When news broke last month that Yair Netanyahu, the oldest son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was dating a young woman from Norway, many in the Jewish state declared the affair a “shanda,”or a shame. The young man’s uncle even went as far as addressing his nephew publicly and urged him to end the relationship and find himself a Jewish spouse.
More than just the private infatuations of two young people, the romance and the reactions it has generated are indicative of contemporary Judaism’s biggest fear, the same specter raised by the recent survey of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center late last year — namely, the deep decline in the non-Orthodox Jewish population. Nearly 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are married to non-Jews, the survey found, and many of their children are uninterested in cultivating their Jewish identity.
We can help set a different course. To do so, we’ll need to break with a nearly 2,000-year-old Jewish tradition: the prohibition on proselytizing non-Jews. It is time to begin packaging, marketing and selling Judaism in a new way, decidedly unorthodox, particularly to those non-Jews who know us, love us and live with us, but may not fully identify as Jewish.
We often think of them as “Jewish souls.” They are our family, friends and co-workers. Some are lapsed Catholics, others are fervent non-believers, and some may even be Jews who have long ago lost all connection with the tribe. They’re not attracted to Judaism’s most visible offering — suburban temples with empty parking lots and aging congregants — but they do care about the religion’s many spiritual, cultural and communal offerings.
We make our proselytizing proposal at a unique juncture in Jewish history.
As Robert Putnam’s “American Grace” tells us, never have Jews or Judaism been held in such high regard by the larger public. And as the intermarriage figures attest, never have so many non-Jews been so literally enamored of Jews their age.
What will it mean to proselytize to non-Jews, and to really engage the tentatively Jewish? First, it would mean changing the way we talk about being Jewish, and the people with whom we talk. Imagine, for example, if this coming Passover we all invited not only our family but also a handful of friends, Jewish or not, for a seder of “audacious hospitality,” and read not only the Haggadah but a whole slew of relevant and appealing materials, from Langston Hughes to Woody Allen. That way, we can reshape Judaism as smarter, funnier, passionate, argumentative and warm, all the virtues we love to boast, attracting more people as we go along.
That, however, will solve only part of the problem. For the Jewish people to grow, we must supplement the existing paths to conversion and offer not only rabbinic-run ceremonies; we also need a quick-and-easy on-ramp — especially for the tens of thousands of born non-Jews who are our husbands, wives andcommitted partners — who define themselves as Jewish but who may not meet the criteria of some rabbis or may not be interested in a fully blown religious, denominational ceremony.
Finally, to succeed in our mission we’ll need to engage with people on what’s really most important to them. Think of creating a Jewish network of life nodes that combines ancient insights with modern thinking. We can instill a Jewish sensibility to life’s engaging pursuits: getting and staying married, making love, making money, even improving our appearance and getting in shape. If everything from one’s daily yoga session — peppered with bits of Jewish wisdom — to one’s afternoon recipe hunt was attached, however loosely, to Jewish themes and ideas, we may be more likely to lead a wholly Jewish life.
If we take these steps, we believe, we can help reverse the current grim trends of assimilation and decline. But the execution of this type of marketing requires much care and sensitivity. It must also be genuine and embrace healthy risk, for the time has come to take real, and at times radical, steps to re-energize the unorthodox. We are at a historical intersection calling for us to usher in our reawakening and reinvention.
Think of the late 19th-century Zionists, or, in a way, even today’s secular Israelis who are constantly recreating what it means to be a Jew — tattoos, spiritually moving music, learning encampments, and all.
The looming decline in the non-Orthodox population is no mere specter, no mere menacing apparition. It is real, tangible, under way and well advanced. Not only must we ask whether our grandchildren will be Jewish. We also need to ask: Will our Jewish grandchildren lead lives with large numbers of Jewishly committed playmates, school chums, friends, and romantic partners? One way to respond is to engage and root our children, by significantly increasing our commitment to Jewish educational endeavors —overnight camps, youth groups, Israel travel, campus outreach and so on.
We need to start talking to a lot more people, and offer a vision of Judaism that is egalitarian, effervescent, deep and rich, a vision of Judaism, in short, that loves you just the way you are. Given his son’s recent romance, we hope Prime Minister Netanyahu will agree.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Marco Greenberg is a public relations and marketing executive and president of Thunder11.
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