Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?

The battle is over; or so we’re told. A half-century after the rate of intermarriage in the US began to skyrocket, the Jewish community appears to have resigned itself to the inevitable. But to declare defeat is preposterous.

Photomontage by Luba Myts. © <i>Mosaic</i> 2013.
Photomontage by Luba Myts. © Mosaic 2013.
Sept. 3 2013
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.

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? 


  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

More about: Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish community, Jewish identity


The Larger Battle

The real fight facing American Jews is not against intermarriage but for marriage itself.

Sylvia Barack Fishman
Sept. 8 2013

In his characteristically thoughtful essay, Jack Wertheimer takes up the banner of those many American Jews who regard their Jewishness as very important to themselves, to their children, and to the future of American Jewry at large. As against the seemingly entrenched tendency to view intermarriage as inevitable, if not normative, Wertheimer boldly declares that the battle  is not over. Rejecting the “defeatists” among Jewish clergy and in the organized Jewish community who have adopted a policy of no-questions-asked “inclusiveness,” he urges the opposite: reinforcing the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish behaviors and actively encouraging the conversion of Gentile partners and spouses.

Intermarriage does indeed loom large for American Jews who are justifiably concerned about the transmission of Jewish religious culture to the next generation. And yet, when we place intermarriage in the context of (in Wertheimer’s words) the “broader trends in American society,” we see a more pervasive problem. Intermarriage is just one current amidst a sea change in patterns of family formation in the United States.


From the 1960s until today, the prominence of heterosexual two-parent endogamous families has receded as diverse household models have increased. Skeptical American singles continue to view marriage and parenthood as abridgements of personal options. Partnered or single men and women, among them some number of gay and lesbian couples who eagerly pursue religious marriage ceremonies and the legal entitlements of conventional families, create households with single mothers and fathers, two mothers, or two fathers. In addition, about one-third of Americans marry across religious, ethnic, and racial lines, producing a new generation impatient with census questionnaires with a single box for ethnicity. Meanwhile, conventional family life has been periodically subjected to scathing critique in the academic press and the popular media. Against the backdrop of these sweeping changes, intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is often regarded as just one more family construction among many.

To an extent not always appreciated, intermarriage is also deeply entangled with the phenomenon of delayed marriage. The four years of college—once a de-facto marriage market—now reputedly host a “hook-up culture” instead. Even those who don’t participate in casual sexual encounters often choose to spend their time in friendship groups rather than in romantic dyads leading to permanent commitments. Except for the religiously observant, undergraduates commonly report themselves to be “not ready” for such commitments. All this contributes to the widespread postponement of what the New York Times Magazine has dubbed the five sociological milestones of adulthood: “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child” (August 22, 2010). 

What does this mean for Jews? College attendance is often anecdotally blamed for intermarriage, but the opposite is true: universities bring Jews together with other Jews in peer relationships denser than most will ever experience again. Moreover, Jews who identify life partners during their college or graduate-school years are far likelier to marry fellow Jews than those who wait until they are out in the work world—which is increasingly the normal pattern today. A Princeton alumna recently made sparks fly when she advised today’s female undergraduates to look for husbands during their years on campus. Her advice is especially salient for young Jews.

By contrast, once they begin to pursue first jobs or graduate or professional training, young Americans today are far less likely to become engaged than to drift into cohabitation. In turn, such living arrangements often bypass “mindful” emotional commitments. This lack of deliberateness may be one reason why couples who live together and marry later, sometimes much later, have twice the divorce rate of those for whom engagement precedes cohabitation or marriage.

This is also true of marriages across ethnic and religious boundaries. Here, too, the Jewish case is similar. Many American Jews in their twenties and thirties are not actually in the process of deciding, in Wertheimer’s words, “whom they will date and marry, and, when they marry a non-Jew, . . . 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.” On average, intermarrying Jews marry three years later than in-marrying Jews, often cohabiting in the interim, and marriages between Jews and non-Jews, like marriages after uncommitted cohabitation, are twice as likely to culminate in divorce. 

I might mention here another factor, more specific to the Jewish situation, that plays a distinctive role in the avoidance by Jewish singles of romantic relationships with other Jews. That factor is negative stereotypes, especially of Jewish women. Although Jewish men and Jewish women are almost equally likely to marry non-Jews today, their narratives are different. The men often cite certain supposedly off-putting characteristics of Jewish women. For their part, the women are much more likely to articulate an initial preference for Jewish men before they later accept a non-Jewish partner. Moreover, once in a mixed-faith relationship, Jewish women (as Wertheimer notes) are likelier than Jewish men to insist on raising Jewish children, and to act on that intention. Conversely (and exceptions duly noted), Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women are statistically less likely to implement Jewish connections or to provide their children with a Jewish education.

This brings us to the matter of children in general. After they marry (if they do marry), contemporary American Jews—and this includes the in-married as well as the intermarried—often postpone starting a family until their careers are better situated or they can move into more capacious living quarters. Since even the latest figures show that female fertility levels gradually begin to decline around age thirty-two and then drop rapidly after thirty-seven, with one out of five women who try to conceive in their late thirties suffering from infertility, couples who delay are more likely to find themselves struggling with this unwanted predicament.

How does this affect the intermarriage issue? For the parents of today’s young American Jews, the question becomes not “will I have Jewish grandchildren?” but “will I have any grandchildren?” Such parents, whether or not they go to the length of paying to freeze their daughters’ eggs as a kind of insurance policy, as some reportedly do, understandably come to view intermarriage as a lesser evil, and will more readily pressure their rabbis and the Jewish community at large to accept their (finally) marrying children with open arms. The word “intermarriage,” after all, contains the word “marriage,” and that is enough for them.


Differences of sensibility between Jewish men and Jewish women aside, there is no doubt that, as Wertheimer stresses, “intermarried families have considerably lower chances of raising committed Jews.” And he rightly demands that we focus on policy implications—on “what is to be done.” Yet in this area as well, focusing primarily on the intermarriage taboo obfuscates the more pervasive battle for marriage itself, which if anything requires even earlier interventions in the lives of young Jews.

Partisans of traditional Jewish marriages between two Jews—and I count myself enthusiastically in their company—do have powerful tools at their disposal. Jewish connections and Jewish marriage do not happen by accident. By the same token, intermarriage is not the random and indiscriminate phenomenon sometimes portrayed by the Jewish outreach industry, an industry properly and effectively targeted by Wertheimer.

Marriage between two Jews is demonstrably influenced by early and continuing educational interventions that are rich in opportunities for peer interaction. High-quality Jewish education (not only in day-school settings) that lasts through the teen years, summer camps, college classes in Jewish studies, and Israel trips dramatically increase the likelihood that Jews will marry Jews and create unambiguously Jewish homes. These interventions are effective partly by socializing young Jews to feel connected to Judaism and to the Jewish people. True enough, educational socialization doesn’t come with a guarantee, and obviously it doesn’t work for everybody; nothing does. But study after study makes clear that if the goal is in-marriage, the path lies through creating educational opportunities for teens and young adults in every sizeable Jewish locale.

Individuals, families, and communities must also “lean in” to early, ongoing, and open conversations about the need for mindfulness in selecting romantic partners—and about the positive rewards of taking on personal commitments and responsibilities. Individuals, families, and communities need to show, by example and by word, why Jewishness matters—to create in sons and daughters an appreciation of the appeal, and the sheer sexiness, of Jewish men and women.

Because these issues tend to present themselves in personal terms, they are difficult to deal with. Some individuals do not wish to marry, and should not marry. Some should not have children. But for the many Jews who adhere to the enduring personal connections and responsibilities of partnership, marriage, and parenthood,  and for all those who aspire to that state for themselves, a focus on positive goals—rather than on what we want to avoid—is central to the dynamic survival of the American Jewish community. The larger battle is for marriage itself.



Sylvia Barack Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster professor of Jewish and contemporary life at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, is the author of, among other books, The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness and Double or Nothing?: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.

More about: Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish identity, Jewish marriage


Accentuate the Positive

We must absolutely not turn our backs on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses. 

Eric H. Yoffie
Sept. 11 2013

Jack Wertheimer’s thoughtful and challenging essay, “Intermarriage: Can Anything be Done?,” urges American Jewish leaders to embrace two goals.

The first goal is to reduce significantly the rate of intermarriage in the American Jewish community. Wertheimer makes the case that it is essential to do so, and that it can be done. But he is wrong; it cannot be done. Moreover, focusing on what is not possible will leave the community worse off than it is now.

The second goal is to adopt an assertive approach to Jewish life and an aggressive commitment to Jewish living, discarding in the process the apologetics, minimalism, and excuse-making that sometimes creep into the communal conversation. About this, I agree.

Let us begin with Wertheimer’s primary point. He wants Jewish leaders to “just say no” to intermarriage. Would that work? While accurate statistics are hard to come by, no one denies that intermarriage rates are much higher than they were a half-century ago, not only in America but in every other Diaspora community. And they are a problem for Jews of all types, no matter where they may be located on the religious spectrum. In America, where Reform and Conservative Jews form the majority, intermarriage rates are high. And outside of America, in communities where Orthodox Jews are the majority, intermarriage rates are just as high. 

The simple fact is that no feasible strategy is available to lower those rates in any dramatic way. Doing so would require Jews in this country to pull back from full, enthusiastic participation in American life and to construct barricades and bunkers to separate themselves from the American mainstream. In the 1960s, when Jews were still a largely isolated ethnic enclave, the intermarriage rate stood at 6 percent. Today, only a tiny handful of Jews would accept the societal conditions of 50 years ago; for the rest of us, those seemingly impenetrable walls of ethnic and religious division have fallen, never to return. Single-digit intermarriage rates have disappeared with them. 

No Jewish group in America is immune to this phenomenon, and it is difficult to find an American Jewish family without intermarried members. By calling on American Jews to stop intermarrying, Wertheimer is asking them to do what they cannot possibly do; this is a strategy of despair that will neither inspire nor impress. American Jews know full well what is happening in their own families and all around them. The last thing they want to be told is that an intermarried child means that they have failed and all is lost. 


If issuing prohibitions against intermarriage is not what is needed, what then? What is needed is to make plain to American Jews what they can and should do to keep Judaism vibrant. In the case of the intermarried, this means, in one word, outreach. Far from being the problem Wertheimer sees it as being, outreach is instead a benefit and a blessing. After all, as he himself notes, communal organizations of every variety work hard to keep the doors open to intermarried families. Outreach is now for everyone, including the very traditional. 

The question is: what kind of outreach? This brings me to my area of agreement with Wertheimer. As he suggests, we need a communal approach that calls for committed, engaged Jewish living. We need to be assertive about who we are and what we believe. We need families, synagogues, and communities ready to declare, without apology or equivocation, that Judaism is about Torah, mitzvot, and creating a life of holiness. We need institutions that talk, proudly and aggressively, about in-depth Jewish education, promoting justice in the world, and identifying with the destiny of the Jewish people. We need to convey to our children that Judaism is a serious enterprise offering serious answers to the most difficult questions. It is a religion that demands a great deal of us. But if we make the commitments required, it will change our lives.

When two Jews marry and commit themselves to these goals, we rejoice. (Of course, far too often, two Jews marry with only the vaguest sense of what Jewish living means.)  If our children intermarry, we should remain relentlessly focused on the need for committed Jewish living—the very same message, if we have done our job properly, they should have been hearing their whole lives. We need to say: you have made the choice of a life partner; share your Jewish commitments with your spouse, and then ask him or her to join with you in creating a Jewish home and living a Jewish life. We should strongly encourage conversion whenever possible, while recognizing that our encouragement must be gently couched and that we will not succeed in every case. Where conversion is not an option, we should emphatically urge our children to become part of a Jewish community and raise their children as Jews—not as a strategy for survival but as a natural extension of their own practice and beliefs.

Wertheimer notes that approximately one-third of intermarried families raise their children as Jews, up from a previous low of about one-fifth. There is no reason why that figure should not be at three-quarters or higher.

For Wertheimer, it is precisely the presence of intermarried Jews in our community that makes such an assertive approach unlikely. With so many non-Jewish spouses now participating in our institutions, he writes, we have become wishy-washy and afraid to offend, shying away from our commitments and our values rather than embracing them. 

Generally speaking, I am more optimistic than he is, and I do not see what he sees. Our problems are many, but Jewish life in America is also remarkably dynamic and creative. Our most engaged communities are more deeply engaged than ever before, and our best synagogues are better than they have ever been. A very large number of Jews crave Jewish experience, study Jewish texts, immerse themselves in Jewish ritual, and seek God in a way that would astonish their great-grandparents.


I do not dismiss Wertheimer’s concerns out of hand. We reach out to the intermarried because we want to save them for the Jewish people, and we welcome non-Jewish spouses because we want them to share our values, participate in our rituals, and ultimately identify themselves with our destiny. Wertheimer correctly quotes me as saying that the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is unequivocally value-laden. Its task, as I have suggested, is to model proud and assertive Jewish behavior. We should never fall into the trap of espousing minimalism, and we should avoid vague, watered-down, we-are-all-the-same Judaism. We must not be afraid of affirming our particularism as a religious people, tied to God in a covenant that goes back to Abraham and Sarah.

We should also avoid taking steps that will undermine that fundamental message. Wertheimer cites a proposal that the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion permit the enrollment of rabbinical students who are intermarried. That is a bad idea, and I am opposed to it.

Nevertheless, I still dissent strongly from Wertheimer’s central point. To him, Jewish survival requires waving the “Do Not Intermarry” banner. To me, this is a doomed strategy. He emphasizes the problems that result from having too many intermarried Jews in our synagogues. I emphasize the importance of having every intermarried Jew as part of a synagogue.

We must absolutely not turn our backs on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses. Given the realities of American Jewish life, we want to bring them into religious institutions where we can open the doors of our Jewish world to them and their children. We do this because we want their families to function as Jewish families. If we offer them the power of Torah, the mystery of Shabbat, Jewish ritual experiences rich in meaning, and the compelling ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition, we will succeed.


Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.

More about: Eric Yoffie, Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage


Yes, Something Can Be Done

A “Purple” Solution to Intermarriage

Sept. 15 2013
About the author

Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

The discourse on Jewish intermarriage over the last decades has been dominated by two schools of thought. One may be termed the normative school; the other, the welcoming school.

The normative school—ably represented by Jack Wertheimer—sees intermarriage through the lens of historical Jewish norms. Insofar as this school offers policy prescriptions (which it rarely does), it calls for strengthening the norms that have historically promoted in-marriage and discouraged out-marriage.  

By contrast, the welcoming school not only sees large-scale intermarriage as inevitable and unstoppable but advocates warmly receiving intermarried families into Jewish families and communities. Rather than stressing norms that privilege in-marriage, it works to dispel perceptions that Jewish groups or leaders harbor negative attitudes toward the intermarried or resist their active participation in Jewish life.

Whereas the normative school sees intermarriage as both ideologically wrong and socially corrosive of Jewish continuity, the welcoming school sees intermarriage as ideologically neutral and socially neutral or even beneficial, in that it signals Jews’ integration within the larger society.

Let me elaborate.


Truths and Consequences

As Wertheimer correctly notes, intermarriage is associated with several adverse consequences both for Jewish demography and for Jewish life. Among the consequences are these: relatively few children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews; adult Jewish children of intermarried parents are much more likely to intermarry in turn; the intermarried display low levels of participation in Jewish religious practices, and even lower levels of ethnic connectedness (as in having Jewish friends); and—in the largest gap of all—the intermarried show little attachment to Israel.  

All of these together, and especially the first—that the intermarried are three times less likely than the in-married to raise their children as exclusively Jewish—make intermarriage a major factor in the demographic decline that is now being experienced nationwide among non-Orthodox, communally affiliated Jews. The simple, unavoidable truth is that the non-Orthodox population, in which about one out of every two recently married individuals is intermarried, is shrinking. Only the much smaller Orthodox population, with its near-zero intermarriage rate, is demographically booming.

And this has striking implications for the future shape of the Jewish community. Consider this finding, documented in the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York: for every three non-Orthodox Jews in their fifties in the New York region, we find only one non-Orthodox Jewish child under the age of ten; by contrast, for every three Orthodox Jews in their fifties, there are nine Jewish children. In the entire New York area, the Orthodox comprise a mere 20 percent of Jewish households, but these households contain 61 percent of the Jewish children. Similar patterns have been observed elsewhere, most notably in Great Britain where the Orthodox population has been growing while all others have been shrinking. Intermarriage is not the whole cause of the decline of non-Orthodox Jews; but it is a major contributing factor.


To this evidence of shrinking Jewish numbers outside of Orthodoxy, proponents of the welcoming strategy offer a variety of counter-arguments. First, they say, the picture is not uniformly bleak; intermarriage doesn’t lead inevitably to departure from Jewish life, as can be seen from the presence of intermarried families in synagogues and other Jewish venues. Second, if intermarried Jews and their children are less likely to be active in Jewish life, the fault is attributable at least as much to the intermarrying spouses’ low rates of Jewish education and social connectedness prior to marriage as to intermarriage per se; even if they had married fellow Jews, the odds are that they would have been less engaged than their in-married counterparts. Finally, say some in the welcoming camp, if the intermarried are alienated from Jewish life, it is precisely because of the lack of welcome that greets them when they encounter Jewish communities or social circles.

The first of these counterarguments—that intermarriage doesn’t necessarily lead to a departure from Jewish life—is true enough but statistically insignificant; it is indisputable that the two phenomena are very highly correlated. More cogent is the second counterargument: to some extent, today’s intermarried were indeed already slated for lower levels of Jewish involvement by virtue of circumstance (living in a remote geographical location, suffering from a weak Jewish education, having intermarried parents, etc.). But the argument is without merit concerning the outcome that matters most, which is the raising of Jewish children—not partially Jewish, not half-Jewish, not Jewish-and-Christian, not Jewish-plus-something-else. No statistical manipulation can explain away the enormous gaps between the in-married and the intermarried in the rates at which children are raised as exclusively Jewish.

Which leaves the welcoming camp’s third counterargument, the one about the allegedly off-putting behavior of Jewish institutions and communities. Here, too, evidence is lacking. For one thing, some Jewish institutions—ranging from Birthright Israel to Jewish community centers to, most prominently, Reform congregations—seem to have little trouble attracting large numbers of intermarried families or children of the intermarried. Far from erecting social barriers, broad swaths of American Jewry have adopted a posture of openhearted welcome, and not just toward the intermarried but toward all sorts of non-traditional and historically non-normative behaviors.

Most strikingly, when asked in the New York study whether they felt comfortable or uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities, the responses of the intermarried were nearly identical to those of the non-married and only slightly behind the in-married.  This suggests that intermarriage per se does not generally provoke either social rejection or feelings of alienation among the intermarried themselves. It also underlines that a welcoming attitude by itself is insufficient to produce the desired effect: namely, intermarried Jews and their families who are active in Jewish life.


Implications for Policy

Still, notwithstanding the analytic strengths of the normative camp in assessing the impact of intermarriage, the story is different when it comes to policy recommendations and actions on the ground.

To the extent that the normative camp offers substantive policies, they amount to the need to inculcate a strong pro-endogamy ethos and to refrain from conferring positions of leadership or communal honors upon the intermarried. Yet this approach has failed utterly to promote in-marriage, to raise the rate at which the intermarried raise their children as Jews, or to engage intermarried families in Jewish life. Over the past half-century, the strong disapproval of intermarriage articulated by some sectors of the community has visibly failed to diminish its incidence overall or bring about other desired effects.

Even this were not so,  moreover, today’s non-Orthodox communal leaders are simply incapable of embracing the normative approach—in part for fear of alienating their children, friends, congregants, and donors, in part out of aversion to “judgmentalism.” (“Who am I to tell others, even my own children, whom they should or shouldn’t marry?”) In post-modern, post-ethnic, post-religious, post-collective America, the words and actions urged by the normative camp fail to resonate. In fact, they might even cause collateral damage by impeding the formulation or enactment of policies explicitly designed to foster in-marriage. (Programs aimed at promoting endogamy routinely refrain from declaring their true objectives, emphasizing instead how they help young people decide their “Jewish journeys” for themselves.)

If the normative camp finds few followers among non-Orthodox leaders, the welcoming camp, correctly reading and reflecting the values of those leaders, has initiated several educational endeavors that even stalwart members of the normative camp might in principle applaud.

Take, for example, the introductory Derekh Torah course at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which bills itself as “an excellent class for interfaith couples, for individuals who are curious about conversion, or for Jews who want to learn more about Judaism.” Or take the Exploring Judaism course at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, designed “for students exploring the possibility of converting to Judaism” and strongly encouraging the participation of “Jewish partners of potential converts.” Consider, too, the nearly one-hundred classes around the country sponsored by the Mother’s Circle of the Jewish Outreach Institute, with its “free educational programs and resources for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage or a committed relationship.” On the Orthodox side of the ledger, we may add the entire Chabad outreach operation, premised on a welcoming attitude toward all Jews, emphatically including those who act contrary to traditional expectations. 


And yet: when it comes to intermarriage, what have these educational programs accomplished? As Wertheimer’s compelling review amply demonstrates, intermarried couples continue to increase in number, few raise their children as exclusively Jewish, and most are fairly distant from Jewish life. No less than the normative camp, the welcoming camp, too, has failed to halt, let alone turn around, the steady decline in the part of the population that is at once non-Orthodox and at least somewhat attached to conventional Jewish life. Nor is that decline significantly offset by the growth in “borderland Jews”: those, heavily the offspring of the intermarried, with but an episodic attachment to being Jewish or with hybrid identities like “partially Jewish” or “both Jewish and Christian.” In the words of one illustrative respondent to the New York survey: “I’m Jewish with my father and Christian with my mother.”

In sum, in terms of effective policies for dealing with the larger demographic trends, both camps have fallen short. One is unpersuasive, the other unproductive. What then is to be done?


Four “Purple” Solutions

In today’s politically and culturally polarized America, analysts routinely divide the electorate into “red state” conservative Republicans and “blue state” liberal Democrats. Correlatively, policy advocates tend to line up behind proposals appealing to one or the other body of voters. Every so often, however, analysts and policy makers do seek to fashion “purple” solutions: ideas that draw on the thinking and sentiments of both camps and bear the potential of appealing to a larger constituency.

Can we apply a “purple” approach to the challenge of intermarriage? Any successful response to that challenge must meet two tests. It must increase the number of Jewish children who are born to Jewish parents and raised as exclusively Jewish in their religious identities. At the same time, it must comport with a cultural environment that shrinks from even obliquely criticizing people for their decisions in matters seen as residing in the private realm. In short, we need policies that would work if adopted, and that can be adopted if they work.

Some examples:

First and foremost, the organized Jewish community can strive to promote earlier marriage among Jews. Broadly speaking, among adult non-Orthodox Jews aged twenty-five to thirty-nine, about a quarter have married Jews and a quarter have married non-Jews, but fully half are non-married. Not only, then, are more Jews marrying non-Jews, but fewer Jews are marrying in their twenties—with adverse consequences for fertility, as recently discussed here by Sylvia Barack Fishman.

Not surprisingly, Jews who do marry Jews tend to have dated Jews over the years; and those who date Jews tend disproportionately to have many Jewish friends, associates, and neighbors. While the organized Jewish community has (properly) responded to rising intermarriage by investing in Jewish education—through day schools, camps, Israel travel, campus activities, and more, all of which are linked with higher rates of in-marriage—it has never explicitly adopted a policy of strengthening Jewish social networks among adolescents and young adults. In this day and age, where a zip code is better than a Jewish education as a predictor of in-marriage, the building of Jewish friendships ought to be regarded as a constituent part of Jewish education, not just its fortuitous by-product.

Along the same lines, the community would do well to consider investing in cafes, social movements, social media, and cultural events (concerts, film festivals) in areas where thousands of young Jewish adults reside. In New York City, two such areas are lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn; others exist in all major metropolitan regions.

Second, more converts are needed, especially from the ranks of non-Jewish spouses and the not-yet-married romantic partners of Jews. Congregational rabbis—the prime gateway to conversion—have little incentive (or time) to work intensively with prospective converts, especially those with no particular tie to their congregations. An investment in conversion-dedicated rabbis could increase the numbers at a relatively low per-capita cost. Would such an initiative uncover a pent-up demand? It’s hard to say; but the success of current conversion institutes and certain other outreach efforts suggests the existence of an untapped potential for expanding the number of Jewish young adults and Jewish in-marriage.

Third: as we have seen, only about a third or fewer of the children of intermarried parents are raised as exclusively Jewish. What if the non-Jewish spouses—the parents of these children—were given license to consider themselves as belonging to the Jewish people without taking the extra step of a religious conversion? The suggestion here is to promulgate an alternate path to becoming Jewish, one that doesn’t require a religious process or trappings that might strike prospective joiners as inauthentic or insincere. Would such couples (one born Jew plus one Jew via what might be called “cultural affirmation”) raise their children as Jews? Here, too, we don’t know, but building a non-religious pathway to joining the Jewish people would help us find out.

Fourth, we need a more family-friendly society. Couples throughout the West have been experiencing lower birthrates in part because of the burdensome economic and social costs of raising children. In that connection, as a culturally and politically influential community, organized Jewry could help bring about more family-friendly public policies on the national and local scene that would alleviate the costs of bearing and raising children for all.

Since non-Orthodox Jewish birthrates closely track those of highly educated secular Americans, helping to raise the fertility rates of the larger society in which Jews live would have an indirect but immediate effect on Jewish fertility rates as well. Meanwhile, on the community level, Jewish-sponsored and partially subsidized day care for children with at least one Jewish parent could help raise non-Orthodox Jewish birthrates out of the region of Negative Population Growth, where they currently reside.


Moving Forward

The numerically declining non-Orthodox population constitutes the major adverse collective consequence of intermarriage. This challenge demands frank recognition, sustained attention, and effective action. A package of communal policies can raise the rates of Jewish in-marriage, of religious conversion to Judaism and cultural affiliation with the Jewish people, of Jewish fertility, and of Jewish child-rearing among the intermarried.

Required for such policies is imaginative thinking plus the ingenuity to draw upon elements of both the normative and the welcoming schools. The former’s chief virtue lies in its correct and well-placed alarmism, the latter’s in its recognition that any policy approach must be compatible with the culture and ethos of our time and place. Neither has yet devised a successful package of policies. Why not combine the best elements of both, and move on from there?


Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

More about: Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage, Sylvia Barack Fishman


Beyond "Welcome"

How a confident Judaism can transform intermarriages into Jewish marriages

Harold Berman
Sept. 23 2013

I wish I could say that Jack Wertheimer (“Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?”) is dead wrong. I wish I could join those in the intermarriage outreach industry who dismiss his arsenal of statistics and chastise him for driving away the intermarried with undue pessimism and an insufficiently “welcoming” attitude. But I can’t. Wertheimer is dead right in asserting that “the American Jewish community is in a fight for its life”—and that the champions of outreach have  sold us a flawed model and false hopes.

Admittedly, I’m far from an impartial observer, having served in Jewish leadership positions for nearly fifteen years and watched as not a few programs for the intermarried trumpeted success while largely falling flat. As a director of a Jewish federation, I counseled distraught spouses as well as the parents, grandparents, and children of intermarriage seeking advice for insoluble problems that few Jewish communal leaders would even wish to acknowledge.

I also know intermarriage from the inside. When I met my wife, I was a lobster-eating, Jewishly illiterate, twice-a-year Jew. For her part, she had been raised in a devout Christian home and served as minister of music in a Texas mega-church. Today, a great deal of water having flowed under the bridge, we are an observant Jewish family living in Israel.

Unlike most advocates of intermarriage outreach, then, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what it’s like both to have stood on either side of the divide and to have traversed the substantial gap between them. My wife and I, as Wertheimer notes, have also written about our journey in our book Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths, and a Journey of Hope, putting pen to paper to offer a living example of how Judaism can transform an intermarriage. Over the years, we have encountered numerous families like ours, and many more interested in the possibility of living a Jewish life. Even as the outreach industry preaches the gospel of a no-obligation “open tent,” these families must search long and hard for the encouragement and help they need in order to embrace Judaism unambiguously.

In writing Doublelife, we also sought to address a pressing question, albeit one habitually sidestepped by those in the business of intermarriage outreach: what is the point of being Jewish? For, if we cannot articulate a coherent answer to this most basic of questions, then nothing else matters.

Wertheimer cites the 2000 NJPS statistic that over one million Americans of Jewish descent identify themselves as Christians. These Christians, not to speak of all those descendants of Jews who are no longer of any religion, are undoubtedly nice people. But is it enough for our progeny to be nice people, whatever their religious affiliation may or may not happen to be? If there is no compelling reason to be Jewish, if Judaism has no unique mission, no unique message, no unique destiny that can be realized only by Jews practicing Judaism—then yes, it will have to be enough. Words like “inclusion” and “welcoming” are so many empty slogans when a large portion of our community is unable or unwilling to articulate just what it is welcoming people into.


To be fair, when intermarriage and assimilation began to reach epic proportions decades ago, the outreach approach, pioneered by well-intentioned professionals in the hope of persuading more intermarried families to join the Jewish community and raise their children as Jews, seemed to make sense. With few historical models to guide them, their experiment with inclusion may have been worth a try.

But today, as Wertheimer writes, the results are in: the lopsided focus on welcoming has turned out to be unproductive at best, while the offer of a no-strings-attached Judaism, blurring boundaries between Jew and non-Jew and going beyond accepting intermarriage to actually celebrating it, has been a monumental failure. And yet, in the face of this failure, the outreach experimenters, instead of reconsidering and retooling, have calcified and turned increasingly inflexible. As one senior Reform rabbi confided to me, “I have found them to be a somewhat jealous bunch. They don’t always like to share their toys in the sandbox.” If my own experience is any guide, that sandbox is heavily guarded.

One might think that advocates of outreach, given the collapse of their  decades-old experiment, would be interested in learning more about the success stories—i.e., those families who have chosen, as we did, to become fully Jewish. What drew them to embrace Jewish life? What did they find that impelled them to enter wholeheartedly into its practices and beliefs? Which communal approaches—what kinds of welcoming—succeeded with them, and which didn’t? The answers to these questions could provide the rich vein of information needed to help the Jewish community attract intermarried families to Judaism more effectively and in greater numbers.

That has not happened. In response to Doublelife, one prominent professional, instead of pondering how an intermarried family’s journey to Judaism might inform his own work, simply warned Jewish leaders not to waste their time on analyses like ours: no movement to embrace Judaism, he averred, was “likely to happen in anything but a marginal fraction of the large intermarried population.” Another was even blunter, devoting an entire article to rebutting our ideas for new approaches, insisting that the rate of intermarried participation in Jewish life was “skyrocketing,” and upbraiding us for inventing “false dichotomies” between Jews and non-Jews. As a third prominent intermarriage advocate has repeatedly asserted, intermarried families raising children with any form  of Judaism are, by definition, “Jewish families.”

If these critics are right, what need for outreach at all?

The time has come to try a different path, one that abandons the hollow and historically ineffective rhetoric of “welcoming” and replaces it with an approach firmly aimed at Jewish transformation. Practically speaking, if we want better results, we might start with Wertheimer’s call to invite families who have traversed the road from intermarriage to Jewish marriage to share their stories with communities around the country. Inspired by such stories, as well as by continued contact with the families who tell them, might not some proportion of the intermarried be moved to deepen their connection with Judaism, whether or not actual conversion is in the offing? Why not bring together groups of intermarried families for intensive Shabbatons filled with learning, conversation, and camaraderie? Why not in-depth learning trips to Israel? Once the goal is understood to be not passive acceptance but active transformation, the possibilities become endless.

The American Jewish community faces a momentous decision. Disengaging from the old ways of the outreach industry will be difficult. But the crisis is grave; if there is to be a vibrant Jewish future, there is no choice but to try.


Harold Berman is the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife Gayle are the founders of, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews. They are currently working on their second book, focused on women converts now living in Israel. 

More about: Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage


Where Are the Matchmakers?

Jewish life—and love—on campus

Benjamin Silver
Sept. 24 2013

I have high hopes that Jack Wertheimer’s ambitious and insightful essay will reach those Jews who are now, or soon will be, contemplating marriage. High hopes, but I fear misplaced hopes. As a college senior, I am one of those young Jews, and I want to offer not an excuse but an explanation for why some of us may be shirking what Wertheimer would call our responsibility to ensure the Jewish future.

On today’s university campuses, Jewish students are increasingly being offered two divergent versions of Jewish life. One is recognizably traditionalist; in denominational terms, it loosely resembles modern-Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. No doctrinal or ritual demands are made as a condition of involvement, and varying degrees and levels of adherence are embraced (for instance, when it comes to separate seating of the sexes at prayer). Nevertheless, this grouping is defined by the great pride it takes in the traditional principles and practices of Judaism.

The other form, loosely resembling what has come to be called Jewish Renewal, acknowledges that the traditional culture of Judaism is important and needs to be retained but believes that Jewish religious practices must be consciously and deliberately reinvented. The old way of doing things, it is said, is driving away members of the Jewish community—a premise accepted by many American Jews. This means that outmoded and esoteric bits must be removed and replaced by newer and more alluring ones. Interestingly, secular or “cultural” Judaism, which used to be the alternative to the traditionalist brand of Jewish life, is less of a presence on campus. In its stead, students who adhere to this second kind of Jewish life seem to find comfort and coherence in combining what Wertheimer refers to as a “strong residual emotion for the religion of [one’s] birth” with an emphasis on reinvention.

On my campus, although the divide between the two forms of Judaism is significant, they get along quite well together. Students seldom partake exclusively of one or the other, but instead mix easily and often.

What does any of this have to do with marriage? As Sylvia Barack Fishman notes in her response to Wertheimer’s essay, the formation of strong Jewish communities in colleges creates fertile soil for the growth of relationships. If there is no place for Jewish life, young Jews will not meet each other on any consistent basis. But what is the aim of these places, and what goes on in them? For the most part, they promote Jewish learning, encourage and fund Shabbat activities, provide facilities for prayer groups (minyanim), and connect students who are enrolled in well-attended courses on Bible and Jewish philosophy. And yet, in the landscape of Jewish life on campus, with its excellent and accommodating spaces, the focus is more on the building of community than on personal or moral growth—the kind of growth that a romantic relationship with another Jew is perhaps uniquely capable of fostering.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this state of affairs. In the effort to rescue Jewish life by bringing young Jews together, traditionalists shrink from imposing personal expectations lest they push students farther away. In the same effort, “renewers” put every facet of Jewish life on the negotiating table. Neither party draws any connection between the pursuit of Jewish community, let alone Jewish learning, and the cultivation of Jewish character by means of Jewish relationships. In the kibbutz-like atmosphere of campus Jewish communities, young Jews are subtly encouraged to see each other as friends, as cousins, as academics, but very rarely as potential life partners. Both Wertheimer and Fishman touch fleetingly on this issue, but to my mind, given the near-universality among young American Jews of a four-year college experience, it is key.

I hardly mean to suggest that marrying a Jew guarantees a healthy and happy Jewish life—or that marrying a non-Jew necessarily makes such a life impossible. (Many are the anecdotes about the non-Jewish partner in an interreligious relationship developing an infectious passion for Judaism that ends by nudging the Jewish partner back toward Judaism.) But we cannot ignore that endogamy makes it easier to achieve a fulfilling Jewish life—a life of learning, ritual observance, strong family affiliations, love of the Jewish people and even of the divine.

For many Jews, including me, it has become alien to think of marriage in such terms, and—this is the point—no one is urging us to do so. That is not the case with other groups in Western society. In Catholicism, to take only one example, marriage has been a sacrament for nearly 2,000 years; in some sense, one cannot live a full lay Catholic life if unmarried. Is Judaism really so different in this regard? Is endogamy only about making more Jews, or is it also about making better Jews?

Realistically, I hold out little hope that the American Jewish community as a whole will coalesce behind endogamy as an instrument of Jewish flourishing—or, for that matter, behind Jewish flourishing, period. According to a recent report in the New York Times, some synagogues, seeking to “reinvent” bar and bat mitzvahs, intend to “shift from prayer to social action,” and are even considering getting rid of Torah-reading altogether. It’s unclear that any specifically Jewish content will remain in such a regimen (aside from tikkun olam, a moral principle roughly equivalent to “social action” and found in many another body of thought besides Judaism). The result can only be a further widening of the gap between Jewish education—the heart of Jewish flourishing—and the notion of Jewish marriage as a primary path toward that grand goal.

If this is true—and mind, these are only the thoughts of one never-been-married Jew on one college campus—then today’s extraordinarily fortunate young Jews, whose appetite for learning and community has been so richly indulged, have ironically been robbed of the challenge and the opportunity to flourish fully as Jews. Is there really nothing that can be done about this situation, short of importing a flock of Yentes (after the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof)? Pending their deus-ex-machina arrival, we might start by overcoming our qualms and reviving the tradition of Jewish learning through and alongside the avenue of Jewish romance, in the process imparting to our young the joy of discovering an apple tree among the trees of the forest, a lily among the thorns. (Song of Songs 2:3, 2:2)


Benjamin Silver, a student at the University of Chicago, will be graduating in June 2014.

More about: campus, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage, Sylvia Barack Fishman


Great Expectations—A Reply to My Respondents

Encouraging more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism.

"Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God": <i>The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz.</i> Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir, 1837. Musée Georges Garret, Vesoul, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.
"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.
Sept. 29 2013
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.

In their clear-eyed acknowledgment of the dangers posed by intermarriage to Jewish collective life in the United States, all five of my respondents have courageously identified themselves with a point of view that has become increasingly difficult to express in public. I’m grateful to each of them.

From Sylvia Barack Fishman’s perspective, American Jews are “justifiably concerned” because they see intermarriage as an impediment to “the transmission of Jewish religious culture to the next generation.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie describes intermarriage as “a problem for Jews of all types.” Steven M. Cohen, marshaling considerable evidence, concludes that “intermarriage is associated with several adverse consequences both for Jewish demography and for Jewish life.” “A monumental failure” is Harold Berman’s blunt verdict on the “lopsided” policy of “welcoming” that goes “beyond accepting intermarriage to celebrating it.” Benjamin Silver entertains “little hope that the Jewish community as a whole will coalesce behind endogamy as an instrument of Jewish flourishing.”

These views stand in marked contrast to the prevailing posture in leadership circles of the American Jewish community, where any concerns are swept under the carpet and the talk is of cherishing “diversity” and doing everything to foster “inclusiveness.” All the more reason, then, for me to salute my respondents for their candor in defining intermarriage as a problem that must be addressed.


Sylvia Barack Fishman has established herself as a pre-eminent authority on intermarriage and the role of gender in the contemporary American Jewish community. I wholeheartedly agree with her central contention: it is impossible to understand intermarriage patterns if we ignore the state of marriage within American society in general, and especially the phenomenon of later marriages.

A decade ago, Robert Wuthnow, a leading sociologist of American religion, studied overall trends among twenty- and thirty-somethings during their so-called odyssey years: he found them drifting far from the institutions that had nurtured them—their families, their religious institutions, and their local communities. When the Jews among them do marry, they choose partners from within their new social circles, which may or may not include other Jews. Add to this the fact of later marriage, as well as second and subsequent marriages, and the result is higher rates of intermarriage. As people grow older, Fishman notes, the pool of eligible Jewish partners shrinks, making it still harder to find a Jewish mate. Jewish women desiring to marry a Jew tend to suffer more from these altered circumstances than do Jewish men.

Later marriages, Fishman argues, also shape the responses of parents whose adult children remain single. After waiting out their children’s deferrals into their late thirties and forties, parents are understandably loath to make waves. Mainly they want to see their children happily married, with children of their own. Intermarriage is, at most, a secondary concern.


I applaud Fishman for urging “individuals, families and communities…to ‘lean in’ to early, ongoing and open conversations about the need for mindfulness in selecting romantic partners—and about the positive rewards of taking on personal commitments and responsibilities.” There is much to unpack in her wise advice. Laudably, she advocates much greater communal investment in Jewish education and socialization programs for young people, right through high school and college. She also calls upon families and communities to speak to younger Jews about their responsibility to marry and “create unambiguously Jewish homes.”

In brief, if current marriage patterns are to be altered, the skittishness that has gripped American Jewish leaders must be overcome. We owe it to those whose minds are not closed to speak forthrightly about the first commandment in the Torah—be fruitful and multiply—and also about their responsibility to create Jewish families. At a time when the only obligation Jews are exposed to is the imperative to “repair the world,” it is immensely refreshing to encounter a voice like Fishman’s, unafraid to urge that Jews attend to the needs of their own families and communities.

In her emphasis on the wider context in which the quandaries of Jewish life must be situated, Fishman observes that “conventional family life has been periodically subjected to scathing critiques in the academic press and the popular media.” Here her courage seems to fail her. Unless we are prepared to name the ideologies that have done so much to undermine confidence in “conventional family life,” how can we possibly confront them? Those “scathing critiques” emanate in the academic world from radical feminism, queer studies, and libertarian “theorists.” As for the popular media to which Fishman refers, they include movies, plays, and music that celebrate the unconventional and tear down the traditional family. 

As a film reviewer in the New York Times recently noted: “Motherhood on the big screen is typically viewed with pity, sentimentality or resentment, and romantic love tends to be treated in a similarly reductive manner, as an impossible dream or a state of earthly bliss.” To this we may add that heterosexual marriage itself is usually portrayed as an unfailing locus of betrayal—or as an institution whose time has long since passed. In an environment so hostile to “conventional family life,” it’s no wonder that the desirability of marriage has become an open question among younger Jews. For its part, Jewish tradition comes down solidly on the other side.


I wish I could agree with Eric Yoffie’s optimistic vision of the American Jewish future. Although he and I share a desire to be realistic, we see very different realities.

Noting the slight rise in the percentage of intermarried families who claim to be raising their children as Jews, Yoffie comments, hopefully: “there is no reason why that figure should not be at three-quarters or higher.” Unfortunately, there are very good reasons why nothing of the sort is in the cards. Perhaps a third of intermarried families nationally state they are raising their children as Jews; but how are we to square this with the fact that many of these families also claim to have Christmas trees in their homes and a significant proportion decline to enroll their children in any program of formal Jewish education? In what sense, then, are the minority of intermarried families claiming to raise their children as Jews actually doing so?

As for the other two-thirds, they are overwhelmingly unavailable to hear Yoffie’s message. They do not join synagogues or Jewish organizations; they are distant from centers of Jewish life—both geographically and emotionally. He implores us “not [to] turn our back on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses.” I agree: that is why I am in favor of programs to introduce them to Judaism and encourage their conversion. But realism also requires us to acknowledge the many difficulties encountered by intermarried couples in negotiating their differences.

In my article, I cited the research of Bruce Phillips of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, who employs a cost/benefit analysis to understand why most intermarried families are unwilling to spend money on educational and religious services that are of benefit to only one spouse. I would add a further impediment: namely, the emotional price that spouses must pay to resolve religious differences. If, as Yoffie repeatedly argues, realism ought to guide our policies, isn’t it high time to get real about who is turning their backs on whom?

By stating such truths, Yoffie contends, we are embracing a “strategy of despair”: The “last thing” that parents of intermarried adult children “want to be told is that an intermarried child means that they have failed and all is lost.” But nowhere in my article did I blame parents whose children have intermarried; to the contrary, I went out of my way to reject the idea that intermarriage is primarily a symptom of poor Jewish socialization, noting that some Jews “whose parents are highly engaged, who have benefitted from the best the Jewish community has to offer, …nevertheless, for one reason or another, have ended up in an interfaith marriage.” Nor did I portray intermarriages as “inevitably” resulting in the “loss” of grandchildren to Judaism.

What I did and do counsel is precisely realism: the odds are far longer for intermarried families. Do we not exacerbate the situation by telling people what we think “they want to hear”? American Jewish life might look quite different today if more rabbis had informed Jewish parents that a few hours a week of religious school for their children would result in little Jewish literacy and even less commitment, especially if Judaism was not actively modeled in the home.

Yoffie boils my message down to three words: Jewish leaders should “just say no.” I don’t recognize this caricature of my thinking. My essay counsels a proactive approach to the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and concludes by urging that we “extend a true hand of welcome.” Still, Yoffie is correct that I am not afraid to say no.

Sure, the religious culture of the Jews contains much that is positive, uplifting and joyous. It also contains prohibitions. Just saying no to intermarriage may indeed, as Yoffies observes, fall on deaf ears—if all that Jews have been taught is that their religion ratifies whatever they wish to do and believe. Here, too, realism dictates an acknowledgement of the need for boundaries in the maintenance of any society. No community can thrive without norms; and those norms usually include don’ts as well as do’s.


Speaking of norms: Steven M. Cohen observes that I “call for strengthening the norms that have historically promoted in-marriage and discouraged out-marriage.” This, he writes, situates me with a “normative school” on the question, as opposed to a “welcoming school” that seeks to “dispel perceptions that Jewish groups or leaders harbor negative attitudes toward the intermarried.”

But this is a trick that self-styled “progressives” constantly play: we, they say, have no norms; we’re merely being inclusive. It would be more accurate to characterize both “schools” as having norms that they seek to enforce. Whereas I am moved by historical norms, those who disagree with me find it normatively unacceptable to speak about the downside of intermarriage for the future of Jewish life in this country. Where possible, moreover, adherents of the so-called “welcoming school” also seek to punish institutions and individuals who disagree with them. They silence Jewish leaders by threatening and sometimes acting to withhold funds. Like so many who march under the banner of “inclusion,” they have no compunctions about excluding those who differ.

By his own account, Cohen falls into neither of these two camps. Yet he is honest enough to provide powerful ammunition to each. From my perspective, his masterful overview of present trends significantly augments my own analysis. Three of his points are especially worthy of attention.

First, Cohen dismisses out-of-hand the “statistically insignificant” fact that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to “a departure from Jewish life.” All of us know some strongly committed Jews who have been raised by intermarried parents, and such Jews are to be fully embraced. But in the aggregate of people raised in intermarried homes, they represent a small and atypical population.

Second, Cohen probes the charge that intermarried families stay aloof from organized Jewish life because they feel rejected by the Jewish community. Yet in their responses to survey questions, he writes, intermarried families on the whole do not voice concerns about being accepted in Jewish communal settings. Those who accuse Jewish institutions of being insufficiently “welcoming” have created a false narrative.

Third, Cohen addresses the phenomenon among younger survey respondents of a “distancing” from Israel, Much of this, he states, can be accounted for by intermarriage. If we remove children of intermarriage from the equation, the American Jewish population as a whole appears to be strongly connected to Israel (despite criticism by some of particular Israeli policies). I will up the ante here by noting that some of the most virulently anti-Israel statements emanating from the North American Jewish community in recent years have also come either from children of intermarriage or from Jews who are themselves intermarried.

Indeed, a new trope has emerged in some of these writings: “I used to call myself a proud Zionist, but my non-Jewish spouse has opened my eyes to the evils of Israeli society.” The spread of this kind of thinking may be added to the list of ways that intermarriage is producing outcomes inimical to the flourishing of Jewish life.


The burden of Cohen’s article lies in his four “purple” solutions to the impasse between the “normative” and “welcoming” camps. I sympathize with his desire to find a means of bringing together a deeply divided Jewish community. His first two solutions, indeed, seem to be extensions of what I myself suggest: support for all kinds of current and new venues aimed at helping young Jews to meet and associate with each other, and investments in programs to encourage the conversion of Gentile spouses. I doubt, however, that the latter proposal would win plaudits from “welcomers” who regard any talk of conversion as insulting.

Cohen’s remaining two solutions seem unlikely either to bridge the chasm dividing Jews or necessarily to improve matters. Correctly understanding that, for many non-Jewish spouses, conversion to Judaism may be a bridge too far—some may be unable to break with the religion of their birth, others may be unable to embrace the Jewish belief system—Cohen proposes a means of enabling them to join the Jewish people without converting to Judaism. This new form of belonging, in his view, might encourage more intermarried families to raise their children as Jews, and is worth a try. I am skeptical: we lack any grounds for believing that Gentiles with no commitment to Jewish life will be more likely to raise their children as Jews because just because they have been re-labeled as members of the Jewish people. I am also opposed: traditional norms instruct us that joining the Jewish people means saying both that “your people is my people” and that “your God is my God.”

Cohen’s final suggestion seems even more farfetched. The Jews, he writes, even though they constitute under two percent of the American populace, should work to bring about a redirection of marital trends in American society overall, thereby redirecting Jewish trends in the process.

This “solution” raises a serious question. Given that non-Orthodox Jews march in lockstep with prevailing attitudes and patterns of behavior within advanced American society, how can they possibly reverse specific trends that happen to be damaging to their interests without addressing the larger forces driving those trends? In any case, the whole idea of trying to change America bespeaks a wild overestimation of the influence wielded by Jews as a group, not least when it comes to protecting their own collective interests.


Harold Berman is a three-fold insider to the intermarriage wars: he was once intermarried; as a federation executive, he learned first-hand how average Jews struggle with the myriad challenges posed by intermarriage; and, in confronting the reigning orthodoxies of the outreach industry, he has personally suffered from efforts to marginalize him. We should listen when this informed participant tells us the existing response to intermarriage is seriously flawed.

Berman asks why advocates of outreach are not interested in learning about “which kinds of communal approaches—what kinds of welcoming—succeed with the intermarried.” His question reminds us of the remarkable lack of curiosity about intermarriage displayed by the American Jewish community as a whole. Sylvia Barack Fishman notes, for example, that many young Jewish men harbor negative feelings about Jewish women, and vice-versa—a phenomenon noted for decades but rarely investigated. Would it not be of interest to policymakers to understand the genesis of this hostility, so that measures might be taken to counteract its baleful consequences? Another issue: why do intermarried families tend to be quite distant from if not actively antagonistic toward Israel? Wouldn’t it be helpful to find out?

And to return to Berman’s own question: shouldn’t an effort be made to learn which intermarried families are most likely, and/or least likely, wholeheartedly to embrace a Jewish identity? If nothing else, answers to this last question could help move us from scattershot approaches to more targeted programs. All in all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that lack of interest is a sign of willed ignorance.

Berman is on to something important when he proposes sending out so-called conversionary families to speak to the intermarried. Converts and their Jewish-born spouses could serve as powerful models for the undecided, especially if they can attest to the ways in which they and their children have been immeasurably enriched by living active Jewish lives. Might some funder support a pilot project to test the potential impact of such personal testimonies?


Benjamin Silver speaks for a generation of young Jews who have suffered irresponsible neglect by their elders. In one symptom of the laissez-faire modes of Jewish education today, Jewish campus programs seem to offer but two options—either a hands-off approach by traditionalists afraid to come across as too directive or a make-it-up-as-you-go-along Judaism on offer by progressives. As I read him, Silver is asking: what happened to the adults? Is no grownup prepared to advocate a Judaism of norms and expectations?

Perhaps the saddest section of Silver’s essay is his invocation of a traditional Catholic attitude toward marriage, summarized by him in the words: “one cannot live a full lay Catholic life if unmarried.” He plaintively wonders why “no one is urging” his generation to think of Jewish marriage in just those terms: as a means to “achieve a fulfilling Jewish life—a life of learning, ritual observance, strong family affiliations, love of the Jewish people and even of the divine.”

 The reason, to state it one final time, is crystal clear: according to the all-too operative norms in many sectors of the American Jewish community today, it is unacceptable to speak of marriage as a Jewish ideal, and it is forbidden to identify in-marriage as a responsibility Jews owe to their people. In this respect, Silver reminds us that the intermarriage wars reflect in microcosm the larger malaise afflicting American Jewish life. For fear of giving offense or sounding too pushy, we have incapacitated ourselves from stating what we expect of Jews and what we believe makes for “Jewish flourishing.” Younger Jews read us perfectly, and therefore many are adrift.


Some final observations: As an academic, I have sometimes been dismissed as incapable of grasping what those in the trenches of Jewish life experience first-hand. Unlike rabbis, educators, cantors, and organizational leaders who must look people in the eye when they set policies about intermarriage, I have the luxury of examining the problems at a distance. I don’t have to counsel couples contemplating intermarriage or speak to parents of adult children who are intermarried or work with children of intermarried parents.

I do not minimize the agonizing decisions that confront today’s Jewish leaders—decisions all the more wrenching because they affect the lives of long-time members of our communities, friends of our families, active co-workers in our agencies, generous board members, and allies. But precisely because I am not struggling with the particulars of individual case after individual case, I am free to take the measure of the radically new communal policies that have resulted from the cascade of ad-hoc decisions—and what I see worries me greatly. Not only are we turning our backs on fundamental ways of understanding and transmitting Jewish identity, but no long-term strategy is in place to drive our choices.

If we continue to sacrifice the long-term future for quick fixes, what scenario of American Jewish community is likely to unfold? I see a community turned away by mixed messages and confusing signals, or drifting ever deeper into soft religious nihilism.

My message to those who set policies, therefore, is first to do no harm to the larger Jewish enterprise. As you grapple with the manifold challenges posed by intermarriage, consider the long-term consequences of your actions. As you face ever more unreasonable demands to accommodate the perceived needs of the hour, ask yourself how your decisions will contribute either to enhancing or to injuring the Jewish collective. And don’t ignore your core members: those deeply dismayed by the current state of American Jewish life even as they struggle valiantly to communicate to their children the permanent and enduring rewards of a Jewish life.

All of my respondents seem to agree with me on the urgent necessity of a strategy that will encourage more Jews to marry Jews and more intermarried families to convert to Judaism. They also agree that the desired medium is an embracing, compelling, and “thick” Jewish religious culture: a therapy at once exigent and rejuvenating. Isn’t that the direction forward, before it’s altogether too late?


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.

More about: Eric Yoffie, Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage, Steven M. Cohen, Sylvia Barack Fishman