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The Real Truth about the 1990 Population Survey: How Individual Lives Were Affected

This sermon was delivered by Rabbi Gordon on Rosh Hashanah, 2003 at Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Once more we turn to Abraham. I have explained a number of times how I have come to understand the nature of Genesis and the Biblical text. It is not theology. It tells us little if anything about God and nothing about how we are to believe in God. It is not science nor history nor objective biography. We make a grave mistake if we attempt to read Genesis as if it were journalism written by an accurate reporter.

Genesis is sacred text. It is a book of wonder. If it has one primary concern it is to impart a family story. Genesis is particularly rich as a tale of family dynamics concentrating on marriages, births, inheritance and the passing on of blessing. From Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and then on to Noah, we read about the generations and the begetting of offspring.

This pattern is truest beginning with the story of Abraham. Abraham is to be the patriarchal ancestor of a great people. We just read about God's promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a mighty nation. His seed would be as numerous as the stars in the heaven and the grains of sand upon the seashore. But there is tension in the story, for God commands Abraham to put this inheritance at risk. How can he be father of a great people if he is told to take his son, his only one, the one he loves, Isaac, and sacrifice him on an altar? Isaac was Abraham's hope of future generations.

After all, his other son, Ishmael, had "married out." Ishmael would be father to a great people as well, but God's promise to Abraham would be realized only through Isaac. Now that Isaac survived the trial on Moriah, Abraham had to insure that there would be a proper wife for him, so Abraham sent back to the old country to provide a wife, Rebecca, for his son Isaac from within the family. Isaac would marry his cousin.

The pattern repeated in the next generation. There were two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau married a Canaanite, but Jacob once again returned to the old country and fell in love with his cousin, Rachel. Of course before he could marry Rachel, he first had to marry her older sister Leah. There were two additional wives, and together they produced twelve heirs.

But Jacob's sons also married out. Judah, the one after whom the Jewish people is named, first married a Canaanite woman, then had a child with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Judah and Tamar produced Peretz who was the ancestor of Boaz, who married Ruth, the Moabitess, also an out-marriage, but from Boaz and Ruth comes Jesse, then David, and from David, the messiah.

Joseph in turn married Potiphar's daughter, and their sons were Ephraim and Menaseh. We still bless our sons each Friday night by invoking the memory of Ephraim and Menaseh. Even in the Book of Exodus, the pattern continues. Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, Priest of Midian.

I said that the Bible is not intended to be a journalistic account. Even more, this is not a report of a sociological study by population statisticians. What would the statisticians have said or predicted? It seems from these stories that these early Hebrew Patriarchs were running an intermarriage rate around 50 percent or more. There was a 50 percent rate of intermarriage among Abraham's sons, then 50 percent for Isaac's sons. It was probably a much higher rate for Jacob's twelve sons, so we might assume that the statistician overseeing the 2000 BCE Jewish Population Survey would have concluded that Judaism was about to die out. For the past 4,000 years, one thing has always been true: for 4,000 years there have always been those "experts" who declared that the Jewish people was about to vanish.

There is an interesting book published by the Tauber Institute and edited by one of my teachers, Michael Meyer. All you need to know about it is the title, The Ever Dying People. Scholars have been predicting the demise of the Jewish people for thousands of years. We can indeed feel fortunate that there were no statisticians in the days of Abraham. We however, are not so lucky.

We are the victims of statisticians. In 1990, the Council of Jewish Federations published the much touted, studied, and disseminated Jewish Population Census or Survey. No one in this room escaped its blaring headline conclusion. Jews were marrying non-Jews at the rate of 52 percent. From this figure of 52 percent was built the conclusion that Jewish life in America was in danger of destruction from within. I do not need to tell anyone in this room how those figures were interpreted and used. You all heard the arguments that intermarriage equates with assimilation. Some of you may even have heard leading rabbis and scholars proclaim that intermarriage represented a new Holocaust. They all repeated the supposed "fact" that the grandchildren of intermarriage cease to be Jewish in the second generation. After all, this was proved by statistical analysis.

Thus was born the crisis of 52 percent intermarriage. American Jewish life was in danger of destruction and so was born the "continuity" movement. Let me take a moment to engage in a bit of Biblical etymology. There is a word, shibboleth, which has come to mean a commonplace, platitude, or truism. A shibboleth is a catchword or slogan. But the word has its origins in the Biblical Book of Judges. The word itself means "a grain of corn." But more importantly, it was a test word to distinguish between one group of people and their enemies. You see, in a war, the Gileadites needed to distinguish who the Ephraimites, their enemies, were from their own people. So the Gileadites devised a test. They demanded that everyone say the word, "shibboleth." Gileadites said "shibboleth." Ephraimites said "sibboleth."

A shibboleth then is an insider's word that helps distinguish your group for those outside. Throughout the 1990s, if you had attended any synagogue worship service or American Jewish Committee or American Jewish Congress meeting; if you had been present at a General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations or a UAHC Biennial; if you were present at a CCAR convention or of any convention of an American rabbinic organization, you would have heard little else but the term "continuity."

But "continuity" was a classic shibboleth because no one other than those in the Jewish world ever used the term. Catholics who out marry at a far higher rate than Jews never spoke of "continuity." No church or Christian seminary or Christian social organization was concerned with this term.

But in the Jewish world, continuity was the key central agenda of the 1990s. Careers and reputations were built on this one issue. We might call it the Continuity industry. Let me confess, I have made something of a career being a contrarian in this discussion, but suddenly I am not alone.

You see, CJF did another ten year population study--that is, they tried. No one agreed about its methodology or its accuracy, so it took them three years to publish the 2000 survey. And guess what: Remember that 52 percent intermarriage rate of 1990? Well, the number was wrong after all. It wasn't really true. It really was closer to a 43 percent rate, and the conclusions and extrapolations also might have been wrong. In the words of Emily Litella: "Never Mind."

All that energy, all that focus, all the resources devoted to the crisis of 52 percent intermarriage was based on faulty numbers. The Forward of September 19, 2003, said: "The 52 percent intermarriage figure fraudulently reported in 1990 rapidly became the best known and most quoted Jewish statistic in the world. It's been repeated in countless sermons, editorials and jeremiads, inspired millions of dollars of emergency spending and soured discourse within the Jewish community."

Let me be clear. I believe in Jewish Federation. I am a supporter and contributor. I want each of you to be contributors and supporters, but in this case they blew it. They cannot claim that their survey was a neutral, agenda-free study without any bias. Federation has a mission, and that mission is to raise money. They are very good at it. They are not an academic institution or think tank.

In raising money within the Jewish community, Federation has relied on the need to respond to crises and emergencies. The truth is, there have usually been plenty of legitimate emergencies and very real dangers facing the Jewish people. They need not manufacture one, but they did. The 1990 survey results conveniently gave birth to the "continuity" crisis.

But the most serious effect of this 52 percent intermarriage rate panic was not sociological, academic, or scholarly. The discussions that truly mattered were not held in conference halls, hotels, or Jewish communal boardrooms, rather there were difficult and painful conversations that took place in living rooms, dining room tables, and dens.

The continuity agenda and the 52 percent intermarriage crisis had an enormous impact on people's individual private lives. Many in the organized Jewish world sent a message to the intermarried of failure, abandonment, and rejection. Jews who fell in love with non-Jews were told that they were individually responsible for the decline of the Jewish people.

They were told with absolute certainty that the survey proved that grandchildren of intermarriages ceased to identify as Jews in the second generation. This supposed fact was repeated over and over again. Yet any statistician would have to question the extrapolation made by these interpreters of the survey. Even if the numbers were legitimate, and there is valid reason to question the numbers themselves, the truth is, any study of grandchildren of intermarriage must, by definition, reflect the results of intermarriages of the 1920s and 1930s. By definition, there are no grandchildren of intermarriages that took place in the 1980s.

The world of the 1920s and 1930s was a very different one from the 1980s and 1990s. It may be true that many who intermarried in the earlier decades had hoped to "escape" from their Jewish roots. The Jewish community at the time had no place for them and no programs to serve them. Often their families would reject them and mourn their "passing." There were no outreach programs before the 1980s.

By repeating the false data, and the even more erroneous extrapolations, families were told that they had failed as Jews. In many families the effects were serious. Conversations about marriage choices led to angst, anger, and accusations. When a Jewish young adult broke the news that he or she had fallen in love with someone not Jewish, parents asked themselves what they had done wrong. They had difficulty accepting their child's mate and partner in part because they we told that their grandchildren would not be Jewish. The non-Jewish partner was hurt that they were not accepted into the family and that they were viewed in such a negative light.

Non-Jewish family members would accompany their family to the synagogue, and the sermons they heard contained words of judgment and condemnation on the issue of intermarriage. Rabbis who worked with the intermarried were condemned as "enablers" of intermarriage. An enabler is a term borrowed from the world of twelve-step support groups. Using it implies that there is some behavior of pathology that is being enabled. Few people wish to consider their choice of mate to be an act of pathology.

Many Jews have painful memories of being judged in light of those intermarriage statistics--statistics it turns out that were wrong! They were told that intermarriage equates with assimilation. Every Jew who marries a non-Jew leaves the Jewish world behind. This was a test of loyalty for many, and they were told that they failed.

The truth is, I look around this sanctuary, and I do not see failure. I do not see a dying Jewish community. Here there is a sense of vibrancy, dynamism, and creativity. After all, what we so often see at Sukkat Shalom is the Jewish "adult survivor" of Sunday school and Hebrew school married to a person seeking authentic spiritual meaning. Here we welcome the non-Jewish entrant into Judaism who is turned on at an adult level to serious Jewish study, appreciation for tradition, ritual, and observance.

Here is the irony of the new numbers from the 2000 Jewish population study. There has been an increase in Jewish households even as there has been a decrease in the number of individuals identifying themselves as Jews. The increase in the number of Jewish households is ascribed to intermarriage. Jews who marry non-Jews are, in many cases, still creating Jewish households. The pool of potential mates is higher when you add in intermarriage.

Obviously I take a different view of the statistical studies. But there are many who used the false data to define a Judaism in crisis. They feared that any acceptance of intermarriage would send a message of normality and legitimacy. They believed that only a wall of condemnation would prevent further erosion of Jewish identity.

The Conservative movement went so far as to declare that any Jew who married a non-Jew would be barred from professional or lay leadership roles within their synagogues, seminaries, and schools. If you were a Jew married to a non-Jew you could not teach in Sunday school or Hebrew school, could not teach at a Schechter day school or be on staff at a Ramah camp. You could not serve on the board of directors of a synagogue. All of these rules existed because they believed that acceptance of intermarried Jews would lead to an increase in intermarriage which would lead to assimilation and thus the death of American Jewish life.

In this "continuity" crisis, others offered great programs guaranteed to prevent intermarriage. They promised that if only you did the "right" things you could inoculate your children against the virus. If your children went to Jewish day schools or attended Jewish summer camps, or went on free trips to Israel, then their Jewish identity would be strengthened, and they would reject the prospect of falling in love with a non-Jew.

All of that promise had some basis in fact, but not because these programs deepened one's Jewish knowledge. The programs worked because they became places to meet other Jewish singles. After all, the Orthodox community always knew that. The key factor in determining whom you will marry is propinquity, the people with whom you most often come in contact. Any statistical difference between Orthodox patterns of marriage and marriage rates among the more liberal groups was based first on Orthodox Judaism's chosen ghettoization. If you send your children to Yeshivah University and Stern College, their classmates are going to be far less diverse than the students at NYU, Columbia, or Yale.

Over these last thirteen years I have fought my battles with Sylvia Barrack Fishman, Steve Bayme, Jack Wertheimer and the other supposed experts on the destruction of American Judaism as a result of intermarriage rates. Contrary to their predictions of Jewish failure and abandonment, we are witnessing a dynamic growth in Jewish life. Many of us see a renaissance in Jewish thought and culture.

This is a different Judaism to be sure. It is uncomfortable for some, unfamiliar. Today's American Judaism is less ethnic and more spiritual. There is a certain fluidity to it. Professor Martin Marty has stated that 65 percent of all Americans change their religion at some point in their life. There are new Jews and former Jews. Within the Jewish world, people move in and out of the denominational branches. At any one time the affiliation rates are low, but over the course of one's adult life, the affiliation rate is high. The vast majority of Jews celebrate Passover and Hanukkah and attend synagogue services during the High Holy Days. Jewish books and films sell well. An increasing number of Jewish college students enroll in at least one course in Jewish studies.

The bottom line is that American Judaism is changing. Jews are reluctant to acknowledge that this faith and people are attractive to others. We suffer from a reverse Groucho Marx syndrome. Groucho said that he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. Too often we cannot believe that anyone would really want to belong to our club.

Our task then is not to mourn the death of 1920s Jewish life in America. In these past thirteen years since the 1990 Jewish Population Study, American Judaism has not in fact declined. Contrary to the predictions, Jewish life is prospering in new and dynamic ways. The numbers were wrong. The prediction of crisis was wrong. Condemnation and rejection did not stem the tide of intermarriage. Those actions served only to further alienate. At Sukkat Shalom, our response is one of welcome. Our doors are open. Those who fell in love with non-Jews did not fail. Judaism is attractive, challenging, and engaging. This is a living faith and people. It has always been dynamic and creative. We will continue to build this Jewish world. Judaism will continue to be an enriching aspect of our lives. Our families will find within the Jewish world the warmth of tradition and the continuing story of a people's long history, from Abraham's day until today.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. 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.
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.

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