- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Many American Jews lit the eighth menorah candle of Hanukkah last night, ending their most-observed holiday more influential than ever in America but facing new religious and demographic challenges.

The byword for several decades has been Jewish "continuity," or retention of Jewish identity. Yet many Jews worry that the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey to be reported in the next few months will show the battle being lost.

The 1990 survey, the best source of Jewish data, reported that 53 percent of new Jewish marriages were to non-Jews. Few of those intermarried households reared their children with a strong Jewish identity, the survey found.

"Because of that, there really was a significant change in the last 10 years in the attention paid to Judaism," said Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute.

Rabbis and communal leaders were galvanized. More Jewish day schools were opened, and secular Jewish federations funded synagogue projects for the first time.

"Now, we are on the edge of something very interesting," Mr. Abrams said.

Analysts of Jewish life say the next decade could bring a back-to-roots movement that bolsters Jewish identity and marriage, or a broader definition of Jewishness.

The bid for the Democratic vice presidency by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, brought just such a bolster. His candidacy, the first such run by an American Jew, was met with overwhelming approval from Jews.

Though eight in ten Jews voted Democratic in the presidential contest, according to exit polls, nearly a third now call themselves political independents.

Some surveys in November showed younger Jews voting Republican more often than their Democrat-loyal elders, Mr. Abrams said. It's uncertain whether the shift reflects loss of Jewish identity among younger voters, he said, or a weakening of Democratic hold on Jewish life.

"In America, Jewish people are experiencing a remarkable era of freedom, power and affluence," said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, director of leadership programs for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). "That's a paradigm shift."

It is shift from ghettos in Europe and from, for example, the Jewish fight for religious liberty against the Syrians in 165 B.C. that, during Hanukkah, is celebrated by 75 percent of U.S. Jews.

The CLAL programs seek to expand the definition of being Jewish with an optimistic outlook that counters the glum statistics on intermarriage.

"The real question is how to extend as many options [for identity] as possible for the Jewish people," Rabbi Hirschfield said.

He said the vice-presidential candidacy of Mr. Lieberman, who won re-election to his Senate seat from Connecticut, showed that a Jew can observe a very particular religious tradition and still move easily in society as a public figure.

The annual American Jewish Committee survey, issued in September, found that most Jews have no problem with intermarriage. The respondents most favored conversion of the non-Jew in the marriage as a way to ensure a Jewish upbringing for children.

The Jewish denominations, however, still are fighting for two-Jewish-parent households. This month, the youth division of Conservative synagogues put $250,000 into such work.

"We must take the struggle to promote intermarriage to every corner of Jewish life, especially the campus," said Richard Moline, director of a campus program called "Koach."

The view that Judaism, the religion, is the core to identity has become a minority view, according to the AJC poll. It found that 59 percent of respondents belong to a synagogue, but just 16 percent put "religious observance" at the top for Jewish identity.

Nearly half of the respondents placed themselves on a spectrum of being "liberal," and respondents most often picked the "religious right" as the greatest source of anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders widely criticized Mr. Lieberman's campaign calls for an increase in religion's role in public life.

But Mr. Abrams said that Mr. Lieberman "legitimized those views, and after that it will be hard [for Jewish critics] to sustain the idea that it's 'dangerous' to talk about these issues."

He added that with a "growing anti-Israel movement" in the United States because of an increased Arab and Muslim population, Jews will need pro-Israel evangelicals as allies.

"To cope with this, Jews ought to be thinking, 'Well, where are we going to find allies?' "

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