A recent article by preeminent Jewish historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna demonstrates how, contrary to predictions, rifts between American Jewish denominations have failed to tear our community asunder -- even between Orthodox and the more liberal streams -- and in fact, there's considerably more unity than anyone might have imagined a decade or two ago.
Though Dr. Sarna doesn't mention it, perhaps part of the explanation for this lack of denominational strife is because all the movements are experiencing a trend toward greater Jewish ritual practice. Non-Orthodox Jews are rediscovering the mikvah (ritual bath), and Reform Judaism's growing interest in ritual practice is particularly striking considering the movement's founding rejection of such "ideas entirely foreign to our present [1880s] mental and spiritual state."
This shift toward more ritual practice, as well as the intensified search for spirituality demonstrated by the rise in independent minyanim (prayer groups), might suggest that the greatest rift in the Jewish community is between religious Jews (of all denominations) and the non-religious, or believers versus non-believers, or perhaps between the synagogue-affiliated and the unaffiliated.
But that's not it. There are countless ways to get deeply involved in Jewish life without having to engage in religious Judaism. Some of the community's finest leaders are not religious at all but express their Judaism through political, social, and/or cultural activities. You don't need to be involved religiously to be involved Jewishly.
Likewise, the biggest divide is not intermarriage, though some continue to blame the trend for creating two completely different "Jewries." Intermarriage in and of itself doesn't determine anything other than a diversification of our gene pool. Intermarried Jews and children of intermarriage have become Jewish philanthropists, presidents of their synagogues (when allowed to be), and dedicated Jewish communal professionals. A terrible disservice is done to the half-million to one million non-Jewish parents helping to raise Jewish children whenever our community commissions yet another study to demonstrate how different the intermarried are from the in-married. It's a red herring.
The biggest divide in the Jewish community is between "insider" and "outsider." And that divide is growing wider, to the point where we may see an irreparable, Arctic-ice-shelf-like drop-off in the Jewish population over the next 20 years, if we can't find a way to better bridge the gap between the inside and out.
"Insiders" can be of any denomination, post-denominational or anti-denominational; they can be in-married, intermarried or single; heterosexual or LGBT; religious, agnostic or atheist. But what they all have in common is a deep engagement with their Jewish identity, which often (though not always) manifests itself through participation in the organized Jewish community.
"Outsiders" don't. They aren't involved in synagogues, JCCs, Jewish Federations, or the new organizations of Jewish expression sprouting up, and being Jewish is tangential to their overall identity. Whether it's apathy or anger; their rejection of Judaism, or their feelings of being rejected by the Jewish community; or that they simply don't know or don't believe there's any good reason for them to dig deeper, "outsiders" have weak links to their own Jewish identities.
And in general, "insiders" are moving toward more Judaism and increased expressions of Jewish identity, while "outsiders" are growing further away from the community. The middle is dropping out. Decades ago you could do nothing Jewish but still have a very strong ethnic Jewish identity, or live in an all-Jewish neighborhood and be Jewish by default; those days are gone, and to be Jewish requires many more conscious decisions than in the past.
Of course, these labels of "insider" and "outsider" are oversimplifications, as are all labels. Many Jews move in and out of engagement with their Jewish identity over time, so that most of us know what it feels like to have been both an "insider" and an "outsider" to the Jewish community at different points in our lives, sometimes even both at the same time.
Nevertheless, considering that the Jewish community has grouped individuals into categories for generations -- for ease of comparison so that we might diagnose what is inevitably wrong with us -- I believe "insider"/"outsider" is both the most important and least examined dichotomy in the Jewish community today. And I'm alarmed, as I work with the inside of the community, how little-recognized the phenomenon is, and how few in the community realize its magnitude. Literally millions of American Jews are headed toward the exits, and we aren't putting nearly enough resources toward trying to convince them that it's worth it for them to engage or re-engage.
The challenge is that so much of the inside of our community can feel so..."insidery." To be an "insider" means, by definition, to exclude others. And yes, there are far more children of intermarriage, GLBT Jews, and multiracial Jewish families on the outside of the organized Jewish community, so any growth strategy must include providing access for specific populations. But the first step is to see our community through the eyes of our "outsiders," which is difficult and uncomfortable for our "insiders" to do. Many "insiders" I've worked with believe their community is amazingly warm and welcoming, and it is -- to them. They need to recognize why it's not to those on the outside.
The Jewish community is blessed with so-called "mega-donors" who are trying to make sweeping changes to demographic trends through programs of culture and education, like free Israel trips for Jewish youth. And I am encouraged by the growing recognition that any appeal to those on the outside should not be based on the traditional Jewish tactics of fear or guilt. This is about sharing the hope and meaning that those of us on the inside have experienced, and that we know our community can provide.
However, new programs should be honest about their goals. Are they genuinely trying to engage "outsiders" in Jewish life, or are they creating new forms of Jewish expression for those already on the inside? Both goals are meritorious, but only one will address the future growth of the Jewish community. If we genuinely want to reach the "outsiders," our programs of welcoming and engagement need to be greatly amplified and directed at all Americans, because that's where the Jews are now. This is not an either-or proposition; we can continue to delight in the new forms of Jewish expression our young insiders are creating for themselves, but let's also bring Judaism into the marketplace of ideas so that we can engage many more of those currently on the outside of our community.