Attention American Jews: Let's Not Be Afraid

It is time to stop being afraid!

Afraid? Haven't you read the Pew report, "A Portrait of Jewish Americans"? American Jews aren't afraid. They are proud. They are happy to be Jewish... at least those who acknowledge that they are Jewish are proud of that fact.

No, the message of do not be afraid is to all the men and women who have been wringing their hands at the results and wondering how they can solve this dilemma. According to the Pew study, every movement is on the decline and many Jews don't even affiliate with any organized Jewish life. And of course, the most upsetting of all news, 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying and, of those, the majority are not raising their children as Jewish.

It's time that the Jewish world recognize, accept and even verbalize the truth. Some Jews walk away from Judaism. I wish this was new information, but a certain percentage of Jews have been lost in every generation. A person who knows Jewish history can find panic over assimilationist tendencies during the Roman era, the Golden Age of Spain, and during the so-called Enlightenment. Perhaps the greatest difference was that in earlier eras, Jews left the fold by making a definitive choice rather than slowly drifting away.

So why should Jews-who-care not be afraid that North American Jewry is declining? Because we are still here! How many other people can point to a continuous tradition over three thousand years old?

Pew's "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" focuses on the wrong side of Jewish diversity, on the diversity of religious performance, when perhaps the most significant diversity that should be commented on is the physical and geographical diversity that has been critical to the survival of Judaism. Jews are not a nation, or a people, or a family, but all of these together. Jews have lived in almost every country in the world and, in doing so, have taken on the tone and timbre of those cultures, and yet through our thousands of years of travel have remained singularly unique.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that the Jewish world has been making a great fuss over the results of the Pew study, few have commented on an article in the New York Times: "Genes Suggest European Women at Root of Ashkenazi Family Tree," by Nicholas Wade. The article explored the findings reported in "A Substantial Prehistoric European Ancestry Amongst Ashkenazi Maternal Lineages" (Martin B. Richards, author), which was published in Nature Communications. The reported study sought to be the next step in the fascinating examination of the Jewish people through their genetic make up. These studies, which began in the 1990s, were at first only able to look at the paternal DNA, and some extraordinary connections were discovered between Jews all over the world (such as a common gene among those of priestly descent).

This newest study, on the other hand, specifically examined the matrilineal DNA of Ashkenazi Jews. Their conclusion was that going back thousands of years the source code of the matrilineal DNA came from four women who were European as opposed to being from the Near East. The supposition with which the study concluded was that these women were most probably locals who converted and married Jews who traveled into what was then the European frontiers.

On first read, this may seem to be a shocking conclusion. After all, Jews pride themselves as being a united family, the children of the matriarchs and the patriarchs... so who were these non-Israelite foremothers? The shock abates once one actually looks around at the people who make up the Jewish world. Jews come in every shape and size, color and ethnicity. Jews have settled in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and living in such diverse locations has unquestionably influenced Jewish life. Just look at the different traditions and costumes of Jews from places such as Morocco, Russia and Hungary.

The concept of the Jewish people as a united family is a concept of spiritual genetics. This is why, after a person converts, he or she is forthwith known by their chosen Hebrew name followed by ben/bat Avraham Avinu v'Sarah Eemanu (Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother). Genetic studies such as the one published in Nature Communications may be fascinating, but any conclusions drawn from it are purely academic. If the Jewish people claimed to be genetically linked, one would need only point out the thousands of converts throughout history that are not, technically, family. Indeed, both Moses and Joshua married women who chose to join the Jewish people. (Click here to read more about Tzipporah and Rachav.)

In every generation, the Jewish people have adapted to the cultures in which we have lived, and Judaism has continued to thrive. We've taken in the physical and cultural standards of the countries in which we have lived, and yet we have remained a unique people. It doesn't matter if one is a Yeminite who blows a long shofar, a Jew from India who serves curry for Shabbat dinner or a chassid from Hungary who wears a fur shtreimel, because we are all Jews who are dedicated to Jewish life.

The Pew results are seen by many to be a call to Jewish activists to come and rescue Jewish life in North America. The most frequent numbers pulled from the Pew are about people moving away from Jewish life or intermarrying, and so now everyone is trying to solve "the problem."

Unfortunately, when activists start looking at a problem they start seeing only numbers. People become statistics, organizations become factors and good intentions become fodder for criticism. But the Jewish people are who we are because of our intellectual creativity, our innate spirit and, most importantly, our drive survive.

Instead of searching out problems and solutions, maybe we need to trust ourselves, our heritage and our Torah, and take a moment to marvel at the strength of Jewish life that has survived so many cultures throughout so many centuries.