Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
Redrawing the lines of what is acceptable is exactly what American Judaism is doing these days. Jews, who make up roughly 2 percent of the total U.S. population (about half of what it was 50 years ago), are facing what observers perceive as a general weakening of Jewish identity. Outreach efforts to build loyalty among disconnected Jews began in the 1970s and accelerated after the publication of the landmark 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which found that American Jews had intermarried at a rate of 52 percent from 1985 to 1990. A 2001 survey shows that the intermarriage rate has leveled off at 51 percent. Yet a decade ago, 3.4 million adults, or 41 percent of the American Jewish population, said they were of Jewish parentage and that their religion was Jewish. By 2001, that number had dropped to 2.8 million, or 28 percent. "You have an ever growing population of people who are of Jewish ancestry but not of the Jewish faith," says Egon Mayer, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who conducted both studies. "There are a very large number of Jews who will tell you, `I'm Jewish but I'm Quaker' or `I'm Jewish but I don't have a religion."'
Because Judaism rejects proselytizing, its teachings are typically handed down from parent to child. "Jewish life is focused very much in the home," says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for Conservative synagogues in North America. "We see intermarriage as a challenge to that." The response to marrying outside the faith varies widely among the four main branches of Judaism. A generation or so ago, Orthodox Jews, a more traditional wing, would likely have mourned a Jewish relative who married a non-Jew as if he or she had died. Today, while the movement still won't acknowledge the marriage, individual Orthodox Jews are more likely to maintain a relationship with the Jewish spouse. For its part, the Reform movement, the largest and fastest-growing division, has accepted patrilineal descent as another way of determining Jewish identity--traditionally passed on only through the maternal line. Before 1983, when the policy changed, Cooley's children wouldn't even have been called Jewish.
But even such flexibility has its limits. Nowhere, for instance, is intermarriage actively encouraged. And not many Reform rabbis perform interfaith weddings. Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah, who doesn't marry non-Jews, nonetheless doesn't discourage interfaith couples. "If you share something with someone, marry them," he says. "There are ways to work it out." What will do more for Judaism, says Zemel, is to "deepen the center while leaving the door open wide." -Linda Kulman
Hindu in the Bible Belt
Wrapped in a traditional Indian sari, Jyotsna Paruchuri sits cross-legged before an effigy of Durga, an eight-armed Hindu warrior goddess, while a priest chants the deity's 108 names in Sanskrit and lays a garland of limes at the statue's feet. During the hourlong ceremony--known as Durga puja, or worship--the priest invokes Durga's spirit in the 63-year-old Paruchuri. In the rite's final act, Paruchuri receives a gift platter laden with bananas and a smoky gray sari--along with a Revlon makeup compact and a bottle of Chantilly perfume.