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Isha Bekia

Q&A – Assimilation and Inter-marriage – April 2011 – "Jewish Life" magazine

May 18, 2011 | SA Media


Is inter-marriage a problem in South Africa?
Yes, assimilation is an increasing problem. We, as the South African Jewish community, need to shift our mindset.  We need to get out of our comfort zone. There aren’t hard facts and statistics to prove the intermarriage rates, but we do know from the 2005 Kaplan Report that traditionally South Africa has had much lower intermarriage rates that any other community around the world outside of Israel. And substantially less than America, where it’s something like 50 percent and higher in certain areas and communities, where it goes up to 60 or 70 percent. South Africa has over the last few generations done well and we should be proud of that. Even though intermarriage is still relatively low by world standards, I have seen on an anecdotal level, and after having discussed with my rabbinic colleagues and other people, an increase in assimilation, and it is of real concern to me.
Why are we seeing this change – is it merely that we are in line with global trends or is it because SA Jewry is changing as a whole?
South African Jews have always had a very strong, traditional Jewish identity. The thing with traditional Judaism as an identity is that unless it is developed into something which is at a higher level of commitment and understanding, then each generation gets a little bit weaker. So where early generations took a very negative view on intermarriage, those same opinions are softening and it is just a matter of time.
Are we saying we need a more ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ kind of mentality-where no deviation from our parents’ path is tolerated?
What we need to do is start debating and discussing in an honest way. Because if our aversion to intermarriage comes from merely an ethnic solidarity standpoint, then that is problematic. Because our children will ask ‘why not’, and we will need to be able to articulate valid reasons as answers, and set them out from a young age so that our children will already begin to understand what the problem actually is.
Ok – but you haven’t told me what actually is wrong with intermarriage…
That is what we need to discuss, and there are a few problems with it. But what it is really about is Jewish continuity. Intermarriage threatens the continuation of the Jewish people.
But what is the importance of this to those less involved? Why should they care?
Firstly, I think the vast majority of Jews would say that it is important to them to see that our People continue.  Secondly, a most compelling answer to that question is that G-d has given us a mission which began almost 4000 years ago with Abraham and given content and form at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah. He took us out of Egypt, took us to Mount Sinai, and created a nation with a Divine mission which He set out in the principles of the Torah. For that to come to an end would be to turn our backs on the Jews that have come before us and on the mission that G-d has given us.
But maybe they will bring their kids up Jewish?
Once we move outside the definition of Judaism itself as to who is a Jew, then we are not talking about the Jewish people anymore.  It then becomes a vague ethnic memory and that certainly cannot last for more than a generation or two before it is gone.
Who says?
I don’t think there is a Jew around today who can say they come from several generations of Jews who have intermarried and/or have nothing to do with Judaism. The only Jews that exist today are there because within two or three generations, they kept the laws of Judaism and regarded it to be a holy mission from G-d.
So what is the bottom line?
The crucial thing is that it is a decision and choice. Too many of our youth are haphazardly ‘just dating’ a non-Jew. But then one thing leads to another and marriage becomes a real option.
So how do we stop this?
If you take a principled view only to marry a Jew, then only date Jews. Like the Tamlud says, ‘a wise person sees what is born in the future’. You can close your eyes and think that you are just dating, but eventually it might lead to marriage, and you need to have the wisdom to accept from the outset that it is a choice. But it goes back to the fundamental appreciation of what it means to be a Jew.  And that is a way of life that G-d gave us to spread His light into the world. If that is something that is valuable to you, then you cannot throw it away
Unfortunately that is becoming less valuable…
Not really. Even though people may not articulate it, most sense that it is important for Jews  to exist in the world, even the most secular Jews.  We have a long and proud history and destiny which goes back longer than any other nation on earth. But if we don’t do something active about that, then that is where things start to disintegrate.
But when does this ‘principled view’ start – aren’t so many of us hypocritical?
As parents we have to realise that the habits you raise your children around will be what they come to regard as the norm. So if there is no shabbos, kashrut, tzedokka or any of the Torah values that we have in the home, then if a child grows up and he wants to marry a non-Jew and you as his parent say don’t and he asks why not, what is your answer going to be?
What is the answer?
 It all comes down to whether we as parents can convey to our children that to be a Jew is to carry a special and honourable mission from Hashem.  And it is that mission that gives us the energy and inspiration.
What can we practically do to address the problem?
This is why I am grateful for the opportunity of this month’s Q&A. Because first and foremost, as a community we have to start getting out of our comfort zone on this. Because even though we have a much lower intermarriage rate than the rest of the world, we still we have to gear up as a community. And that means education programmes, understanding why, what, how.  This issue can’t be the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. We have to start getting away from the comfort of saying that we are immune from the problems of all other Jewish communities around the world.
But can you give some real advice for our community?
The root cause of this problem, like many others, is ignorance.  When Jews do not understand what Judaism is about and why it is so important and special, then they lose their inspiration and motivation.  And so practically speaking, learning Torah must be one of our top priorities as individuals and as a community.  We must constantly raise the level of Jewish education at all our schools and, as adults, we all need to find time to learn Torah on a regular basis. And also we must strive for excellence in our Judaism and our Jewish identity. The force of time and the modern context do not allow for mediocrity in Jewish identity. As the South African Jewish community we have a long and proud history.  Let us all commit ourselves passionately to a future of Jewish excellence and continuity.