Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Being Jewish in a modern world

The Pew Research Centre’s recent report on Jewish identity is a sobering reality check on Jewish identity and what it means.  Although the report is based on American Jews, there are many factors that lend themselves to diaspora Jews in general. 
Of the report, the most alarming figure that comes to mind is that 58% of Jews marry out of the faith.  That means that it’s more common for Jews to marry non-Jews in America today.
When I look at Jews in Australia today, it is also quite common for Jews to marry out of the faith with figures reportedly ranging from 25% to 30%, although in reality it can be much higher.  Although intermarriage has always occurred, it is only in the last 50 years that it seems to have taken on an ever increasing rate. 
But what is driving this increasing rate of Jews leaving the fold, as it were.  Does being born Jewish really mean anything anymore?  The reality is that there has probably been a steady erosion of Jewish identity through the years, and by saying Jewish identity I don’t mean just religious - being Jewish means lots of things to lots of people.
Perhaps with increasing globalization, we consider ourselves citizens of the world, rather than any ethnic religious group.  It might be that in this ever busy world where time is the most precious commodity, we don’t have the patience to be bothered with something so seemingly trivial as Jewish identity.  It could even boil down to simple economics.  Getting a formal Jewish education at a Jewish day school in Australia is highly prohibitive, costing up to $30000 for a single student, meaning if you had three kids, you’d require an additional income of $100000 a year, which puts it out of many peoples’ reach.  There are, of course, alternatives such as yeshiva schools, but not everyone is comfortable with sending their children to a religious environment.
The reality is that there is probably no single factor that has caused Jewish identity to erode, but it is a reality of assimilation in an open and free world of which no diaspora community is immune from America all the way to Australia.  The most important reality check in all this is that children of mixed marriages, even with a Jewish mother, have diminishing chances of retaining their Jewish identity in the future.
Is that even important though?  Well, that depends on the individual and how important being Jewish means to you.  We are a part of a 4000 year old people that somehow through pogroms, exile, war and genocide have still managed to remain as an identifiable people through the ages.
Over 300 years ago, Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher, was asked by King Louis XIV of France to give him proof of miracles. Pascal answered: "Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews."
I don’t believe that as a people, the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing; however as individuals many of us are destined to be absorbed into our surrounding cultures, leaving our Jewish heritage behind. 

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