Mosaic Magazine

Monthly Essay September 2013

Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?

Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?
  

The battle is over; or so we’re told. A half-century after the rate of Jewish intermarriage began its rapid ascent in the United States, reaching just under 50 percent by the late 1990s, many communal spokesmen appear to have resigned themselves to the inevitable.

Some speak in tones of sorrow and defeat. Encouraging endogamy, they say, has become a fool’s errand; few Jews are receptive to the message, and short of a wholesale retreat into the ghetto, no prophylactic measure will prevent them from marrying non-Jews. For others, the battle is over because it should be over. Not only, they say, are high rates of intermarriage inevitable in an open society, but they constitute glorious proof of just how fully Jews have been accepted in today’s America. The real threat, according to this view, emanates from those who stigmatize intermarried families as somehow deficient; with a less judgmental and more hospitable attitude on the part of communal institutions, many more intermarried families would be casting their lot with the Jewish people.1

To anyone familiar with Jewish history, these views must sound novel in the extreme. For Jews, after all, intermarriage has been a taboo since antiquity. First enshrined in biblical texts prohibiting Israelites from marrying into the surrounding nations, the ban was later expanded in the rabbinic period to encompass all non-Jews. Nor, contrary to the fevered imaginings of anti-Semites, are Jewish endogamy norms the product of clannishness or misanthropy. Rather, they were introduced as a means of insuring Judaism’s transmission—by born Jews as well as by the converts to whom Judaism has almost always been open—from one generation to the next.

For any small minority, such transmission is no simple undertaking; history is littered with examples of extinct national groups and faith communities that, for want of a successful strategy to preserve their distinctive identities, were swallowed by majority cultures. In the Jewish community, though some always strayed from its embrace, the norm was upheld, and those who did stray were regarded as transgressors of a sacred proscription.

Against the whole sweep of Jewish communal history, then, to declare defeat on this front is a decidedly abnormal if not a preposterous response. What is more, it is totally at odds with, if not subversive of, the view held by the more engaged sectors of the American Jewish community today: Jews who affiliate themselves with synagogues and the major organizations. In a much-discussed 2011 survey of New York-area Jews, nearly three-quarters of those for whom being Jewish was “very important” said they would be upset if a child of theirs married a non-Jew. Among the synagogue-affiliated, the same strong preference for endogamy was expressed by 66 percent of Conservative Jews and 52 percent of Reform Jews; for Orthodox Jews, the figure rose to 98 percent. Similar patterns have surfaced in a national survey of Jewish leaders, including younger leaders who are not yet parents.

It is simply not true, then, that the battle against intermarriage is over. But what should or could be done to counteract it, and how should American Jewish institutions address the issue?

This is a tale that must be told in parts.

 

1. Causes and Consequences

It is impossible to understand today’s defeatist response to intermarriage without first taking in the sheer dimensions of the phenomenon and the rapidity of change that has accompanied and followed from it.

For much of the 20th century, intermarriage rates among Jews hovered in the single digits. Then, in the second half of the 1960s, they suddenly jumped upward, rising to 28 percent in the 1970s and from there to 43 percent in the second half of the 80s. By the late 1990s, 47 percent of Jews who were marrying chose a non-Jewish spouse. Although no national survey has been conducted since the National Jewish Population Study [NJPS] of 2000-01, there is reason to believe that rates have continued to rise over the past decade.

What accounts for the massive uptick? A good portion of the answer can be traced to broader trends in America society. Until the 1960s, as the historian Jonathan Sarna has observed, Americans of all kinds strongly favored marrying within their own religious and ethnic communities and frowned upon cross-denominational unions. But those barriers no longer exist, leaving Jews to face “a cultural mainstream that legitimates and even celebrates intermarriage as a positive good.” In a further reversal, opposing such marriages now “seems to many people to be un-American and [even] racist.”

Reinforcing this trend is the fact that American society in general has become a far more hospitable place. Where discriminatory policies once limited the numbers of Jews on elite university campuses, in certain industries or neighborhoods, and at restrictive social and recreational clubs, today’s Jews gain easy entry into every sector of American society. Not surprisingly, some meet and fall in love with their non-Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and social intimates.

 

Each of these factors, intensified by the social mobility and porous boundaries characteristic of contemporary America, especially among its educated and affluent classes, has contributed to the domino-like effect of ever-increasing intermarriage. In turn, the intermarriage wave is what has contributed to the sense among rabbis, communal leaders, and others that resisting the phenomenon is like trying to alter the weather.

And yet, unlike the weather, intermarriage results from human agency. Undoubtedly, larger social forces are at work; but individual Jews have chosen to respond to them in particular ways. They have decided whom they will date and marry, and, when they marry a non-Jew, they have again decided how their home will be oriented, how their children will be educated, and which aspects of Judaism and of their Jewish identities they will compromise for the sake of domestic peace. Whatever role “society” plays in these decisions, it does not dictate them.

It is important to raise this point early on because of a running debate about how best to understand the “why” of intermarriage in individual cases. What motivates an individual Jew to choose to marry a non-Jew?  Many researchers locate the source in poor Jewish socialization: specifically, the experience of growing up in an unaffiliated or weakly affiliated home and receiving a thin Jewish education. Undoubtedly, this holds true in numerous cases. But to suggest that intermarriage is merely or mostly a symptom of poor socialization is to ignore those Jews whose parents are highly engaged, who have benefited from the best the Jewish community has to offer, and who nevertheless, for one reason or another, have ended up in an interfaith marriage.

A more productive approach is to view intermarriage not simply as a symptom but as a complex and dynamic human phenomenon with both multiple causes and multiple consequences—consequences that affect the lives of the couple in question, their families, and the relevant institutions of the Jewish community. It is the consequences that most concern us here, for in their aggregate they comprise the challenge that has long faced Jewish leaders and policy makers.

To begin with the couple: when two people from different religious backgrounds set about establishing the ground rules of their home life, whose religious holidays will they celebrate? Will children be raised with the religion of one parent, with no religion, with two religions?  If in Judaism, will the Gentile parent participate in religious rituals in the home and synagogue? And how will this new nuclear family relate to its extended family? If the intermarried family identifies itself as Jewish, will children visit with non-Jewish family members on the latters’ holidays— joining grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for Christmas and Easter dinners and perhaps church services? How to deal with inevitable changes in feelings, as when spouses rediscover strong residual emotion for the religion of their birth, or when divorce occurs and partners are no longer invested in the need for compromise?  

Faced with divided or multiple loyalties, one or both partners may respond to any of these questions by simply avoiding religious differences, by making serial accommodations, or by succumbing to resentment and temporary or permanent discontent. None of these responses is neutral, and each can have a ripple effect far beyond the intermarrying pair.

Parents of Jews face their own challenges, starting when an adult child announces his or her decision to marry a Gentile. If the decision collides with the parents’ understanding of Jewish responsibility, father and mother must come to grips with their powerlessness to alter it. When grandchildren are born, they must reconcile themselves to the possibility that their descendants may be lost to Judaism. If they are intent on maintaining their ties to children and grandchildren, as most parents quite understandably are, they must make whatever peace they can with the new realities.

In doing so, parents often turn to Jewish institutions to help smooth the way for their intermarrying or intermarried offspring. Some parents have insisted that rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings. When grandchildren arrive, they may clamor for a change in the longstanding rabbinic definition of Jewish identity as determined solely by the mother. (The Reform movement has already instituted that change.) There have also been demands for extending to Gentile spouses the opportunity to participate in synagogue governance with full membership rights.

 

A half-century ago, none of this would have been imaginable. Now it is taken for granted, and the end is not yet in sight. What is more, both the challenges and the demands have been met by many of the relevant Jewish institutions with a response ranging from acquiescence and accommodation to outright enthusiasm.

Today, hundreds of rabbis, far from turning away couples seeking rabbinic blessings, lead nuptials with all the trappings of a traditional ceremony: a groom with a yarmulke perched on his head, the breaking of a glass, even some form of the traditional Jewish marriage contract and some of the traditional “Seven Benedictions”—all designed to create the impression that a perfectly normal Jewish wedding is in progress even though one partner is not Jewish in any sense. A considerable number of rabbis and cantors are also happy to co-officiate at weddings with Christian clergy, each side incorporating elements of its own religious traditions and thereby blurring the boundaries between them. All that is asked, if it is asked, is a vague promise from the couple that children will be raised as Jews.

Congregations also permit non-Jewish spouses to take part in religious services and serve on synagogue committees that set policies for how a Jewish life should be conducted. (A rabbi of my acquaintance reported his befuddlement when a member of his synagogue’s religious-education committee appeared at a meeting one Ash Wednesday evening with a cross etched on her forehead.) In a step further, at least one major rabbinical school appears set to permit intermarried Jews themselves to enroll and train to become spiritual leaders of the Jewish community.

Nor is the pattern of accommodation limited to synagogues. American Jewish organizations of all stripes, faced with the need or the desire to adjust to new realities, have adopted a slew of previously inconceivable policies. Few would think now of discriminating against an intermarried Jew applying for membership, or refrain from honoring such persons at fundraising dinners, or ban them from serving on or chairing a board of trustees. For some organizations, even Gentiles who are married to Jews may be elevated to high office.

In brief, diverted from their traditional role of encouraging families to deepen their connections to Jewish life into the unprecedented role of accepting, validating, and offering therapeutic counseling to families divided by religion, Jewish religious and communal leaders have largely adopted a formula out of the playbook of those urging an embrace of the status quo.  

That formula places primacy on doing nothing that might alienate intermarried families and everything to bring them in, on the theory that intermarriage will actually contribute to the strengthening of Judaism and the Jewish people by the addition of a whole new population attracted to the faith of Israel. Through the unrelenting efforts of an “outreach” industry—comprising personnel at several organizations whose sole mission is to promote the perceived interests of intermarried Jews, social workers and counselors attached to Jewish community centers and federations of Jewish philanthropies, advisers to rabbinical boards, and others whose livelihoods are based on working with the intermarried—a set of five do’s and don’ts has become implicitly enshrined as communal policy.

First, the best response to intermarriage is public silence; any talk about the subject is apt to drive away intermarried Jews and their extended families. Second, Jews contemplating intermarriage are to be treated with solicitude and never challenged to consider the personal or communal implications of their decisions. Third, the community should soft-pedal the importance of who stands next to a Jew under the bridal canopy, and likewise the importance of a Jewish pedigree in the creation of a Jewish family. Fourth, to ask intermarried families to commit themselves wholeheartedly to Jewish life is an imposition doomed to failure. Fifth, insofar as the topic of the next generation comes up, Gentile spouses who permit and facilitate their children’s Jewish education are to be praised but never asked to convert to Judaism.

 

2. The Results are In

Such are the beliefs of those stressing not only the futility but the sheer counter-productivity of resistance. Enough time has passed by now to enable a fair test of this hypothesis and an overall assessment of the past half-century’s experiment in intermarriage and its effects.

If we look at the phenomenon in the aggregate, a negative judgment is inescapable. The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts. The 2000-01 NJPS offers ample evidence comparing the two populations. In the realm of religious engagement, four times fewer intermarried families than in-married families join and regularly attend a synagogue, and five times fewer keep a kosher home. The same trends obtain in the area of social and communal participation: three times fewer intermarried families report that two or more of their closest friends are Jewish, and four to five times fewer join and volunteer for Jewish organizations or contribute to Jewish philanthropy.

The picture is similar in local communities. According to the 2011 study of New York’s Jewish population, in-married families outperform intermarried families by ratios of two-to-one or three-to-one on most measures of Jewish involvement; the largest gaps appear in relation to such key activities as “belonging to a congregation, lighting Shabbat candles, attending services at least monthly, and having closest friends who are mostly Jewish.”

Communal surveys in other large cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Cleveland tell the same tale. Asked whether spending time with Jewish friends is important, 64 percent of in-married families in Baltimore say yes as compared with only 14 percent of intermarried families; asked about “being part of the Jewish community of Baltimore,” 62 percent of the in-married respond that this is very important as compared with only 8 percent of the intermarried. Mapping these large disparities, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen sums up the overall situation in the title of his 2006 study: A Tale of Two Jewries.

What about winning the allegiance of the next generation? Here, at least, the trend lines are partially mixed. The proportion of intermarried families claiming to raise their children as Jews seems to have increased from one-fifth in 1990 to one-third a decade later—still disappointingly low, but progress of a sort. More recent studies report wide variations: three-fifths in communities like Boston and Cincinnati, one-half in Chicago, but under one-third in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, and New York. In newer communities, intermarried families accord even lower priority to a Jewish education: a 2011 survey of the East Bay area near San Francisco found only about one-fifth of the intermarried assigning importance to this goal versus three-quarters of the in-married.

How to explain these divergences?  Clearly, not all intermarried families are alike. Levels of Jewish connection differ as between families with an unambiguous commitment to Judaism and families exposing their children to aspects of two distinct religions; between those residing close to vital centers of Jewish life and those living at a geographic remove; between those where the Jewish partner has benefited from a strong Jewish background and those where the Jewish partner has not (the “socialization” factor). The sex of the Jewish parent matters a great deal, too. Analyzing intermarried families identified with Reform Judaism, the sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman finds that on most measures of Jewish practice and involvement, from ritual circumcision to schooling to observance of holidays and synagogue attendance, fewer Jewish men than women seem able or willing to assume active responsibility; in other words, the role of a Jewish mother remains key.

Still, variations and exceptions aside, the generalization holds: intermarried families have considerably lower chances of raising committed Jews.2 With the passage of time, moreover, we are able to see what this means in the behavior of adult children of intermarriage. The 2000-01 NJPS found that a mere 16 percent of such adults identified themselves as Jews by religion, with another 26 percent self-identifying as secular Jews. Almost half named their religion as Christianity; another 10 percent claimed adherence to Eastern or New Age religions. The more recent New York study yields similar findings: only 40 percent of adult children of intermarried parents name their religion as Judaism. On many other scales, too, including attitudes toward Israel and organizational involvement, adult children of intermarried parents participate in Jewish life at far lower rates than adults raised by two Jewish parents. 

Finally, what about the impact of outreach efforts and other sorts of programming aimed specifically at securing the commitment of intermarried families? Already, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues around the country proclaim their warm embrace of all kinds of families, and many Conservative synagogues are competing to be equally hospitable. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that such large investments make a significant difference. “Even in the ideal case,” concede the researchers Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertoff, two proponents of increased outreach, “where both [in-married and intermarried] households gave their children the same level of education, observe the same rituals, have the same proportion of Jewish friends, and [the children] were raised exclusively as Jews, intermarriages are significantly less likely to produce adults who identify themselves as Jewish than are in-marriages.”

Perhaps most telling is still another datum: according to the 2000-01 NJPS, 80 percent of the offspring of intermarried Jews marry a non-Jew. We do not yet fully know the outcomes of these marriages, but as the generations pass, it is reasonable to assume an even further attenuation. Bruce Phillips, basing himself on the 2000-01 NJPS, concludes that as of the turn of this century, only 22 percent of children of intermarriage were being raised with Judaism as their religion. In a different context, he has demonstrated that the adult children of intermarriage are also driving up the numbers of the so-called “Nones”: self-identified Jews who eschew any denominational label. These “Borderland Jews,” as Steven M. Cohen has dubbed them, do not reject the Jewish component of their ancestry; it just is not very important in their lives. The majority of adult children of intermarriage now agree with the statement, “Being Jewish has very little to do with how I see myself.” Few of these peripheral Jews are likely to join Jewish organizations or support Jewish causes, with far-reaching implications for the already contracting vitality of Jewish institutional life.

And then there are the descendants of intermarried families who identify with a religion other than Judaism. The largest group, not surprisingly, are the over one million Americans of Jewish ancestry who identified themselves as Christians in the 2000 NJPS. The last time the organized American Jewish community focused on what was then called the challenge of Jewish “continuity,” a question making the rounds was “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” At the time, the question was derided as a hysterical overreaction, but we now know the answer. In over a million cases so far, they already aren’t.

 

3. Looking Ahead

What, then, does the future hold? Unfortunately, past history offers little guidance. Most Jewish communities with high levels of intermarriage have tended to be small and off the beaten track, and they have disappeared. The closest parallel to the present American situation existed in some areas of Western and Central Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. There, intermarriage rates shot up as Jews urbanized. But before the full effects could be registered, the communities themselves were destroyed in the Holocaust.

A more apt analogue may be contemporary Russia, where intermarriage among Jews has been the norm for at least three generations; it is estimated that by the end of the Soviet era, seven out of ten Jewish males and six out of ten Jewish females had married non-Jews. Still, according to a recent study, a Jewish identity persists even in the absence of much Judaism and of any “thick” cultural content, consisting instead of a sense of connection to the Jewish people and especially a feeling of closeness to Israel; that sense is reinforced by common patterns of educational and professional attainment and, to a lesser extent, exclusion from Russian society.3

American Jews who are blasé about intermarriage rates may take a certain comfort in this example. But whatever may be the long-term viability of Jewish life in Russia, the sources of its cohesion have little parallel in the United States, where discrimination is not a factor and neither a particular pattern of professional achievement nor a strong identification with Israel binds descendants of the intermarried to each other or to Jewish life. 

In the absence of close parallels, we can only base our projections on current trend lines. As things look now, the American Jewish group of the future will be anchored by the Orthodox and by those among the non-Orthodox willing to identify unambiguously with Judaism. Boasting higher fertility rates than other Jews, this population will insure the future viability of the American Jewish community, albeit considerably shrunken in its numbers and infrastructure. On the periphery will be the so-called borderland Jews whose interest in Jewish life will likely focus on one or another aspect of Jewish culture but will be episodic and in competition with other compelling aspects of their identities. Already, some children of intermarriage refer to themselves with sardonic self-consciousness as “Half-Jews” or “mongrel Jews” or “FrankenJews.”

Among these, the most problematic for the organized community will be a segment demanding “official” acceptance as Jews—with, however, a dual religious identity. A new book, Being Both, reflects a small but growing movement, encouraged by some Jewish and Christian clergy, to raise children in two different religions and then let them decide where their allegiances lie. Jews-for-Jesus and other messianic groups will undoubtedly be the beneficiaries of these efforts, and synagogues will find themselves pressed to adopt religiously syncretistic practices in order to accommodate those with hybrid identities. Needless to say, the Jewish community will not be able to rely on such dual-identity Jews for sustained support or participation.

In-between these blocs lies a sizable population of intermarried families who profess an interest in raising their children as Jews. Their chances of success, as we have seen, vary greatly, but if current patterns hold, the preponderance of their children will gravitate to the periphery, and only a minority will cast their lot with the core.

 

In brief, Jewish communal leaders bet heavily on a formula that they believed would help tip the scales in a different and better direction, and lost. But the bad news does not appear to have resulted in any rethinking of the formula. As for the proponents of outreach, far from being deterred, they have doubled down on their admonitions and even added a menacing bite to them. Why are more and more intermarried families failing to affiliate with synagogues? Because, we hear, congregations are insufficiently welcoming. Why do so many eschew participation in Jewish life and choose to live at a remove from centers of Jewish activity? Because communities are inhospitable. Implicit threats are thrown into the mix: if a synagogue rabbi declines to officiate at intermarriages, entire families will quit and find a place that welcomes them without question. If communal institutions are deemed unfriendly, donors will withhold their philanthropy pending a change in policy.

Against today’s backdrop of financial hardship and declining membership rolls, such threats hit home. Outreach proponents portray themselves as generous of heart, motivated by a spirit of inclusiveness and good will; their campaigns, however, have created a rather nasty culture of intimidation and blame.

In off-the-record conversations, rabbis and organizational leaders are not shy about the pressures placed upon them to capitulate if they intend to retain their jobs, let alone meet their budgets. Reform rabbis who do not wish to bless an interfaith union are unlikely to get far in applying for desirable pulpits. In the Conservative movement, rabbis live with the knowledge that their refusal to officiate, no matter how tactfully it is explained, may result in a family’s dropping its membership. For fear of alienating large donors whose children have intermarried, heads of federations of Jewish philanthropy throw money at outreach efforts they know will yield little.

Stories abound. In one congregation, a rabbi was castigated for devoting a sermon to the impending holiday of Hanukkah without giving equal time to Christmas. On a more routine basis, the merging of two radically different holidays into Chrismukkah has become a matter of mirth and good cheer, masking the insult delivered to two great religions. Jewish educators admit they have no idea what religious ideas their students have absorbed from their parents and extended family—and don’t want to know. Rather than defending Judaism’s distinctive system, some Jewish clergy and synagogues have allowed themselves to act as if some of their families are fully Jewish even if one spouse is not Jewish by any criterion. They have thereby also become the bearers of an insidious message—that all this religious stuff is really not terribly important and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the really important thing, which is for everyone to play nice and get along.

Wan but sincere efforts to counter this trend have run into entrenched opposition. A few years ago, several Reform rabbis offered single congregants a free membership in JDate, the web-based Jewish dating service, as a means of helping them meet other single Jews. Lobbyists for the intermarried denounced the effort as an insult to Jews who have married Gentiles. (Interestingly, few protests were voiced by other congregants.) In another incident, the Jewish Agency for Israel, seeking to woo back Israeli emigrants living in the U.S., aired Hebrew-language ads highlighting the self-evident fact that intermarriage is the Achilles heel of American Jewish life   The full wrath of organized American Jewry came down upon the sponsors, who felt compelled to withdraw their message. A third example: one of the most popular tour operators  of Birthright Israel trips was forced out of business because he had the temerity to speak openly to young singles about their responsibility to date and marry other Jews and produce Jewish children.

In short, it remains unacceptable to encourage Jews to marry other Jews, unacceptable to state the obvious about the downside of intermarriage, and unacceptable to invoke such a thing as a responsibility to the Jewish people. In today’s environment, Jewish endogamy has become the love that dare not speak its name.

 

4. Choosing a Different Way

Despite the pressures to capitulate, numerous rabbis of all denominational outlooks and leaders of Jewish organizations do continue to resist, knowing that compromising away the principles of Judaism, whatever short-term gains it may yield, will in the long run destroy the soul of American Jewry. In many cases, these leaders can rely on support from their institutions or at the very least from their core followers.

All in all, then, it is a tragic misreading of the contemporary scene to ignore the strength and dedication of what may well be a silent majority: the families who join and attend synagogues, support federation campaigns, and participate as activists in Jewish organizations—and who vocally registered their preferences in the New York City survey cited at  the start of this essay. These families speak forthrightly to their children about the value of marrying Jews and of creating strongly committed Jewish homes, disdain the counsel of defeatism, and yearn for leaders who will champion instead of undermining their private efforts to inculcate an unshakable Jewish identification in their children and grandchildren. 

Can Jewish leaders work together with this silent majority to overthrow the regnant approaches to intermarriage? And if so, how?

First and foremost, a more assertive approach to intermarriage would require the dignified acknowledgement by Jewish institutions that endogamous families are the Jewish ideal—the best hope for transmitting a strong identity to the next generation. Once this crucial premise is openly espoused, the next logical step is to invest heavily in intensive forms of Jewish education through the college years and in helping Jewish singles, including the “alumni” of this education, to meet each other. Our advanced technologies and the ease of contemporary travel offer unprecedented opportunities to bring American Jews together with their peers and to nurture stronger connections with the Jewish people globally.

Practically speaking, it makes sense, as the previous paragraph suggests, to focus less energy on courting already intermarried families—once an intermarriage has occurred, it is far more difficult for communal institutions to intervene—than on encouraging as many single Jews as possible to marry within the community. Birthright Israel serves as one model for such programs; many more initiatives like it are needed in the United States. Their message should be transparent: instead of being infantilized with assurances that no strings will ever be attached, younger Jews need to hear without equivocation why it is important to build Jewish families. And they must be told the truth: the American Jewish community is in a fight for its life, and the younger generation is expected to shoulder its share of responsibility.

A vigorous approach would also require confronting single Jews who are contemplating marriage to a non-Jew with some of the complications they can expect to encounter. “Every single day,” writes a rabbi, “I deal with couples who have been together two, three, four years but are only now—once they live together, [and] once they have become a part of the other’s family life—starting to talk about religion.” Such obliviousness is common, and very damaging. Allowing couples to live in a state of denial about the wrenchingly divisive and acrimonious issues that can lie in wait for them does them no favor; nor does pretending that marriage is solely a private matter with no social consequences.

As for the already intermarried, an emphasis on endogamy, contrary to the assertions of outreach advocates, need not ensue in feelings of rejection. Intermarried couples and their children are already warmly welcomed by Jewish institutions. Those who wish to learn more, to deepen their understanding and commitment, should continue to be encouraged. But the right to join comes with responsibilities—for in-married and intermarried families alike. Grudging or minimal involvement saps Jewish institutions of energy, and the failure to level with people about what is asked of them is profoundly demoralizing to all.

What might Jewish leaders say to intermarried families and especially to couples contemplating intermarriage? The question was asked and answered publicly by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Reform movement’s congregational body:

[B]y making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But . . . the synagogue is not a neutral institution. It is committed to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. . . . And, by the way: most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert. They come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so. 

In her own recent study of intermarriage trends in American society at large, Naomi Schaefer Riley, citing the success of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in converting “Gentile” spouses of Mormons, urges a similarly self-assured approach by the Jewish community.

One resource that could be tapped in such an effort already exists in synagogues and other institutions: namely, families in which the Gentile spouse has converted to Judaism. An exemplary account is at hand in a book that also offers a dramatic counterpoint to Being Both, the polemic for dual identity discussed earlier. In Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths, and a Journey of Hope, Harold and Gayle Redlingshafer Berman—she a former choir leader in church and he a minimally involved Jew—movingly recount their path toward an observant Jewish life. Imagine placing this book in the home of every intermarried family—or imagine sending the Bermans and twenty other such families around the country to tell their stories. Mormons would not shrink from such an experiment; why should Jews?  

To be sure, some will in any case not see their way to conversion. But this need not deter a proud Jewish community from speaking openly to all of its members, in-married and intermarried alike, about the imperative to build a home with an unambiguous commitment to Judaism. Mixed messages introduce cognitive dissonance. By contrast, asking more from in-married families reinforces the credibility of the message when delivered to the intermarried.

Not least, an alternative approach to intermarriage would shift the onus of responsibility from institutions back to families. All the compromises made by synagogues and other Jewish institutions are likely to yield little more than contempt as long as families are permitted to shirk their primary responsibility for the Jewish identity of their children. That identity is formed through attachments nurtured within family settings: engagement with Jewish rituals, trips to Jewish sites, investments in Jewish education, and the communication of family lore.

 

This overall outline for a more assertive approach to intermarriage can be augmented through the creative thinking of Jewish leaders committed to making their own journey from timidity to self-assurance. As with so many battles, the first casualty in contending with intermarriage has been the truth. It is past time not only to rebut the falsehoods and expose the failed promises but to proclaim that, for the sake of the American Jewish future, it matters greatly who stands under the marriage canopy. The blurring of religious boundaries in order to achieve peace in the home may lower tensions in the short term, but demonstrably sows confusion in children and huge losses of adherents in the longer term. The Jewish community and its leaders are not the cause of the disaffection of the intermarried; but neither need they handcuff themselves in order to placate activists who use the power of the purse to intimidate, or defeatists who counsel capitulation.

Here is how two writers, one a Reform rabbi and the other a former executive with a federation of Jewish philanthropy, describe the standard approach taken till now: 

Sure, when an intermarried family or an assimilated Jew comes along, we open our doors. We smile at them. We tell them how grateful we are that they’ve come. We tell the non-Jewish spouse how delighted we are that she drives the children to Hebrew school. But we don’t talk about commitment. We don’t talk about working hard to serve a higher purpose. We don’t actually ask anything of them. [emphasis added]

“In truth,” these two writers add, mordantly, “what we’re doing isn’t warm and welcoming at all.”

Exactly so. The intermarriage taboo crumbled in part because individual Jews came to realize they would pay no price for exogamy in the form either of familial or communal disapproval or of pressure on the non-Jewish spouse to convert. Jewish leaders who regard Judaism as a religious system with its own integrity, who seek to transform the lives of Jews rather than acquiescing in their every whim, should cease to countenance practices that blur religious differences in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. While extending a hand of true welcome to those who wish to join the Jewish people, such leaders need also to remind them that with joining come responsibilities. Who knows how many would find such a message refreshing, inspiring, life-altering—and just what they’ve been looking for? 

Responses

  1. The Larger Battle by Sylvia Barack Fishman
    The real fight facing American Jews is not against intermarriage but for marriage itself.
  2. Accentuate the Positive by Eric H. Yoffie
    We must absolutely not turn our backs on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses.
  3. Yes, Something Can Be Done by Steven M. Cohen
    A “purple” solution to intermarriage.
  4. Beyond “Welcome” by Harold Berman
    How a confident Judaism can turn intermarriages into Jewish marriages.
  5. Where Are the Matchmakers? by Benjamin Silver
    Jewish life—and love—on campus.
  6. Great Expectations—A Reply to My Respondents by Jack Wertheimer
    Encouraging more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism

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Comments

  • LenMinNJ

    Jack Wertheimer writes:

    “The intermarriage taboo crumbled in part because individual Jews came to realize they would pay no price for exogamy in the form either of familial or communal disapproval or of pressure on the non-Jewish spouse to convert.”

    And:

    “Among the synagogue-affiliated, the same strong preference for endogamy was expressed by 66 percent of Conservative Jews and 52 percent of Reform Jews; for Orthodox Jews, the figure rose to 98 percent.”

    Evidently, the taboo has crumbled only among the non-Orthodox.

    Doesn’t this point primarily to failure of non-Orthodox denominations rather than one feature of that failure: intermarriage?

    Put more simply: the problem is not intermarriage; it’s non-Orthodoxy.

    • Lee Ratner

      If Orthodox Judaism was the only way a person could be Jewish than many Jews would simply stop identifying as Jews at all. The non-Orthodox forms of Judaism and even Modern Orthodox Judaism came about to fulfil a desire to be Jewish while participating in the broader society. In times and places where non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism weren’t an option, many Jews simply opted out of Judaism in its entirety.

      I agree with you that this indirectly led to the intermarriage crisis we have now but non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism have a purpose. Most Jews aren’t willingly going to embrace a completely Orthodox life style and there isn’t an enforcement mechanism for this anyway. Non-Orthodox Judaism at least provides some outlet for Jewish identity. One thing that we might consider is the idea that Jews should be nominally Orthodox, and lip service should be paid to halakhah, even though actual practice levels could vary greatly.

      • LenMinNJ

        What you suggest that we should consider already exists: the Sephardim in the US adhere to an Orthodox theology, but their practice (or, as you put it, lifestyle) isn’t necessarily so strict. They may not do everything that an Orthodox Jew ideally does, but the Judaism-that-they-don’t-practice-so-strictly is Orthodox Judaism.

        You see the same thing in Israel among many secular Jews (hilonim). They might go to a beit k’nesset only once a year, but the one that they go to must be an Orthodox one.

        Reform and Conservative changed the fundamentals. That’s why the problem is non-Orthodoxy, and the result is intermarriage.

        Finally, the intermarriage statistics show that “Jewish identity” is next-to-worthless for preserving Judaism.

        • Lee Ratner

          The problem is that Ashkenazi Orthodoxy rejected the Sephardic approach during the 19th century and insisted on full observance from everybody. In Western Europe and the United States, this led to the creation of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. In the Russian Empire, this led simply to Jews not practicing at all. The Sephardic option simply wasn’t viable because the Ashkenazi Orthodox Rabbis wouldn’t abide by it.

          • Len Moskowitz

            We seem to agree that the problem that causes intermarriage is non-Orthodoxy.

            Since many Orthodox (including the Modern Orthodox, Sephardi and Chabad) welcome non-observant Jews, you’ve found the solution!

  • Ken Besig

    Jews have been intermarrying and even leaving the faith for decades, and many non-Jews have been converting and becoming active and important members of our religion for decades. This is the nature of our people, and perhaps we might be better off if we were a little more welcoming to true converts rather than bitterly criticizing the Reform and Conservative movements for failing to stem the tide of intermarriage or imposing punishments on those Jews who marry outside of the faith. Judaism is a beautiful and attractive religion and way of life which can hold tightly to our members and at the same time attract thousands of non-Jews and non Jewish spouses. Let’s work to find the way to do this.

  • Moshe

    It is fascinating that we are thrilled to consider that we could be converting tons of non-Jews to Judaism through their involvement with a Jew. It is now acceptable to accept conversions for those those who wish to embrace a Jew and not necessarily Judaism. Traditionally conversions for the sake of marriage were not acceptable.

    One wag said that we are not plagued by interfaith marriages but rather by interfaithless marriages. Many of our endogamous marriages are also between Jews who are not Jews of faith, but rather Jews of fate.

    As a rabbi, I question the idea that we should be the the gatekeepers for the Jewish people. Many of the non-Jews I welcome are interested in being cultural Jews—those are the vast majority of the Jews they know.

    Those who are indeed looking for a spiritual and observant Judaism find their ways to our synagogues without marriage to a Jew as the incentive.

    We are missing the point entirely by ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Jews who marry Jews are not affiliating as strongly as in past generations. The consumer culture has led to rent-a rabbis—who obviate the need to join a synagogue at all.

    So let’s not lament what we have created: Jewish couples who are unlearned and at best neutral to their Jewish identity (beyond the social and cultural in some cases); that we send our children away from home at the most vulnerable time in their lives to colleges and universities where they yearn to be part of the general culture; and that being “Jewish” costs a small fortune.

    Intermarriage is indeed a challenge—but the greater challenge is to help maintain the beauty of Yiddishkeyt that will result in having
    Jews who revel in their tradition. This will serve as a way of ensuring a Jewish future.

  • Mom-of-four

    Three points:

    1. Thank you a thousand times Professor Wertheimer. You have eloquently expressed my deeply held feelings — those feelings which I dare not speak for fear of castigation.

    2. You suggest one possible solution, but don’t follow it through to its natural conclusion. You state: ” [I]ntermarriage results from human agency. Undoubtedly, larger social forces are at work; but individual Jews have chosen to respond to them in particular ways. They have decided whom they will date and marry.” Yes. Take all the millions that federations and others spend on specious “outreach” and put it into throwing together Jewish singles at every single opportunity — college, after college, free cruises, more free trips to Israel, Shabbatons, bar outings, whatever. See what the Jewish Agency/Nefesh b’Nefesh/Saw You at Sinai are doing? Do that for all Jewish singles — before it is too late.

    3. The message to children has to be not “Don’t marry out,” but “don’t date out,” however “date” is defined now — perhaps, “don’t sleep-together out.” “Don’t marry out” is way too late.

    • amy caplan

      I am completely in agreement with Mom-of-four with one addition—start earlier. Every rabbi in America interested in Jewish continuity should be touting day schools as the default option for all Jewish children unless there are exigencies that require otherwise. Our federations should support them to the degree that they are affordable for the middle class. They should be opt-out rather opt-in choices. When kids attend day schools, the “don’t date out” and “don’t marry out” conversations are not even necessary. We already know that most of these day school kids, even non-Orthodox ones, will not marry out.

    • Jonathon

      Don’t date out?

      This is outright bigotry. This whole movement against intermarriage is no different than the racism evident in the 60s. What an embarrassment.

      The powers that be probably won’t even post this comment.

      • Harold Berman

        Jonathan,

        You are stating what many others before you have said, and you are 100% wrong. If you read Professor Wertheimer’s article carefully, then you noticed his supportive stance on conversion. If one views Judaism as a “race” (as your comment seems to suggest), then being against intermarriage would in fact be racism – no more than an admonition to “marry your own kind.” But since anyone not born Jewish who sincerely wants to become Jewish can do so (as my wife did) regardless of race, religion of origin, etc. then there is no racism whatsoever in being against intermarriage. The Jewish people have a particular role to play in the world and a specific value system that can most easily be continued when both spouses share in it.

        Harold Berman
        Co-Author – Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope

      • Mom-of-four

        Whoa! Bigotry? No way. If any of my kids were to bring home a Jew of any color or background he or she would be welcomed with opened arms. Judaism is a choice that people can make.

      • Sean Ferguson

        Avoiding intermarriage is the sine qua non of Jewish survival, yet the Torah says multiple times to love the ‘stranger/Ger/Convert’ (seek rabbinic advice on specific interpretations). Is this an issue of racial bigotry then? Or is it simply a weltanschauung sort of bigotry? I defy you to show me a single institution or group that doesn’t have some sort of weltanschauung-related bigotry woven into its fabric.

        If you both a) saw value to Jewish survival within the global context b) looked closely at how it is that tiny minorities do tend to carry on in human history, then you might say the costs are outweighed by the benefits. By the way, if you are intolerant of my desire to propagate the socio-cultural-religious values of my forebears, then you too are definitionally a bigot.

      • Sarah

        There can be no question of racism when all forms of Judaism accept converts and most are gracious and welcoming to all who pass through their doors, whether as visitors or interested in learning. If we were keeping converts out and insulting visitors as well, now that might be racist. Since many groups encourage or demand endogamy, including persecuted groups like the Roma, your assertion that anyone who does so is “racist” is what is both laughable and embarrassing.

        I am a convert and I can tell you that the only group I (sadly) hear racism toward is Muslims, particularly “Arab” ones. My sole problem with Liberal Judaism is that I would like to marry a Jew, and my congregation does nothing to facilitate that, though it does passingly encourage it and refuse conversion candidates dating non-Jews. Moreover, they are culturally and emotionally welcoming to intermarried Jews, if not ritually open to them. In fact, many Gentile spouses are more welcome and integrated into the community than I am able to be as a single Jew. To open up ritual and membership to them as well, merely for having snagged a Jewish spouse, is an enormous slap in the face to people who struggled through a year or more of conversion classes, for which they paid hundreds, or often thousands of dollars. To make one group jump through costly hoops then allow other people into “the club” gratis is the truly discriminatory process.

  • Lawrence J. Epstein

    Jack Wertheimer has presented a thoughtful and, most importantly, extremely useful analysis and prescription. This is exactly the article that American Jews should be discussing. I was particularly taken by the vigorous call to welcome converts. Such an effort certainly has been insufficiently undertaken by the Jewish community.

  • Sam Bryks

    This is a long analysis of concerns and of reality. I have had two friends who married gentile women, and in both cases, the spouses converted and raised their children to be Jewish. I also was involved with a gentile woman, but when we approached conversion, the rabbi was so full of himself that he totally lost sight of what conversion was about and focused on his particular interests in the history of Judaism. He was ultimately fired by his own congregation, I suppose for not giving enough attention to their needs rather than his own.

    The bottom line is welcoming not exclusion. The Orthodox finally have to realize that there are more forms of Judaism than theirs. And all forms are valid.

    • D

      Well said, Sarah, though it’s really for lack of choice . As one whose family members are dating non-Jews, you don’t really have a choice but to be polite/friendly lest your family member be alienated. It’s a reluctant welcome, at least for me.

      • D

        @Sam Bryks: Those aren’t really forms of Judaism. While their adherents may be Jewish, non-Orthodoxy rejects the Oral Torah, which leads to such absurdities as women donning Tefillin. It’s absurd because we only know what Tefillin are thanks to the Oral Law, so you have people saying in effect, “I reject this stuff but I’m going to apply it [or misapply it, in truth].” Heck, even the men of Reform/REconstruction/Conservative wearing Tefillin doesn’t make sense insofar as Reform rejects the Oral Law. There are many more such examples (e.g. Conservative Judaism saying it’s OK to drive to shul on Shabbat… where you then praise G’ for giving you the Shabbat… which you’ve just violated. It’s like thanking a wedding guest for the beautiful dishes they gave you after you dropped them out the window.)

  • Daniel

    Mr. Wertheimer,

    An important issue needs to be addressed.

    Being personally aware of tragic stories of converts attempting to integrate into Orthodox communities, years after their conversion, an important issue must be raised.

    It is of paramount importance to all who officiate at non-Orthodox conversion to advise the prospective converts what they may encounter at a future time. If they acknowledge and accept the risk then so be it.

    What one hears are heartbreaking stories and the usual, “why were we not told?”

    Countless Orthodox day schools and Hebrew Schools run by the Chabad movement have faced many a parents advising them that their children cannot be accepted because of their parents’ non-Orthodox conversion.

    This is not a religious issue but rather a “consumer advisory” issue.

    You are selling a product—conversion. Common decency behooves the seller to notify the buyer of what they may encounter in the future.

    Shana Tova,

    Daniel

  • amy caplan

    Ken, I guess you didn’t carefully read Rabbi Wertheimer’s excellent analysis and the wealth of data he cites to back up his conclusions. To sum it up for you, the article elaborates how the rate of intermarriage increased logarithmically in the last half of the 20th century to rates never seen before. Historically, Jewish communities with high rates of intermarriage have been unable to maintain themselves. There can be no Judaism without Jews; despite the increasingly low barriers to inclusivity in non-Orthodox Judaism, the numbers of offspring from these marriages who identify as Jews or practice Judaism are significantly lower than those of endogamous marriages. Anyone who is interested in Jewish continuity must be alarmed by these statistics. Wishful hopes and vague fantasies in the face of these facts are non-contributory. Kol hakavod to Rabbi Wertheimer for saying what needs to be said.

  • Madame George

    The whole idea that some persons (gentiles apparently) are less worthy of marriage (with a Jew) is revolting. Reasonable persons should be glad this nonsense is on the decline.

    • sees useful idiots

      M. George,

      The argument is not based on the “worth” of a person. The article clearly holds the Christian faith in high regard, but shows in numerous ways how intermarriage is problematic.

      It’s tough to have one’s choices criticized, so nobody is blaming you for lashing out if indeed you intermarried. But think about the question that is posed: will your grandchildren be Jewish? The answer is almost always “No”.

      If you don’t care about the Jewish people/future, then this argument holds no sway for you, and in fact you shouldn’t even have wasted your time reading this.

    • Sarah

      I converted, and I was NOT less worthy beforehand, nor was I ever made to feel so. I want to marry another Jew, whether born or converted, to share a Jewish life and home with… so am I now an unreasonable nonsensical and revolting person who looks down on non-Jews? Well, I’ll just run right out and marry a Gentile then. It would certainly be easier, seeing how few Jews want to marry another Jew.

      What’s on the decline isn’t nonsense, which is amply spouted by “liberal” Jews but the Jewish people…a fact many self-hating and assimilated Jews apparently find it reasonable to be glad about.

  • Alan Koczela

    Unfortunately, Mr. Wertheimer’s seems to suggest that intermarriage is causing the collapse of Judaism in America. Intermarriage is a symptom — not a cause. Only briefly does he point out the lack of religious education as a problem — and, in my opinion, the primary reason for intermarriage. (I guess he’s afraid to explicitly blame the parents for failing to provide adequate religious instruction.) It’s been my experience that the deeply religious rarely seek or find love outside the faith, since faith is such an integral part of their lives.

    Moreover, punishing those that intermarry or their spouses will just drive them away from the faith for which they already have ambivalent feelings. However, giving active roles to non-Jews in exclusively religious organizations, such as religious education, is horrifying and inexcusable. Has anyone heard of a Jew sitting on a board overseeing religious instruction at a Christian school? I haven’t. Mr. Wertheimer stated that non-Jews are involved in setting instructional policy at an organization involved with Jewish religious education and this thought just boggles the mind.

    As a final note, of course mixed families are less supportive of Jewish community organizations! These folks were only marginally attached to the community when they were single. Why would you expect them to become involved in the community once they marry? Why would you expect the family to be more supportive if they married a Jew who was also marginally attached to the faith? Again, intermarriage is a symptom and not the cause.

  • Leah Zisserson

    The decline in Jewish marriages is inevitable and permanent. Yes, because of Conservative and Reform views and actions. But even they came about more as a general result of the enlightenment of centuries ago. It is only possible to remain fully Jewish in an isolated community setting where almost everyone is kosher and shomer Shabbos. This setting is increasingly rare and irrelevent to young Jews who go to colleges around the world. The entire religion has become irrelevant to them as it focuses on “rules” which they feel are counter-cultural and counter-intellectual. They do not accept that G-d doesn’t want them to eat bacon or forbids a cheeseburger. It is ridiculous…unless you grow up surrounded by people who are doing the same. What young husband and wife from a non-Orthodox community would tolerate the marital purity laws for example? It seems perfectly clear to me that in a few more decades there will be no Jews who are not Orthodox. You can’t take the Jew out of the Ghetto and still have a Jew …for long. I do believe Judaism will survive in America and elsewhere, but it will be in the same category as the Amish and Mennonites, a quaint remnant of the past. Most all American believe in the Ten Commandments and the One. That is good enough for most young Jews today. The Utopian goal will eventually be met where everyone will be vaguely monotheistic and all will be “brown”. Maybe it was always G-d’s plan for Jews to bring the world to monotheism and loving kindness and that nothing else is needed.

    • Lee Ratner

      I don’t think this is strictly true. From what I’ve read, the Jewish community in Australia is more or less as acculturated as the American Jewish community but has a single-digit rate of intermarriage. I’ve read similar things about the Canadian Jewish community. It should also be remembered that Jewish immigrants stopped being Orthodox fairly quickly for most of American history but intermarriage remained low until the mid-20th century. There has to be something more than simply not being Orthodox in observance at work.

  • Ian Bersten

    I am in Sydney ,Australia.

    Three activities would help to stem intermarriage:

    1. An online newspaper supporting a secular Jewish life without a congregational focus i.e. promoting Friday night dinners with emphasis on interest in Jewish life past and present
    2. The establishment of a postcode based connection site for unaffiliated Jews everywhere who just want to be Jewish without being religious or Zionist—somewhere where Jews can find other Jews of the same attitude anywhere.
    3. A positive inclusive pluralistic attitude to unaffiliated Jews everywhere.

    This is it in brief. Politics is the art of the possible. It just might work

  • David Heller

    I found sadly ironic the reference to rabbis having “… offered single congregants a free membership in JDate, the web-based Jewish dating service, as a means of helping them meet other single Jews.” Jdate has a fair number of self-identified non-Jews as members, as Jdate is a for-profit business, not an institution promoting endogamy. And even more ironic is how many self-identified Jews on Jdate post pictures of themselves in front of Christmas trees.

  • Jerry Blaz

    In a democratic society that is open and without bounds of ethnicity, geography, and social distance, the problem of intermarriage is all intertwined with the problem of education. The Reform and Reconstructionist groups early on accepted as Jewish any child who was brought up Jewish regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent. This was a brave result of looking the reality of life in an open, democratic society squarely in the face and making a wise decision that is good for Judaism and Jews and compatible with life in a democratic society. So to deny a child of an intermarried family a Jewish education is the proverbial nail in the coffin of Judaism while too many rabbis and other decisors in our community put up the walls of denial and guarantee what they’re trying to prevent.

  • Dan Alexander

    This is a powerful argument with which I agree. I would add two points.

    One, we need more Jews who are familiar and comfortable with traditional communal prayer. We need clergy and Jewish lay leaders who articulate that G-d is real and live out that life for all to see. Synagogues need to champion that. Funders and machers and average Jews need to build and sustain synagogues that can. We need to reward charismatic, genuine clergy—hazzanim as well as rabbis—who will enliven and serve the entire age spectrum of Jews.

    Two, I totally agree with Mom of Four that messaging that dating should be with Jews is paramount, not merely scolding years later. I was like that, the only one of my Jewish friends who was. Years later a clergy person and friend of a certain friend told me that my dating example had contributed somewhat to cause this certain friend to choose as I did, to marry a Jewish woman! I am so grateful I have the job of being a Jewish husband and father, and to be married to a wonderful Jewish woman. Interesting to say that only three of my grandparents were Jewish. How blessed I have been to live in freedom and to have been guided by committed and sensitive clergy, authors, friends, my wife, and G-d throughout my journey. Kol hakavod to Rabbi Wertheimer for this message of hope for our children to know the joy of commitment to the Jewish path in marriage and all of life.

  • Chuck

    This is another well-written piece by Dr. Wertheimer. I always enjoy reading his articles. As with most essays on this subject, an essential point is rigorously avoided. The problem of intermarriage will remain vexing until we are willing to bring G-d into the discussion. Foremost, we need to acknowledge that a Jew is defined as a person born into (or properly converted into) a covenant that G-d established with our forefather Avraham. That covenant is codified in the Torah that G-d presented to the Jews at Mt. Sinai. Thus, Torah (not bagels and lox) is what defines a Jew.

    Quite simply, intermarriage, being forbidden by Torah, is unacceptable for a Jew.

    The root of the intermarriage problem is the Reform movement. Also problematic is the Conservative movement (since it is really just Reform Judaism about 20 years behind). They have convinced their congregants that Torah can be edited to suit the modern, informed needs of the day. As surely as they create a problem (babies born to non-Jewish mothers), they invent a solution (patrilineal descent). Create more intermarriage and solve the problem with more non-kosher conversions. It is basically a death spiral. Ultimately, they are actively severing the special bond between Jews and G-d. Their congregants are spiritually adrift and their identity as Jews loses importance.

    It is thus abundantly clear I am Orthodox, but for most of my life, I was not so. Was identifying as a Jew akin to identifying as a pasta lover, a Dolphins fan, or as blood type O? As a political conservative or a classical music afficionado? No, there was something more profound. Trying to fathom what was so important about being Jewish is what led me to realize the authenticity of the Orthodox. It is entirely open and welcoming to all Jews.

    When we consider the true meaning of a Jew and consider our obligation to G-d according to the laws of the Torah, the answer to the intermarriage problem is clear. No, it is unacceptable. The faux Judaism being dished out needs to be called for what it is. We need to encourage our brethren to rediscover their true purpose in this world. We need to reconnect them with G-d.

  • yuval Brandstetter MD

    The picture you paint is half as bad as it really is. You ignore the tendency to choose alternative lifestyles (gay, bisexual, single by choice) that are far more rife among the assimilated and progeny of mixed marriages. They are unaccounted for when you examine the marriage choices of the second and third generations after the sixties. U.S. Jewry is self-destructing. The only way to avoid it is to move to Israel, where the Jewish population, including those who were not born Jewish but choose to be part of the majority, is burgeoning at an unprecedented rate.

  • Sean Ferguson

    From my limited experience, it seems Professor Wertheimer’s conclusion is positively top-hole. Sending a strong message about the value of choosing a Jewish life is essential and emphasizing Jewish life after bar/bat mitzvah age are crucial to a Jewish future. It brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s speech ‘This is Water’, where he comments on things that are ubiquitous yet invisible to us and the sheer power of our automatic thoughts.

    I don’t claim to know, but I suspect that few of us deliberately choose how to think—or even to take the time to think—about what Judaism brings to the table in comparison to being a bien-pensant secular liberal-democratic denizen of the popular culture. This was crucial for me when I started dating and only fully crystallized during my wife’s conversion. To make the comparison, you need some knowledge, you need to know Jews who lead a Jewish life and you need some social context. With that in mind, I reckon Jewish institutions are best served by creating as many cheap and easily accessible opportunities to pick up those requisites during high school through graduate education years as possible. Birthright, camps, high schools, Jewish travel groups, Jewish community centers, Jewish Pure Barre clubs, Jewish gardening societies—whatever.

    My own view is that for many American Jews, being a liberal-democrat is good enough. First, my generation (millennials) does not apparently think that having a central ‘life philosophy’ is all that important. Second, It is quite gauche to favor a parochial inbreeding among those with white privilege when diversity is an end in itself. Put another way, Judaism is about being a tribe and secular liberalism is about being a global community. Third, let’s say you do want a central ‘life philosophy’, most people don’t trouble themselves with the epistemological problems of moral philosophy. Fourth, supporting Israel is becoming more difficult on the left for a variety of reasons (most Jews in the US are left leaning or at least left-of center). Fifth, it’s incredibly expensive to pay for Jewish schools and to live in Jewish neighborhoods. There’s more, but I’ll quit here. So many Jews are insouciant about their Judaism because the belief that matters to them is their faith in the DNC platform and the community that matters to them is basically anything that doesn’t include rednecks or Republicans.

    I suspect that these people are lost to the community. In my Hebrew school, my Tanakh teacher talked about survival of the fittest in the context of Jewish ideas and practice. He was talking about how the Karaites didn’t turn out so well, but perhaps the point here is that those who harbor ideas inimical to Jewish thriving need to peel off eventually for the betterment of both our community and for those leaving themselves to be better-actualized.

  • Sharon Kass

    I find it insulting that any Jew who claims to care about his or her Jewishness/Judaism would marry out. Actions speak louder than words.

    The Jewish marriage pool is small, and every Jew who marries out makes more likely that some same-aged Jew of the opposite sex will not have a Jew to marry.

    Either Judaism is central to your life, or it’s just another hobby.

  • Richard A Braun, MD

    How about the money – to belong to a synagogue as a young couple, to send your children to a day school or to a religious school after regular school? It is true that a Jewish education is critical, but how does one pay for it when times are tight as they are now?

  • Myron Bassman

    I very much appreciate this essay and the comments. Two further points:

    1. Many, if not a majority, of non-Orthodox Jews are atheists or agnostics. This includes myself. I am a Jewish religious atheist. I attend my Conservative shul every shabbat. Many who are atheists find no reason to be engaged in God centered institutions. This is an area which very few rabbis wish to engage their congregants.

    2. Many families have children with special needs. Synagogues, Hebrew schools, yeshivot, day schools, etc. are notoriously poor in welcoming and accommodating these families. More attention, rather than lip service, must be paid for this type of inclusion.

  • Madel

    Every Jewish community from our earliest biblical times has concerned itself with survival, whether from pogroms, intermarriage, or other external threats. Rabbinic commentary has even taken our patriarchs to task for not relying solely on G-d’s providence to assure survival rather than seeking accommodation and shelter with enemies of our people. More often than not, a Jewish community’s response has been to take immediate survival steps even at a catastrophic cost to future generations. So too is it playing out now with intermarriage. Why not take a tough-love approach and announce that those who want out can stay out until they choose teshuvah, with a converted spouse. That’s where I’ve been with my children and grandchildren, and it’s worked perfectly so far.

  • Peter Abrahams

    Forbidding intermarriage is counterproductive to Jewish life. As a policy in the abstract; it becomes real is when a rabbi informs two young lovers that they cannot be married in Judaism and have no life in Judaism, forcing the couple to choose between an affiliation and their life together. Most people choose the lover.
    The gentile spouse of an individual who is finding happiness and illumination in Judaic teachings, can be a partner and a friend to Judaism, and need not be a diluting or polluting influence.
    This obsession with intermarriage seems a neurotic focus on the worst possible outcome, comparable to the pessimists found among those who prepare for disasters: ‘the sky is falling’; no – the world is changing.
    Jews need to turn their eyes from the doom-&-gloom version of exogamy and the disparaging categories of shiksa & shegetz.
    —-
    Instead: provide teachings on Jewish values & spirituality to the gentile spouse and to the children of the marriage.
    There is a message of Jewish spirituality that is distinctive among religions, that is clear and incisive in understanding and explaining complex ideas in religion, and that can be expressed in beautiful prose and oration. (Among others, but especially, in the writing of Abraham Heschel & Adin Steinsaltz.)
    Our responsibility is to study and expound this fount of inspiration, and by promulgating Jewish thought, an audience of some size will cohere, and from that population will grow a commitment and a practice. This may be optimism, but more certain is that this message is what I want to hear from religious leaders, not endless ethnocentric gloom.
    —-
    The point is made that the text of Jewish wedding ceremonies is inappropriate and not logical in a mixed marriage.
    The answer is to write a new ceremony that can be used in intermarriage events. Judaism has made many equally radical changes to its tenets.
    —-
    Intermarriage is a ‘hot button’ issue and a perspective including the broader issues of assimilation is useful.
    The Jewish faith has survived for 3000 years, against odds & in spite of much opposition. If Jews had been entirely isolationist & exclusionary, the odds of survival would have been far less. (Yes this is speculative history.)
    Many of the social, cultural, & philosophical expressions of Judaism are a result of Jewish life in a broader society: Yiddish is a prime example – entirely assimilationist and for centuries part of core Ashkenazic Jewry.
    —-
    For a more eloquent statement of these issues, see the text by Conservative rabbi & J.T.S Chancellor G. Cohen:
    Cohen, Gerson. The blessing of assimilation in Jewish history. pp145-156. Jewish history and Jewish destiny. N.Y.: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1997.
    He concedes that assimilation can sometimes be a threat, but argues:
    -”appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that … this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality. To a considerable degree, the Jews survived… because they changed their names, their language, their clothing, and their patterns of thought and expression.” p151-2.
    -”a minority that does not wish to ghettoize itself or that does not wish to become fossilized, will inevitably have to acculturate itself – to assimilate – at least to some extent. …to learn their language and to some degree reorient its style of life. … Throughout Jewish history, there have been great changes in law, in thought… reflecting the need of Jews to adapt themselves and their way of life to new conditions. ” p152
    -”transformations that overtook the Jews during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have likewise been in large measure the products of assimilation: the rebirth of Hebrew, the growth of Juedische Wissenschaft, the liberalization of the Jewish religion… and the state of Israel itself… are the effects of assimilation.” p154.
    -”Assimilation is not a one-way street… it is capable of paralyzing or energizing, depending on how we react to it.” p155.
    -”assimilation also presents us with unprecedented opportunities to reinterpret the Jewish tradition so that it will be relevant to the needs of the twentieth century.” p156.
    ——
    Finally: focus for a while on where Judaism is thriving. There are countless web sites on every aspect of Judaism – an entirely recent development. The number of paper books published in Judaica each year is enormous. The Kabbalah has become a pop icon (not all aspects of vigor are salutary). Jewish immigrants to the US contribute to culture in many cities. In many cities are many synagogues that are decidedly ‘among the living’. Where attendance is declining, that is often because of the endless ‘balkanization’ of Jewish life, bifurcating itself into focus groups and splinter congregations, so that a mid-size town has a score of thinly populated synagogues… but that’s another issue.

  • Sam Bryks

    I see a lot of distortion about what Judaism really means. To some in the Orthodox camp, it seems to suggest adherence to rules, some of which are antiquated and are even immoral when tested against human rights and equality of women. I noted in my earlier post that Ruth—the mother of the Davidic lineage was a convert. To be a Jew does not mean exclusively to be Orthodox. It means to follow the principles of Torah in the essence of the Ten Commandments, but it does not mean adherence to primitive laws. As I noted earlier, we need to welcome people with the strength of Judaism at core, not function from prejudice and exclusion. I am as good a Jew as any Orthodox Jew of any ilk, and in some ways my moral ground is more solid. I have seen that in arguments with a Rabbi who taught halakhah, but was deeply flawed in his moral constructs rationalizing and justifying things that are abominable (supporting the right of cultures to practice Pharaonic female infibulation, called female circumcision) in order to protect the ritual of circumcision. Intermarriage will continue to happen, but the key to preserving Judaism is to strengthen from principles and from the love of family and meaningful rituals for those who are not caught in the primitivism of extreme Orthodoxy. Judaism is a light to the peoples of the world in many ways.

    • D

      Viewing Judaism as constraining rules and a burden is like looking at your parent and only seeing the burden of honoring them. If we accept that G’ exists, then everything comes from Him. If everything comes from Him, even without being commanded, we should fulfill His requests out of gratitude and plain good manners (derech Eretz kadma laTorah). The same way one does for a physical parent. Or to make the point more strongly – how much do we give our children? Our babies? And yet, they’re incapable of reciprocation and have hardly given us anything, if at all. How much more so for G who has made us, given us life, sustains and heals us etc.

      The laws aren’t primitive – they’re spiritual and deal with deep matters of holiness. Not eating lizards or turtles, for example, is not about their intrinsic value to our diets, but about matters of holiness that science cannot measure and only the very greatest Rabbis appreciate to their full extent.

      You’re right, to be a Jew doesn’t require one to be Orthodox; it just requires a Jewish mother. To observe Judaism does require one to follow halacha, because that – our relationship with G’ – is the very essence of Judaism.

      As to “testing” mitzvot against “human rights” and “equality of women,” you’re referring to secular inventions that have come up and fade with time (see what the world did for Rwanda? for Syria? This is after the Holocaust…) and are more political constructs than anything – man decides what he wants to do… then justifies it. The Torah is G’s command what to do, and in this way is objective and true.

  • Moshe

    It seems to me that the author missed a critical point. He acknowledges that among Torah observant Jews, 98% would condemn a mixed marriage. It should then be obvious that Torah knowledge, and a sound Torah based education is the best way to prevent intermarriage. I know many Jews who are not fully observant, but would be horrified if their child married a non-Jew. They had a Jewish education, and even though they do not keep the Torah (fully), their Jewish education shows.
    The gimmicks that the author recommends are just that—gimmicks. The same Torah that says do not marry a non-Jew also says to keep Kosher, keep Shabbat, observe family purity laws etc. If a family doesn’t do any of the above, why should they expect their child not to marry a non-Jew? How can reform/conservative clergy, who say the Torahs laws about anything are irrelevant, expect their members to suddenly start observing one law out of many?
    When one is taught at an early age about the entire Torah, and that all of it should be properly kept, then marrying a non-Jew is simply not an option. Period.
    Moshe,
    Jerusalem

  • Abarafi

    I’ve been married three times: one of my wives was born to Jewish parents; one to Italian Catholic parents; and one to an Irish mother and Protestant father. Only one marriage was a religious Jewish marriage. The last one to my Irish/Protestant wife.

    My son, born of wife number two, and therefore not considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewry, is now an Orthodox Jew (having gone through conversion). In fact, he flirted with Hasidus for several years.

    I was born of Jewish parents, one (mother) who was brought up in a religious household and one who was not. My parents chose to raise my brother and I in Conservative Judaism, from which I fled soon after my Bar Mitzvah.

    Through my son, I have learned a lot I was never exposed to before. I’ve read the Torah. I’ve attended Orthodox shuls. I’ve engaged with Hasidim and Litvish Jews.

    I know my son is very, very unlikely to marry “out.” But it’s not because of anything I taught him, or values I impressed upon him. His love of Judaism came from within. So, I can offer no prescription for replicating that counter-trend result.

    Being objective (I’m a scientist), and having engaged with both Jewish and non-Jewish families during my marriages, there are things about so-called Jewish culture that I admire. And, things that turn me off. I can say the same about Italians and Irish.

    My feelings of Jewishness are there, for sure. But I’m uncertain still at nearly 67 years of age as to how much of it comes from within and how much of it is due to my mother’s Jewish chauvinism.

    I am an avid Zionist, and dearly love Israel. I do identify with its chutzpah, and was an oleh hadash in the early 1970s. I didn’t realize, until I lived there for some years, how differently Israelis view their Jewishness than my American Jewish peers. In Israel one’s Jewishness is woven into the fabric of the society. In America, it seems like our incidental desire for distinguishing identity.

    Finally, the Judaism that emerged in the U.S. came in waves. The early Judaism was the reformist type that came in with the German Jewish immigrants who came to America for opportunity rather than fleeing from Europe. The next wave was the Orthodox Judaism that came with the eastern European Jewish escape from the pogroms of Russia and Ukraine. But that wave of immigration also brought the Jewish sons and daughters of pious Jews who turned their religious zeal away from Judaism, per se, and toward social reform.

    It is interesting to me that the future of American Judaism, and Judaism in general, is likely to be decided by observant Jews. The reformist spirit of my grandparents, and the Jewish liberalism it spawned, will dissipate as the more conservative Orthodox Jews replace us. Things go around, and come back around.

  • Robert Abrams

    I am not sure for whom Prof. Wertheimer is writing this piece. At this point, the Orthodox rabbinate will not accept Reform and Conservative conversions. He also neglects technical issues where there are remarriages – second marriages without a proper religious divorce (“get”). How can we talk about a common approach to exogamy when one group does not accept the fundamental legitimacy of other groups. I think it is time to recognize tha the denominational splits are not reconcilable and any talk of commonality is just a waste of air.

  • rosenberg

    I would like to add my thoughts to the debate Jack Wertheimer, professor of American-Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has sparked regarding intermarriage and inmarriage and his assertion that welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community has been a failure (Editor’s note: Gary Rosenblatt guest column Sept. 19, full article Mosaic online magazine — http://www.mosaicmagazine.com). In a perfect world, I would agree that more Jewish education and creative positive Jewish experiences would stem the trend of intermarriage. Logically this sounds right, but I can tell you with 40 years’ experience in Conservative synagogues, that the reality is that even the children with positive experiences who excelled in Hebrew school, intermarry. Some come from traditional homes. Many intermarry simply because they attend college away from home, fall in love and believe love will conquer all. A rabbi can speak himself blue in the face about the non-Jewish partner converting, but usually it makes no difference. The non-Jewish partner does not wish to convert and the Jewish partner feels compromise and accommodation will work things out. The pain and anguish occurs when the intermarried couple has children and there is a baptism. This tears the hearts out of the grandparents who have no choice; they do not want to lose their children or grandchildren.

    The children of a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish. We have now lost them forever. I have heard it suggested that Conservative Judaism accept patrilineal descent with provisions encouraging Jewish education. I believe this will happen in the future, but I have problems accepting this solution.

    I do not have the answer, and I believe no one does, but I do know that if one does not believe they are halakhically Jewish, they will not seek Judaism but will follow the non-Jewish mother’s religion.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  • Sean Ferguson

    When your core belief structure is essentially the DNC platform (as it is for such a large majority of American Jews), eventually Torah becomes not just extraneous primitiveness but more invidious hetero-normative white-privileged hate-speech. Even the most effusive Reform/Conservative hand-waving won’t change the basic ‘rethugnikkkan-ness’ of the text. Most of these people’s kids won’t want to be tied to Judaism (whether the parents are intermarried or not) because it’ll be so unacceptable in polite society. Intermarriage is just a point in the cascade of actions leading to the end of an association with one’s ethno-religious group. However, people start this cascade because their primary metaphysical framework is not Torah or even ‘Yiddishe Seykhel’. We didn’t need the Shabtai Tzvi people, and we don’t need these guys. The answer is not to debase ourselves and our religion at the altar of coastal / Europran morality, but rather to let them go. They may not accept that they are ‘gone’ yet, but let’s see how many grandkids they have, let alone how many stay Jewish.

  • Shalom Freedman

    One major implication of this disastrous suicide on the part of the larger American Jewish community is that that community is likely to no longer be able to provide political support for Israel.
    By opting out of the Jewish people through intermarriage one contributes to the potential weakening of the Jewish story, and a possible, God forbid, future disaster.
    I know almost all of those who intermarry will not care much about this. But the abandoning of the people is an act of moral failure of the first degree.

  • D

    You’re right on – I’ve been doing research into the topic and Jews who go to Jewish day schools date and marry Jews … because they know more Jews. It’s dramatically harder to do that when you went to non-Jewish day schools.

    The other main cause – the reason Rabbi W. didn’t say school is the exclusive one – is emotional estrangement from people who represent religion. E.g. Estrangement from religious parents yields children who are estranged from the parents’ religion, as well.

  • Marissa Schwartz

    If Jewish organizations on college campuses are trying to connect Jews with others so that they can date within their own religion, several changes must be made:
    1. Don’t allow non-Jews to participate in the activities. Jews come to these meetings to meet other Jews. This can be done by requiring a membership card to enter the events. I doubt gentiles would be interested in carrying around such a form of ID.
    2. Stop pushing the alcohol at events. I know of many who were unable to find a decent Jew to date at Hillel/Chabad events since they were not interested in dating someone who must get drunk to have good time. Also, intoxication leads to more promiscuity at events. This further alienates those who choose to be more reserved and gives them less chances of getting someone of the opposite sex interested in talking to them. After returning home from an event where there were few Jews who were interested in a real relationship rather than one based on sex and alcohol, the unfortunate campus Jew might turn to a non-Jew for dating.It seems unlikely to find a decent Jew at the events and there are plenty of non-Jews available on campus, making it more likely to find a gentile who can offer a solution to loneliness.
    3. Don’t try to rip off the Jewish students by making the cost of Shabbat and holiday meals prohibitive or poor quality. The more students who enjoy eating kosher meals together, the more likely they will date one after having opportunities to converse informally at these events.

    • Joanne

      Marissa, you raise some very interesting and serious points that are new to me, as a rabbi in her fifties. Thanks!

  • A Gentile Sympathizer

    As a Gentile and a Christian, I understand and agree with this article. Once, long ago, I dated a Jewish girl. We were very fond of each other and considered marriage. Neither of us could imagine not raising our children in our faith. Neither of us could imagine converting, and thus leaving behind the faith communities we loved. We decided we could not remain together. Both of us went on to have successful marriages within our respective faith traditions. It was hard to part at the time, but then, I have never doubted we made the right decision.

  • Marlane Bormel

    Jews were never meant to be a large population as what it takes to be and feel Jewish, regardless of observance, has to do with how you see yourself in the larger world. Those of us who revere and are thankful that we are Jewish, grew up in communities where our peers felt and thought Jewish, too.

    I have always held that intermarriage occurs because the Jewish party knows the mental and domestic demands that marrying in presents, and does not feel capable of accepting the expectations in such a situation. The Gentile world has no knowledge of what Jewish men or Jewish women expect from a marriage partner; therefore, those feeling unable to satisfy the expectations take the easy road and marry out.

    I’ve always felt that intermarriage eventually presents value conflicts, and marriage itself being so problematic anyway, why actually look for trouble in a foreign culture in the fist place? You can find so much of it at home.

    But then, I’m not of today’s entitled, overindulged generation, so what do I know?

    • wynnie591

      I completely disagree with the idea that “intermarriage occurs because the Jewish party knows the mental and domestic demands that marrying in presents, and does not feel capable of accepting the expectations in such a situation.” What about love? Falling in love and loving another person does not revolve around mental and domestic demands. Just because someone was raised celebrating God in a different way does not preclude their being a good match. After all, there is only one God that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in. Why do you think that what Jewish men or women expect from a marriage partner is any different than what someone of another religion expects from their marriage partner? Apparently you have no knowledge about other religions or their beliefs or expectations. One’s values do not necessarily come from one’s religion. It is amazing that you think that one will find “trouble in a foreign culture”. It is people like you that make peace in this world impossible. You should re-educate yourself and remember that all religions are based on the golden rule: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor.” The continuation of Hillel’s quote is” This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.”

  • montana83

    I was brought up a Protestant and married a Catholic. 100 – 200 years ago my family would have shot me. Today, no one really cares. I believe it is no different among other religions, save our Religion of Peace advocates. Their apostasy penalty is severe.

  • ShalomFreedman

    This is the best piece I have seen on the Intermarriage question. It outlines approach which might somewhat improve the situation.
    Unfortunately it does not give much hope that the American- Jewish community will retain the political clout that has been an important factor in the security of Israel
    A diminished,more insular Jewish community means, I am afraid, that there will be just one vital and large Jewish community in the world. Perhaps then another answer for the Intermarriage problem would be the promoting of considerable U.S. Aliyah to Israel, something that I will admit seems now most unlikely.

Responses

  1. The Larger Battle by Sylvia Barack Fishman
    The real fight facing American Jews is not against intermarriage but for marriage itself.
  2. Accentuate the Positive by Eric H. Yoffie
    We must absolutely not turn our backs on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses.
  3. Yes, Something Can Be Done by Steven M. Cohen
    A "purple" solution to intermarriage.
  4. Beyond "Welcome" by Harold Berman
    How a confident Judaism can turn intermarriages into Jewish marriages.
  5. Where Are the Matchmakers? by Benjamin Silver
    Jewish life—and love—on campus.
  6. Great Expectations—A Reply to My Respondents by Jack Wertheimer
    Encouraging more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the editor of The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape, based on a project he recently directed, and is currently completing three projects on aspects of Jewish day-school education.  His essays on Jewish life in the United States appear regularly in Commentary.

 

 1 Throughout this essay, “intermarriage” refers to a union between a Jew and a non-Jew; if the latter has converted to Judaism, he or she is counted as a Jew. 

 

"Who sanctifies His people Israel through marriage": Delhi hosts its first Indian Jewish wedding in fifty years, 2012. India Today Group/Getty Images.

 

  

It is simply not true that the battle against intermarriage is over.

 

 

 

 

 

Rate of intermarriage for current marriages. Data from the 2000-2001 NJPS report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happens when spouses rediscover strong residual emotions for the religion of their birth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For many couples, all that a rabbi asks, if anything, is a vague promise that children will be raised as Jews. 

 

 

 

"Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God": The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz. Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir, 1837. Musée Georges Garret, Vesoul, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rates of Jewish engagement. Data from the 2000-2001 NJPS report.

 

 

 

 

 

2 The sociologist Bruce Phillips provides a cost-benefit analysis to help explain how religious fault lines within households shape decisions like membership in and attendance at a synagogue or Jewish education: 

Given that synagogue membership typically costs thousands of dollars, it should come as no surprise that intermarriage depresses synagogue membership, even among respondents for whom attending synagogue and being part of a Jewish community is central to how they are Jewish. Why would a non-Jew want to invest in someone else’s religion? . . . Add to this the combination of logistics and cost necessary to provide a formal Jewish education. Even the most welcoming synagogue is hard put to convince a non-Jewish spouse to make these investments.

The same considerations hold in other areas as well. Why opt to live in more expensive Jewish neighborhoods if one spouse is only marginally connected to the Jewish community? And so forth. 

 

 

 

 

American Jews have asked themselves, "Will our grandchildren be Jewish?" We now know that in over a million cases so far, they already aren't.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jewish communal leaders bet heavily on a formula that they believed would tip the scales in a different and better direction, and lost.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Zvi Gitelman, Jewish Identities in Postcommunist Russia and Ukraine: An Uncertain Ethnicity. Cambridge University Press, 2012. 

  

 

 

 

"Behold, thou art consecrated to me by this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel": A Jewish Wedding. Jozef Israëls, 1903. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Instead of being infantilized by assurances, younger Jews need to hear without equivocation why it is important to build Jewish families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert. They are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so." 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"In truth, what we're doing isn't actually welcoming at all."