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Let's Be Clear on What Outreach Means: A Response to Ed Case

In our last issue's Dialogue and Debate, we reprinted an article by our publisher, Ed Case, entitled "Let's Encourage the Jewish Journeys of Interfaith Families", which originally appeared in the"Virtual GA" website of the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly, In this issue we reprint from theVirtual GA a response by Elliot Abrams.

Ed Case's article argues forcefully and with compassion for outreach to intermarried Jews, but we need to be clearer than he was on just what is being proposed.

I would like to distinguish three separate concepts of outreach. The first, and most limited, version, might be termed "responsive outreach." It isn't really outreach at all, but the adoption of a warm, welcoming, and open attitude toward the intermarried when they approach the Jewish community. In fact, here the people doing the outreach are the intermarried themselves, and the rest of the Jewish community is simply reacting. The question is whether we react well or badly, and Ed Case is absolutely right to insist that we must react not only with compassion but with real warmth. Here, an intermarried Jew and his or her spouse are seeking the Jewish community out. They want information, or community, or affiliation, or education for a child. They are taking the initiative. I agree entirely with Ed that it would be tragic for the community to turn away and reject these initiatives. After all, it is easy for intermarried Jews to avoid taking that first step, and many do avoid it. Many seek to avoid the tension or arguments that may ensue, the difficult decisions that may lie ahead, and the roadblocks the Jewish community may erect. Yet they have persevered and they have reached out.

Secondly, there is outreach to people who have never expressed the slightest interest in the Jewish community. Let's face facts: many American Jews are Jewish halachically only, and seek no connection with the Jewish community whatsoever. Their intermarriage may reflect this fact. They do not seek a Jewish education for their children, nor do they seek to have them marry Jews. Least of all do they seek any Jewish religious activity. They will assimilate out into the broad mass of American life, and expect to lead secular lives. Outreach to such people is, in my view, a bad use of scarce resources.

But how can we tell who is in this group, and who is likely to take advantage of possibilities to connect? Simple: have the doors open, advertise that the doors are open, and see who walks in. See who goes to the Internet site and sends in an address. See who signs up for a course that has been advertised in the local paper. See who calls up about nursery schools or Hebrew school. See who asks a rabbi about the synagogue's conversion course or its adult ed program. But to go further than this, as I believe Ed Case would have us do, is not sensible. We must not kid ourselves into thinking that inside every intermarried couple are hidden two active Jews waiting to escape -- into affiliation and conversion. Given the tremendous needs the community has in serving affiliated Jews -- needs such as old age homes, day schools, summer camps, adult education programs, synagogue budgets -- outreach to people who have never lifted a finger or expressed any interest in being Jewish is not a smart way to spend the limited money, time, or energy the community has.

This is not "writing people off," but being realistic. There are actually a million ways for the intermarried to reach out nowadays, thanks to people like Ed Case, who have made sure more and more opportunities exist. If people can't be bothered to make one single effort, it is not optimism but unreality to think that outreach efforts will pay off.

But there is a third issue here, and Ed is just a little bit coy about it. He makes it pretty clear indirectly in his article, without stating it in so many words, that he disapproves of treating Jews and non-Jews differently. (He mentions life-cycle ceremonies, for example, and presumably such as the bar- or bat-mitzvah.) He sees these distinctions as barriers likely to hurt the feelings of the intermarried Jew and his or her spouse. I disagree, for principled and practical reasons. The practical reason is that I am not at all sure that the way to encourage people to affiliate and convert is to water down distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. After all, at a certain point, why even bother to convert when a non-Jew can do everything a Jew can do (including engage in every ritual at the synagogue)? There is interesting data suggesting that the refusal of a rabbi to marry an interfaith couple does not lower, and may raise, the chance that there will later be a conversion. So, the notion that treating non-Jews very differently, keeping up the barriers, will push people away is at best not proved.

But there is a matter of principle at stake here, too. Ed's argument suggests that Judaism should be restructured to make the intermarried feel more welcome. This has it backwards. The religion is for Jews, not people thinking about maybe becoming Jews, or maybe affiliating, or maybe attending services. The religion exists; the intermarried just like those who have married Jews must engage with it, learn about it, and react to it. It is not an infinitely malleable object, whose rituals and standards should change if someone thinks this will make non-Jewish spouses feel better about themselves and that religion. And that isn't an Orthodox view, but the view of the Reform movement as well. The bar- or bat-mitzvah, for example, isn't a life-cycle ceremony at all; it's a normal shabbat service, or should be, at which the youngster is called to the Torah. Normal shabbat rules should apply or the service becomes an artificial reality divorced from Jewish ritual life, in my view, anyway. So: if "outreach" means creating a million opportunities for intermarried couples to engage, and means teaching other Jews to welcome their initiatives, it's great. And it's critical for our future. But if "outreach" means using scarce resources on people who have never done a single thing to express interest in Judaism, Jewish life, or the Jewish community, scarce community resources don't permit that luxury. And if it means reconstructing Judaism on behalf of intermarried couples, it would be downright harmful.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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 "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and is Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Advisory Council of the American Jewish Committee. He served in the State Department during the Reagan Administration. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Commentary, The Weekly Standard, The National Interest, The Public Interest, and National Review, where he is a Contributing Editor. He has written and edited several books, including Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (1997). He is an officer and Executive Committee member of Congregation Olam Tikvah, a Conservative Synagogue in Virginia.

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