Keeping non- religious Jews in the fold


By Arkady Mamaysky

Arkady Mamaysky

TARRYTOWN, New York — The following is an attempt to present just a few of the many reasons that contribute to a decline in numbers of the US Jewish population.

Is being Jewish a religion or ethnicity?

For many this is a confusing question, but it shouldn’t be. Jewish people are an ethnicity, like any other ethnicity. A person is Jewish based on being born into a Jewish family, sharing a common history with the rest of the Jewish people, having some commonality in DNA, exhibiting frequent similarities to other Jews in physical appearance, and having many other traits shared by a people.

For a good number of Jewish people, especially highly-educated young people who are familiar with modern science, it is difficult if not impossible to accept that being Jewish just means believing in Judaism. This is even if they believe in God, as does yours truly.

A Jewish person who is an atheist is still Jewish.

Even according to the Torah, when some ancient Hebrew-Jewish people would revert to paganism as a result of various influences – which was actually conversion to another religion – they were punished for committing a sin but never stopped being Hebrew-Jewish.

So being Jewish is an ethnicity. It means belonging to the Jewish nation/ethnically Jewish group of people.

So what makes some young, and sometimes not only young, people distance themselves from Judaism? What persuades those people that being Jewish and practicing Judaism are one and the same? And why do they think that not practicing Judaism implies distancing themselves from the Jewish nation and, as result, from Israel?

Many stories in the Torah and Tanakh represent a view of the world held by people who lived millennia ago based on their knowledge and superstitions at this ancient time. Also, many stories contain instructions about various atrocities and killing often presented as commandments of God.

For a modern well-educated person, especially a young person who is witnessing the advancement of science, it is difficult if not impossible to base the belief in God on a literal interpretation of these stories.

The rabbis must constantly explain, verbally and in publications, that these stories represent legends and myths that found their place into our holy books to make certain points and teach certain moral lessons – not to be taken literally.

Regarding the requirements in our holy books of killing and committing other atrocities, the rabbis must explain that these requirements represent the views and rules of war of people who lived in ancient times rather than the commandments of our merciful God.

Such persistent explanations from rabbis will help strengthen the belief in God and answer questions of those who distance themselves from Judaism.

Realizing that being Jewish is an ethnicity that entails belonging to our small but great Jewish Nation, and realizing that belief in God does not come from the literal interpretation of our holy books, should help some people who might otherwise distance themselves from Jewishness.

Various Jewish organizations should do a better job teaching the community about the greatness of the Jewish Nation and our many contributions to humanity and all spheres of human enterprise, despite suffering from hatred and persecution. Jewish organizations should emphasize Jewish intellectual abilities, Jewish family values, and Jewish moral values – and thus teach pride in being a Jew and instill pride in Israel.[1]

Jewish people are naturally being assimilated into American multinational society and our youngsters should feel no restriction to marry a person they love. Some Jewish spouses in intermarried couples might think that, if their kids grow up as non-Jews, they will be protected from anti-Semitism and centuries-long hatred.

And yet if the Jewish spouse is proud of being part of the Jewish people and knowledgeable about Jewish achievements and contributions to the world, despite our tough history, then he or she would be able to convey this pride and knowledge to the non-Jewish spouse.

Similarly, if the Jewish spouse is religious and has a good understanding of how to interpret our holy books, he or she might even convince the non-Jewish spouse to convert. Whether or not the non-Jewish spouse converts, if Jewish knowledge and pride are part of the atmosphere of the household, then the children will be brought up feeling part of the Jewish people. As a result, intermarriage can lead to an increase rather than a decrease of the Jewish population.

The above requires a concerted daily effort of our multi-denominational Jewish community and it constitutes an important part of preventing some of us from distancing themselves from Judaism, the Jewish nation and Israel.


[1] As one noteworthy example, Jews constitute 0.2% of world’s population but 22% of Nobel Price winners.
Mamaysky is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York

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