the best approach is "mainstreaming" intermarried families into Jewish institutions, so they are among other Jewish families, not other intermarried families.

"We [should] teach in-marrieds and out-marrieds the same. The message should not be tailored for them. Some will like it, some won't," he says. "Some mixed marrieds will pick up their stakes and leave, and I have no interest in chasing people who have no desire to be chased. Some will decide they want to live their lives as Jews, and it will require a great deal of work on their part."

Basically, Bayme is an advocate of communal peer pressure: peer pressure in the form of families and friends encouraging loved ones to marry Jews, peer pressure in the form of families encouraging their children's non-Jewish spouses to convert, peer pressure in the form of families and institutions encouraging intermarried families to raise their children as Jews.

He is an advocate of peer pressure starting at an early age: getting kids in Jewish day schools, sending kids to Jewish summer camps and taking kids on trips to Israel. "All our research indicates that the social environs of adolescence are the key long-term indicators of Jewish involvement.... Who are your three closest friends in high school? If your three closest friends are Jews, that is a very good long-term indicator, including marriage to a Jew. Two out of three, the odds are good. One out of three, the odds are remote. Zero out of three? Don't have any expectations."

Bayme sees outreach as a last resort, a last ditch effort to save many folks who don't want to be saved. The only real long-term solution is in-reach: creating a Jewish world that is so interesting, so joyous, so enriching, that Jews won't want to leave.

And while Bayme is Modern Orthodox, he knows the rigors of Orthodoxy will always be appealing to only a small minority of America's 5.5 million Jews. The future lies in the great middle, between the Orthodox on one side and the intermarried families on the other.

The future of this great middle, according to Bayme, depends on the success of the non-Orthodox movements--primarily Reform and Conservative, which together serve 33 percent of the American Jewish population (as opposed to only 13 percent for all other streams combined). "The real challenge we have is conveying the power of non-Orthodox theology," he says.

And if you think his "take it or leave it" approach to intermarried families is politically incorrect, wait until you hear his opinion on strengthening non-Orthodox movements. Unlike many on all sides of the denominational gulf, Bayme argues for more denominationalism, not less. Bayme wants more sharply defined lines between Reform and Conservative, between Conservative and Orthodox, not less. He wants more arguments on Jewish law, not less. His goal is not a blissful Jewish community, but a thriving one.

"My argument for pluralism probably means more religious polarization in the short run, but more passionate commitment in the long run," he says. "It's harder to passionately care when the differences aren't meaningful."

While Bayme's solutions to Jewish continuity seem out of sync with post-modern American notions of individualism and multiculturalism, his arguments, upon closer inspection, perfectly fit modern America. His defense of in-marriage fits in with the modern trend of championing ethnic identity; his desire for more defining lines between the religious movements is perfectly in line with a modern consumer society; and his reality-check stance on the traps of modern life--"Don't have any illusions"--fits right in with a world where Dr. Phil makes millions by telling folks "Get real."

"What I always found compelling about Jewish heritage is its capacity to speak the truth." Bayme says. "If you're unwilling to do that for fear of making enemies, what we come up with is so bland," he continues, "that it becomes uninspired and uninspiring."

This article was first published in the June 2004 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal ( All rights reserved, San Diego Jewish Journal, LLC.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.
Micah Sachs

Micah Sachs is the former managing editor of InterfaithFamily.

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