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The high rate of Jews who marry non-Jews has created a “spiritual holocaust” that threatens the survival of Judaism, says an Orthodox scholar and leading opponent of intermarriage.
Esther Jungreis, an international lecturer who has been called “the Jewish Billy Graham,” equates intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews with self-imposed annihilation on the scale of the Nazi extermination campaign.
Mrs. Jungreis’ comments, in advance of a speech she is to give tonight in Ottawa, have thrown her into the centre of a sensitive debate within the city’s Jewish community. Her use of the Holocaust as an analogy and her criticism of conversions have already received a sharp rebuke from Ottawa’s most prominent Orthodox rabbi, Reuven Bulka.
Mrs. Jungreis says she is disturbed by the prospect of children who grow up in intermarried households without a strong connection to Jewish practices and faith.
“It’s a question of understanding that Hitler’s aim was to annihilate our people, and intermarriage is also a form of annihilation, which is sometimes even more deadly than the Holocaust,” she said.
Her lecture at Carleton University is part of a series organized by an Ottawa Jewish-education group; in order to attract interest, the group is offering to pay students $50 if they attend all four talks.
Mrs. Jungreis, a Holocaust survivor and New York-based author, argues there is a moral imperative for Jews to marry within the faith.
“I was able to raise Jewish children, and they carry on the name and legacy and the heritage of my ancestors, who perished in the Holocaust,” she said.
“But if they intermarry, there’s no one to carry on. Entire families could be wiped out. There’s no memory. That’s what we call spiritual holocaust.”
While Mrs. Jungreis’ opposition to intermarriage reflects the prevailing view among Orthodox Jews, at least one prominent Orthodox Jewish leader in Ottawa takes issue with the way she likens intermarriage to the Holocaust.
“I don’t like using the Holocaust for anything other than what it was, and that is an unprecedented act of evil,” said Rabbi Bulka, of the Orthodox Congregation Machzikei Hadas. “But on the issue (of intermarriage) itself, this is an ongoing communal concern.”
Mrs. Jungreis is the author of The Committed Marriage and Life is a Test: How to Meet Life’s Challenges Successfully. Life is a Test is a call for Jews to strengthen their commitment to their faith.
She is also the founder of the Hineni Heritage Center, a group that promotes Judaism by offering religious education in settings where single Jews mingle. In 2004, she was a speaker at the Republican National Convention and has become a regular guest at the White House.
Her lecture at Carleton, titled The Holocaust and the Final Solution to Intermarriage, is not sponsored by the university, but by Jewish Education through Torah, an Ottawa group whose mission is to promote traditional Jewish education.
The lecture is part of the group’s new outreach program targeting university students, at a time when half the city’s estimated 13,500 Jews don’t belong to a synagogue and nearly seven of 10 marry non-Jews. The trends are similar among Jewish populations across North America.
Mrs. Jungreis rejects the idea that non-Jews who marry Jews can be converted.
“Conversions are usually a sham, you know, in name only. It’s easy come, easy go, and there’s no commitment behind it. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just to accommodate someone in the family.”
That view drew a rebuke from Rabbi Bulka, whose congregation includes a number of converts. “For them it was not a joke, it was not a sham and it’s almost insulting to suggest that.”
His view is echoed by Rabbi Steven Garten of Ottawa’s Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue. He calls Mrs. Jungreis’ ideas about conversion “antiquated.”
“I think it’s a fallacy to say if you intermarry, by definition you neglect the Jewish faith and don’t raise your children in that tradition,” said Rabbi Garten, whose congregation includes many intermarried couples.
“The conversions that I see are not fraudulent at all. They reflect a personal commitment to Judaism. If the choice is between two Jews marrying who make no commitment to Judaism and a couple who are intermarried but choose to raise their children in the Jewish faith, I’d choose the latter.”
Barry Levy, dean of the faculty of religious studies at McGill University, said such polarized views of intermarriage and conversion are intensifying at a time when the world’s Jews — estimated to number about 20 million — are dwarfed by the billions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
“Clearly, on a political level, it’s a major concern because if you have a high intermarriage rate, after a couple of generations, the assumption is that the number of Jews will decrease significantly,” said Mr. Levy.
He indicated that despite making up a minority of the Jewish community, Orthodox Jews stand to become a dominant force in Judaism in the near future.
“These people have a much higher rate of child-bearing and they have a much more successful strategy for teaching commitment to their religion.”
In that way, Mr. Levy noted, the Jewish debate over intermarriage and conversion, which pits the Orthodox minority against a largely liberal majority, reflects a religious polarization that is increasingly found in other religions.
“What you find is that the most successful groups today are the fundamentalist groups, whether they be evangelical Christians, Muslims or Hindus, because they are the ones that are growing, that are maintaining their community identities and that are actually succeeding in convincing people to adhere to their traditions,” said Mr. Levy.
“The more liberal groups are the ones that are being weakened.”
According to a study published last year by the Jewish Outreach Institute, the face of Jewish Ottawa is changing dramatically because of intermarriage, immigration and integration.
The study, based on 2001 Census figures, indicated that half of the city’s married Jews have a spouse who is a non-Jew. In families that are nominally Jewish, nearly two-thirds of children under five live in intermarried households.
The rate of intermarriage is rising sharply given that nearly seven out of 10 Jews under the age of 30 marry outside of their faith.
The figures suggest that without migration from other provinces or countries, Ottawa’s Jewish population would have fallen significantly.
For that reason, organizations such as Jewish Education through Torah, which teaches from an Orthodox perspective, are targeting more outreach efforts at university students. The idea is to reach them at a stage when they’re searching for a life partner as well as answers to life.
“This is an age when people are most disconnected from religion generally, and a lot of people are searching. From a Jewish perspective, we feel that a lot of people know they’re Jewish but they don’t really know what Judaism is, “ said Rabbi Zischa Shaps, director of the Jewish Education through Torah.
The four-lecture series on why Jews should marry within the faith (Mrs. Jungreis’ lecture is the second in the series) marks the launch of the group’s campus outreach program.
To attract more people, the group has taken the unusual step of offering a $50 stipend to students who attend all the lectures. Rabbi Shaps said about 20 students attended the first lecture when it was held last month.
The talk by Esther Jungreis, The Holocaust and the Final Solution to Intermarriage, takes place Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in room 360 of the Tory Building at Carleton University. It is open to the public.
(Posted on March 12, 2007)