Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

A Yiddish word came to mind as I mentally organized this post about the Jewish world’s recent run of distressing news. The word is fakakta, which, out of respect for my audience, I'll politely translate as “all messed up.” It was one of my mother’s favorite rebuttals.

Yiddish terms tend to sound humorous when plopped into English conversation. But for Jews such as myself who are deeply connected to the tribe, there’s nothing’s humorous about the current spate of headlines.

They include the religious turmoil between and within Judaism’s traditional and liberal movements -- plus, of course, the deadly violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians over political control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif.

One slice of this balagan (a Hebrew-Russian word translated as “chaos”) was recently covered — and admirably so -- by The Atlantic magazine. The piece probed North American Conservative Judaism’s internal and ongoing struggle over the place of non-Jews within in the center-left (doctrinally speaking, that is) movement.

I’ll say more about this below.

The quickly evolving Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif story is, undoubtedly, as much a political issue as it is religion story. I'll give it its own post once the situation solidifies.

For now, suffice it to say that for many Jews and Arabs and Muslims, even for whom the issue is more political than religious, the site is a powerful symbol of their side’s just rights in the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. To underscore just how fixed the sides are in their narratives, you might read this piece from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and this piece from Al Jazeera.

Then there’s the ongoing conflict between Jewish Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and Judaism’s more liberal Diaspora movements over prayer space at the Western Wall. I wrote about this a few weeks back, while in Israel.

Since then, the ultra-Orthodox establishment issued a list of non-Orthodox and liberal Orthodox Diaspora rabbis whose right to issue conversions to Judaism was denied. This, of course, served only to ratchet up the dispute.

These are all major issues for committed Jews. But as I indicted above, it's far too much material to cover in one post. So let’s narrow all these related issues (by virtue of their Jewish connection) down to The Atlantic piece, written by the magazine’s very capable religion writer, Emma Green.

Once again, the kernel of the story is intermarriage, and it's place in religious Judaism. It's an important story because of Conservative Judaism’s place as the second largest of North American Judaism’s affiliated movements. Also because as Conservative Judaism goes, so goes the future of center-left Jewish religious affiliation in the United States.

Should Conservative Judaism tilt further left, there frankly will no longer be a Jewish doctrinal center in North America. All that will remain are theologically left-wing (led by Reform Judaism) and its mirror opposite, Increasingly right-wing Orthodox Judaism. Full disclosure: My primary synagogue affiliation is with a Conservative congregation in Annapolis, Maryland, where I live.

I might also note, that for a relatively small, international religion-based community (globally there are only about 15 million Jews, most of them in Israel and the U.S.) that's highly culturally interconnected, what happens in the U.S. fuels the reactions of the community’s Israel-based, Orthodox right wing. As I said above, it's all one fakakta balagan.

Here’s the top of Green’s story.

In late June, 19 rabbis gathered in New York City for an urgent meeting. It wasn’t secret, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t public. The Jewish leaders -- all members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, except for two -- were there to decide what to do about intermarriage.
Since the 1970s, the Conservative movement has banned its rabbis from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews. The denomination is more traditional than the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which both allow their rabbis to decide the intermarriage question for themselves. But over time, Conservative Judaism has also been more willing to make concessions to modern life than Orthodoxy, leaving it distinctly vulnerable to challenges from within on one of its most sensitive policies.
A small, vocal resistance to the Conservative movement’s stance on intermarriage has been building in recent years. Some rabbis left: Adina Lewittes -- once an assistant dean at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary -- decided she couldn’t tolerate the lack of welcome for non-Jews anymore. Or they were kicked out: Seymour Rosenbloom, the recently retired rabbi of Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, wrote an op-ed about marrying his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish husband last spring. Months later, the executive leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly expelled him unanimously after more than four decades in the organization.

As Green correctly notes, intermarriage -- and the fears of its negative impact on the ongoing practice of Judaism the religion, and continued Jewish communal cohesiveness -- has been an issue for American Jews ever since the first Jews came to America, which is to say before the U.S. became an independent nation.

As she also notes, Jewish intermarriage has accelerated in recent decades to the point that:

In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of married Jews in the U.S. have a non-Jewish spouse. That number is smaller within Conservative Judaism, which accounts for roughly one-fifth of American Jews: 27 percent of the denomination’s married members have a spouse who isn’t Jewish. But the ranks of intermarried Jews have been rising steadily since the 1970s, and are only likely to grow. Pew found that 83 percent of married Jews with one Jewish parent have a spouse who is not Jewish.
The rise of intermarriage over the past few decades directly mirrors a decline in American Jews’ engagement with their religion. Of American Jews born between 1914 and 1927, Pew found, 93 percent identify as “Jews by religion.” Among people born after 1980 who have Jewish ancestry or upbringing, however, only 68 percent identify as “Jews by religion.” The rest identify as “Jews of no religion,” meaning they see Judaism only as a facet of heritage, ethnicity, or culture. Of all the American Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism appears to be shrinking the fastest: As of 2013, only 11 percent of Jews under 30 identified as Conservative, compared to 24 percent of Jews over 65, according to Pew.

Clearly, the Jewish intermarriage story has been around for some time. I can't tell you how many times I've written about the issue in some manner. I doubt any religion scribe working the beat for more than the last 30 minutes hasn't also covered the issue repeatedly.

Still, while it's only July, and the annual Jewish High Holy Days, starting with Rosh Hashanah,  remain almost two months away, writers tasked with coming up with an annual story for the occasion might want to hold on to this Atlantic piece for later reference.

Just remember. There’s really no such thing as a wholly domestic Jewish story. What happens here impacts Jews and Judaism in Israel. And what happens in Israel impacts Jews and Judaism in the United States.

It's complicated.

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