The most recent Pew study of American Jews showed that around 70% of non-Orthodox Jews currently intermarry and assimilate. Sadly, almost all of these Jews know nothing about their religion and heritage, or the reasons they should only marry fellow Jews and practice Judaism.
Many Orthodox Jews today take pride in the fact that Orthodoxy is growing while Reform and Conservative Judaism are shrinking rapidly. This is the wrong attitude to take. Instead, Orthodox Jews need to see the current situation as an emergency in which everyone needs to make an effort to convince their fellow Jews to continue the Jewish tradition before they become assimilated and their descendants are lost to the Jewish people.
Some seven years ago, film footage of the September 1923 gathering of world rabbinic leaders at the Agudath Israel Vienna Conference surfaced for the first time. It included footage of the famous Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) who attended and spoke twice. The Chofetz Chaim did not speak about loshon hora—the danger of speaking badly of others—although his famous book on the subject is regularly taught in schools around the world. Instead, he spoke on the topic that he felt was most urgent: The deterioration of Orthodox Judaism as a result of World War I.
The Chofetz Chaim spoke twice at the conference, because he heard that his opening speech calling for outreach to fellow Jews was criticized by some of the attendees. They believed that one should perfect oneself before trying to perfect others. The Chofetz Chaim asked to speak again and told the audience a parable of a rich man who visited a village he built. The rich man was provided a cup of tea, which he spit out because it tasted terrible. He asked why the water tasted so bad and was told that the village could not afford a water filter. The rich man then gave them the money to purchase one. Six months later, the rich man returned after hearing that half the town had burned down. He asked what happened and was told that by the time the villagers had filtered the water to fight the fire, half the town had been destroyed. The rich man told the villagers that when there is a fire, you use all available water immediately.
The message of the Chofetz Chaim is much more important today than it was then, because assimilation and intermarriage are much worse. Unfortunately, many in the Orthodox world are following the example of Noah, who was criticized by the rabbis for not doing outreach because he was concerned solely with saving his own family. God told us to follow the example of Abraham and Sarah, who hosted and built relationships with people. We are told that, as a result of their kindness, half the world became believers in God.
Today, many people advocate Jewish education as the solution to assimilation. But too many students in Jewish schools are not excited about their Judaism. Even non-Orthodox children going to Jewish schools tend to remain non-Orthodox. I spoke to one such child recently and he told me that no rabbi at the school built a close relationship with him. This, he said, was why he was not inspired to become more religious. Teachers at Orthodox schools need to prioritize such close relationships in order to inspire students to become or stay Orthodox. This is simply not being done in enough schools.
Some Jewish schools will not even admit non-Orthodox students. A group I was in was once visited by a person who said he could build a Jewish high school in a city that had none. He added that he had started a school in another community after the last banker he asked agreed to lend him the money. The banker, he said, told him that the banker’s children would not have intermarried had they gone to this person’s school.
I responded by telling the person that, in fact, he would not have allowed the banker’s children into his school. The person admitted that this was true, but said that students had to be protected from bad influences. I felt that the whole point of a Jewish high school was to be a good influence, and that such an influence could have had an impact on the banker’s children.
Today, outreach organizations focus on young people in hopes of steering them in a different direction from their parents and siblings. This is not easy to do. On more than one occasion, we were able to interest parents with adult children in becoming Orthodox. Eventually, not only did the parents become Orthodox, but their adult children did so as well. I just spent part of a recent Shabbat answering numerous questions from a retired unaffiliated lawyer, who told me afterward that he would read the Torah for the first time to learn about his own religion. Rabbi Zachariah Wallerstein of blessed memory said that what is most important is not where you start in life, but where you finish. We need to stop focusing solely on young people.
We are losing our fellow American Jews to assimilation every day. Every Jew has a responsibility to do what we can to change that. This means more than just focusing on our own families. Instead, we must build relationships with those who do not know their heritage. We must teach such people and excite them about being Jewish. Get them to come and experience the joy of a Shabbat meal with you. Instead of worrying about the impact the unaffiliated will have on you, focus on the positive impact you will have on them, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah.
At the end of “Schindler’s List,” the Jews that Schindler saved give him a ring with an inscription saying that he who saves one life saves an entire world. The fact is that if you get a person excited about their Judaism, you may influence not just them, but their family and even their friends. As a result, many worlds will now have Jewish futures.