PALO ALTO, California – A movie star and an intellectual icon have joined forces to address a growing trend among Jews in the United States: assimilation through intermarriage, and with it, the potential dilution of a storied culture in American life.
Film actor and producer Michael Douglas, endowed with Israel’s second Genesis Prize, is fighting the threat by reaching out to American youth with his own compelling Jewish narrative. On the campuses of Brown University, Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Barbara, he spent the last two weeks explaining how his identification with Judaism began late in life – five years ago, following the lead of his son Dylan, inspired by the simple ritual of candle lighting.
“He had a couple of Jewish friends,” he told a crowd at Stanford on Wednesday of his son, then in middle school, “and he would go over to their houses after school on Fridays for the weekend. And a couple of them celebrated Shabbat. And he would light the candles, and something happened – he felt good inside. He felt something in his heart.”
Dylan asked his Jewish father and his Welsh mother, Catherine Zeta-Jones, for a bar mitzva. He studied for it – aggressively, Douglas said.
“Catherine and I were swept up,” he told the crowd, “by his training and the values that he was bringing into our household and into our family.”
With $1 million in prize money from Genesis – which seeks to energize Jewish youth worldwide through the rewarding of role models – Douglas has found a cause and some financing to further it, sharing his story of cultural growth with other intermarried couples in an effort to keep them wedded to faith.
Over the course of the last decade, community leaders estimate that roughly half of all American Jews have married outside of the religion. That has led to up to 70 percent of children with one Jewish parent growing up in interfaith households, according to Douglas.
His goal is to help further open Abraham’s tent – “lifting the flaps,” he said, “welcoming, and making it open for everyone.
“This has been sort of my pursuit as I’ve seen what’s happened with my son,” he said. “I am not a religious person, per se. But I enjoy being part of the tribe.”
Joining him on the road has been human rights icon, author and refusenik Natan Sharansky, who provided some political heft to the events. The prize – according to Sharansky, who sits on the selection committee – is awarded based on one’s ability to “explain to a young generation the connection between universal values and Jewish values.”
In an interview after the event, Sharansky explained precisely what that connection is to him.
“You have to understand, I’ve spent time over my last several years on over 100 campuses,” he said.
As chairman of the Jewish Agency, he has steadily grown an ambassadorial presence on US campuses nationwide, with over 90 students representing their colleges where Jewish students number 1,000 or more.
“Practically every young man or woman is facing a dilemma whether to be an activist for ‘global values’ or to be an activist with the Jewish world. If he decides he has to choose, he’ll choose global values,” he said. “But that choice is wrong. If you want to have a source of strength for making the world better, that source is your identity.”
At Stanford, seated in plush chairs alongside the Hollywood heavyweight, Sharansky encouraged the attendees not to concern themselves with unwinnable wars: Anti-Semitism, he said, would always persist, whether it be on quads in Palo Alto or in the boulevards of Paris.
“Don’t try to convince our enemies that we’re not as bad as they think,” he said. “It’s a lost cause. But try to make sure that Jews don’t feel embarrassed by their connection to Israel.”
This audience, packed to capacity, was older than those who showed up at Brown – filled with fewer students and more with active members of the Stanford community increasingly concerned with the direction of campus rhetoric on the subject of Israel.
Douglas noticed – he asked audience members to raise their hands if they had visited Israel and virtually everyone had – and so did one student, who asked Sharansky how Israel was confronting allegations of abuse of Palestinians from human rights organizations.
“It has nothing to do with the question of human rights,” Sharansky said, fielding a question specifically about Breaking the Silence, a controversial organization of IDF soldiers against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. “We didn’t want this occupation.”
Noting his longstanding support for a two-state solution, Sharansky said Israel’s national conversation has for decades been over how to roll back the state’s “control over the lives of other people” in a way that is not strategically “suicidal” for the Jewish state.
Protesters associating with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel greeted the event at Brown – roughly two dozen, according to Sharansky’s account – but none were seen on Stanford’s campus.
“That’s a sign the movement isn’t strong here,” said one elderly alumnus as he exited the theater venue.
The event, despite Sharansky’s plea for unity with Israel, was not promoted as an Israel-oriented event. Titled “Jewish Journeys,” the purpose of the tour was the purpose of the Genesis Prize: To remind Jews worldwide of their identity, their shared history and the richness they bestow.
“I saw this prize as a natural continuation of our big struggle for the new generation – whether they will disconnect themselves from their Jewishness, or whether they will be proud of their Jewish identity,” Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post. “Criticism of Israeli policy is legitimate. But where is the line between criticism and new anti-Semitism?” That is a line Sharansky has been working to define since at least 2004, when the scholar endorsed the three “D” test: Efforts to delegitimize Jewish nationhood or religion, to demonize the people or to apply to them double standards in international fora.
Applause broke out for the star team on several occasions, but perhaps never more robustly than for Sharansky’s victory last week in pushing for a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Fewer applauded during his indictment of the nuclear deal reached between world powers and Iran last summer.
“I can’t understand why America changed their principles,” Sharansky said of the deal, questioning why the Obama administration chose to negotiate with Iran only on the nuclear file, and not simultaneously on the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric against Israel and its allies.
But outside of the auditorium, chatter focused not on Iran, the Western Wall or the star power of either man, but on the pressing concern preoccupying Douglas himself: How to preserve a culture and a faith vanishing into secular life at an accelerated pace. For answers, these attendees – just like Douglas – turned to Sharansky, who touched on the topic in the hour-long event.
“We have to be always welcoming,” he said, dismissing old-school definitions of who and what makes for established Jewish identity. “It’s never too late for that person to be part of our mutual exodus. We shouldn’t close any doors.”
Douglas’s father was Jewish. But his mother was not – suggesting to him for years that, despite his own curiosities, he would never fully be embraced by the community as Jewish himself. Because of that, he identified with his son’s struggles. And he hopes to smooth the path ahead of Dylan with help from Genesis Prize Foundation.
Acknowledging his own long, weaving Jewish journey, Douglas asked Sharansky: Of the hundreds of candidates for the prize, why him? “The idea of the Genesis Prize is to identify people who have tremendous contributions to global values, who have influence on people, who are promoting ideas in science and art,” he said, “and at the same time who appreciate their Jewish tradition.”
The goal of the prize, he said, is “to think about what kind of Jewish community we want to be in.”
All of that, plus one other thing. Selfies, Sharansky said with a laugh – thousands of selfies with Michael Douglas.