Friday, September 26, 2003

Jews confront challenges as High Holy Days arrive

By Rachel Zoll, The Associated Press
and Karen Vance, Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Benjamin Meyers, 3, demonstrates a shofar, a traditional instrument fashioned from a ram's horn (this one a replica) as classmate Noah Vigran, 3, watches in a pre-school class at the Yavneh Day School in Sycamore Township.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
A once-a-decade study of American Judaism released this month found Jews are better-educated and wealthier than the average American and have reached the highest levels of professional achievement.

So why was the study greeted with dread?

Because in the interviews with thousands of Jews, asking everything from how they pray to whom they marry, another picture emerged as well - of a religion whose teachings are followed by fewer and fewer people.

The Jewish High Holy Days begin tonight as American Jews confront daunting challenges to the survival of their community, with many abandoning the traditions that define their faith.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that Jews have too few children to replace losses in the population and continue to marry non-Jews at high rates, with only about a third of the children of intermarried couples being raised Jewish.

Laura Frenkiel of Clifton is among both the intermarried and the 6,000 to 9,000 Jews the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati estimates to be unaffiliated in the city's 22,500-member Jewish community.

"I really haven't found a temple in town that meets my personality," Frenkiel said. "I enjoy going to the whole gamut from Orthodox to Reform, but I haven't found one that fits with me."

But that hasn't stopped her from enrolling her 6-year-old son at Yavneh Day School, a Jewish private school in Sycamore Township.

"I want him to know about our faith even if he chooses not to attend a synagogue later in life," Frenkiel said.

The report found that's not uncommon. There's increased enrollment in full-time Jewish day schools and college-level Jewish studies courses.

But the study also found a growing alienation between Jews who are active in religious life and those who aren't. The unaffiliated are less likely by far to have close Jewish friends, donate to Jewish causes and feel emotionally attached to Israel, making it harder to draw them back into the fold.

"They are spinning in very different directions, living very different kinds of lives," said Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Frenkiel, 35, is among those and finds herself meeting socially with other unaffiliated younger professional Jewish women, single and married.

Rabbi Hanan Balk of Golf Manor Synagogue said he considers it the synagogue's responsibility to reach out to the unaffiliated. His Orthodox synagogue has informal, educational meetings open to the community.

"A lack of affiliation is not an excuse not to reach out to these people," Balk said. "They have a desire, whether they know it or not, to grow spiritually, and it's our responsibility to help them do that."

But the Cincinnati community also faces a geographic struggle, with more congregations moving northward into suburbs.

Gloria Frankel, who has lived in Roselawn for 35 years and as an Orthodox Jew walks to synagogue, sees the altering of Jewish neighborhoods as a larger threat to the sense of community in the city.

"The neighborhoods are not what they used to be," she said, as she gathered items at Bilker Fine Foods in Blue Ash Thursday in preparation for the holiday.

But for some gathered there, stores like Bilker, which has traditional Jewish foods like honey cake for the holiday, serve as a place in common for all denominations of Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated.

But many Jewish leaders nationally find the intermarriage statistics the most vexing.

The survey estimated that Jews over the last two decades have been marrying non-Jews at a rate of between 40 percent and 50 percent.

Jewish leaders remain divided over whether resources are better spent on persuading intermarried couples to become more observant or supporting Jews who already are.

Rabbi Abie Ingber at Hillel House on the University of Cincinnati campus believes the percentage of intermarriage is actually a positive sign of the health of the faith.

"After 300 years of the Jewish experiment in America, we should be thrilled that we have 40 percent of the population marrying within the Jewish faith," Ingber said. "That's higher than any other ethnic group."

At Hillel, Ingber works to find creative ways to engage Jewish students on campus in their formative years and is successful in bringing more than 50 percent of the Jewish students on campus at one time or another.

"We have to help them find a reason to continue contributing to Jewish culture and community," he said.

Several major Jewish charities are working to address issues the survey uncovers, including one locally, the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, which is partnering with Jewish Family Services to provide information to unaffiliated members of the community.

The organizations have started "Access: Exploring Today's Jewish Options" to "meet people where they're at," said Pam Saeks, director of Jewish giving for the foundation.

"We want to expose folks to their options in the Jewish family, whether they're an interfaith couple or someone who's been away from the faith for some reason or whether they're looking for their Jewish heritage," Saeks said.

The foundation itself is also a part of a growing trend, family foundations, the survey found.

Many donate to non-Jewish, as well as Jewish, causes.

At the same time, rabbis - like ministers and priests - have experienced a loss of status. As Jews became more educated and skeptical of authority, they often turned to religious thinkers other than local clergy as experts on faith.

Synagogues, meanwhile, have focused intensely on shoring up membership and finances, expecting rabbis in some cases to act more like business managers than spiritual leaders, Wertheimer said. As a result, job satisfaction for rabbis plummeted and many seminarians in the 1990s decided not to lead congregations when they graduated.

The insecurity many American Jews feel has roots outside the community as well, with anti-Semitism rising overseas, violence wracking the Mideast, and terrorists threatening the United States. The American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, is working with law enforcement to create a terror alert system for Jewish organizations nationwide.

But nationally, many of the problems facing Judaism are similar to those troubling other American religions, Wertheimer said.

Locally, that's true as well, said Rabbi Mark Goldman of Rockdale Temple. The flight of young professionals from Cincinnati is affecting the Jewish community as well.

"They rarely come back to Cincinnati after college, and then it's a stop along the way. They're running to Chicago and New York and the West Coast," Goldman said.

And when the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins tonight, followed by the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, at sundown Oct. 5, synagogues will fill with worshippers, but most will not return every week.

Like many Christians, a significant number of Jews turn to their faith only for major life events such as weddings and funerals. Fewer than half of the 5.2 million U.S. Jews belong to a synagogue, the survey found.

But that doesn't worry Ingber.

"Judaism has never been about numbers. Our contribution is to the contemporary world community and the history of the civilized world as we know it in America. I'm not worried about whether we have 4.9 million or 5.2 million Jews."

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