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Jewish World Review June 18, 1999 /4 Tamuz 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Choosing the Jewish Future: The question is: What kind of a Jewish community do we really want? --
IF I'VE HEARD IT ONCE, I've heard it a thousand times: "Building community." Everyone is for it. Nobody dares do anything that can be interpreted as being against it. It is, in my experience, the most commonly used refrain in the organized Jewish world.

The problem is, what does it mean? I've thought a lot about that question lately as I've followed a couple of the most interesting American Jewish controversies dealing with the future of Jewish life.

One is a proposal to increase American Jewry's declining numbers by emphasizing conversion of non-Jews, and thus "open our gates" to the multitudes who would otherwise be filling our ranks. Prominent Jewish author and sociologist Gary A. Tobin (no relation to this writer) is attempting to launch a movement that would make Jewish life more open to converts.

Tobin's recently published book,Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, is a well-argued polemic against what he sees as American Jewish prejudice against converts and our foolish unwillingness to see that the many non-Jews whom he believes want to be Jewish or would want to be Jewish.

Tobin has proposed a startling 10-step program toward this end, which includes changing Jewish ideology, making a major investment ("billions of dollars") in outreach to non-Jews, the creation of new conversion processes and the establishment of a "National Center for Jewish Inclusion."

While Gary Tobin is seeking to recreate the Jewish world to make it more open to converts, at the same time another group of people -- working independently of each other around the country -- are building a movement to create more funding for Jewish day schools to ensure that every Jewish child who wants one can have one.

As this week's cover story in my paper, The Jewish Exponent, relates, the problem is how to make comprehensive day-school education -- which many mainstream Jewish thinkers believe is the community's best investment for continuity -- affordable to middle-class parents.

While the ideas for accomplishing this great task vary, they, too, revolve around money. Without it, few but the rich or the poor (who can get scholarships) will be able to afford to attend.

For those who see the key to the Jewish future in Jewish education, the answer is obvious: a Jewish education safety net that will make sure no child misses out on a day-school experience because of the costs.

While these two large proposals -- proactive conversion and more funding for day schools -- are not in competition with each other (theoretically, we could attempt both), they do reflect vastly different mindsets about the nature of the Jewish future.

Interestingly, the jumping-off point for both ideas is the so-called intermarriage crisis. Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was in the area of 50 percent (and some have challenged these figures claiming the real numbers are lower), intermarriage - and how we might prevent it - has become the focus of much of the organized Jewish world.

Both the rise of the day-school movement and the new debate about Jewish missionizing to non-Jews stem from our insecurity about the Jewish future. With so many Jews marrying out, we wonder how we will maintain our numbers, or, in the worst case scenario, how we can survive.

Gary Tobin argues that the focus on intermarriage is misplaced. And to a certain extent, he is entirely correct. Intermarriage is, as he puts it, a "distraction" from the bigger problem: the loss of "meaningful identity" for most Jews for whom "Judaism is simply irrelevant on a daily or weekly basis."

As a writer and editor, I can attest to this truth. Four years ago, I achieved the proverbial "15 minutes of fame" when a New York Times feature story about my former newspaper focused on a column I wrote about intermarriage. While the narrow question of what is -- or is not -- appropriate for inclusion in a Jewish newspaper was the point of the piece, the real question for me was whether individual Jews were prepared to see any link between decisions in their personal lives and the future of the Jewish community.

I wrote that as individuals, whether we liked it or not, we were all voting on the Jewish future. The reaction was predictably intense with praise and abuse coming from far and near.

While I haven't changed my position, in the years since, I've come to understand that there is more to this subject than I knew at the time I wrote that column.

As important as the issue of whether an individual Jew marries another Jew is, the truly crucial question is whether either of them are leading lives in which Jewish identity and commitment play an important role. In other words, how Jewish are the Jews? If Jewish religion and identity are meaningless to them, then who cares who they are marrying?

Nevertheless, I believe that despite many of the appealing aspects of his scheme, Tobin is leading us down a potentially perilous path.

A center for inclusion would be nice, but more children in day schools would be an investment in a Jewish community that stands for Jewish values and actually knows what those values are.

Finally, one comes to the notion put forward by Tobin -- as well as others within the Jewish world -- that there is no limit to Jewish resources, and that we can afford to do all these things at the same time if we want to.

Perhaps resources - even "billions and billions" of them - don't seem scarce to Jewish outreach superstars like Gary Tobin. But those of us who live in the real Jewish world - whether named Tobin or not - know that the notion of choices is very real.

To communities struggling to provide basic services to the Jewish poor and the elderly while contributing to the absorption of immigrants to Israel and trying to build a Jewish education system worthy of the name, the notion of unlimited resources is a sick joke.

The fact is, we do have to choose how to invest in the Jewish future. Under those circumstances, it seems to me that for all of the attractive elements in Tobin's scheme, a massive investment in Jewish day schools and scholarships to make them open to all is a far smarter and worthier choice. What's more, by doing so, we will be choosing to "build a community" that stands for Jewish values as well as be open to newcomers.

Now all we need are some philanthropists who will believe enough in the Jewish future to make it happen.

Let's hope some of them are listening.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin