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The future of Judaism

An expert weighs in on challenges, intermarriage and Israel's importance.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008


Arnold M. Eisen is recognized as one of the leading experts on U.S. Judaism. This week, he will visit the Tampa Bay area to lead a town hall-style discussion on the future of the Jewish community in the United States.

Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the academic and spiritual center of the Conservative Jewish movement worldwide, recently answered several questions about the Jewish community and its concerns.

What are the key challenges facing the American Jewish community?

First is building strong communities, attracting Jews to join them and make them a significant part of their lives.

This at a time when every door is open to Jews and, for the first time in history, they can select any option for identity and commitment they choose.

The question is why should they choose to connect with other Jews in significant ways. Building strong communities and attracting Jews to them is thus a challenge we must meet in order to carry Judaism forward.

The second challenge is to present Judaism in a variety of revitalized, compelling ways. No one size fits all. No one formulation of Judaism can attract diverse ages and other differences within the Jewish population. We have to develop a variety of ways to teach and practice Jewish commitment and bring these to the attention and excitement of American Jews.

What is the rate of intermarriage among Jews and Christians in America ? Is it increasing and is it having an effect on Judaism in this country?

The rate of intermarriage has apparently stabilized somewhere in the 40 percent range. It is similar or even less than the rate of intermarriage among other ethnic populations in America. I don't think that single-minded focus on intermarriage is a terribly good thing.

The problem is not intermarriage per se, but the loss of Jewish commitment that often, although not always, results from intermarriage.

The challenge facing Jews is to welcome non-Jewish partners, make them part of the Jewish community, reach them with Jewish teaching and Jewish ways of life, and hopefully convince a significant number of them not only to raise their children as Jews but to become Jews themselves.

This dilemma cuts across denominations. It is receiving a particular amount of attention right now in Conservative Judaism, which can no longer afford the luxury of thinking intermarriage is a problem for Reform Jews or secular Jews. We now know that intermarriage is a fact in many Conservative congregations, and our task is to find ways of welcoming non-Jewish partners and family members at the same time as we can encourage them to fully join the covenant.

Do interfaith families have a place in Conservative Judaism?

Yes, is the short answer. Interfaith families do have a place in Conservative Judaism. But again, the focus should be twofold. ...The word should go out that whether the non-Jewish partner or family members convert or not, they are welcome in our midst forever. They have hearts and souls and minds which can and should be reached by the teachings of Torah. They have wisdom and skills and love that can benefit our communities.

Having said that, though, one also needs to say honestly that both our experience as a people over three millennia and the commandments of our tradition urge us to urge them to seriously consider becoming fully a part of this tradition and joining in the covenant, and that means conversion.

Please talk about Israel's importance to Americans in general and concerns about the nation's continued viability as a Jewish state.

Israel's importance to American Jews cannot be exaggerated.

It's hard to imagine that after the destruction and despair of the Holocaust, the American Jewish community would have had the wherewithal to raise itself up, to achieve as much as it has without the example of a renewed, independent Jewish state.

So much of the creativity that infuses contemporary American Jewish life is a function of what we have imported from Israel, learned in Israel, brought back with us from Israel.

So much of the confidence of American Jews still results from the existence and thriving of Israel, and our future is weighed down by anxiety that Israel has still been unable to make peace with its neighbors. Israel's future is important to American Jews beyond measure.

I think the inability of anyone right now to cogently imagine a solution is a source of great despondency among many American Jews and is clouding the upcoming celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary.

Israel is precious to me and to many, many Jews that I know. We love the place.

We're proud of it.

We take its problems very seriously and want to help it address them. And we want to do this with confidence that Israel's existence is a concern not just for us and for America but for the world, and that justice can be found for Palestinians at the same time as Israel's security as a Jewish state is assured.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or 727 892-2283.


If you go

"Commandment, Community and the Future of American Judaism" by Arnold M. Eisen, 8 p.m. Thursday at Congregation B'nai Israel, 300 58th St. N, St. Petersburg. Call (727) 381-4900.

[Last modified January 27, 2008, 01:18:45]

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