Mosaic Magazine

Response to: "Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?"September 2013

Accentuate the Positive

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

  

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.

Comments

  • amy caplan

    One of the problems I see with the more liberal streams of Judaism is that rather than presenting a committed, engaged Judaism that clearly articulates its values, I see a muddled, attenuated cafeteria approach – exemplified by a prayer book that provides so many approaches to and iterations of worship that one has no idea of what Judaism means, other than the idea that however one expresses one’s Judaism (or worse, “Jewish identity”) is fine. There seems to be no common standard of practice or belief, and thus no community. I grew up in a traditional Conservative congregation in the East Coast, went to public school and attended a three day a week Hebrew school. When I moved out west, I joined a Conservative synagogue and discovered that it did not use the traditional Conservative prayer book and most of the congregation, many of then intermarried, used the synagogue only for life cycle events and as an ethnic social club. The level of Jewish literacy was breathtakingly low – I remember serving on a Jewish community board with an individual who had completed a Young Leadership course, but was surprised to learn that calamari were not kosher. On Sukkot, my children were the only children in attendance; sending a child to play at a classmate’s home during Passover, I found her eating Oreos. After I read about a study that plotted cumulative hours of Jewish education versus rates of intermarriage which showed a sharp uptick in endogamous marriage after 1000 hours, I decided to put my children in day school. As you might imagine, today we belong to an Orthodox shul, though we are not fully observant by Orthodox standards. One simply cannot support a deep and committed Jewish life without a surrounding community that reinforces it. Intermarriage is both a symptom and a cause of the attenuated connection that the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews have to Judaism. Feeling Jewish is not an adequate substitute for a Jewish life actively lived and the embrace of social justice causes is a non-sectarian activity – of course ethics are part and parcel of Judaism, but one can have no religion and do that.

    • MarcH

      Amy – Your story tracks mine.

      It’s a bit late in the day for Reform rabbis to be talking about “Torah, mitzvot, and creating a life of holiness” when they’ve spent the last 100 years tossing out mitzvot which offend them or their congregants.

      The birthrates, aliyah rates, day school and post-high school seminary attendance rates and self-defense instinct (in the form of support for strong Israel and US defense policies) of the liberal Jewish movements are all sickly. Intermarriage is just one more metric.

      Last week in our local community Jewish newspaper (the Rosh Hashanah issue!) a Reform rabbi offered a front-page opinion piece on what he saw as the critical issue for Jewish activism: responding to some mild restrictions by Putin on LGBT activity in Russia.

      Rabbi Yoffie can invoke “vibrant” as much he pleases but the word that he brings to mind for me is “clueless”.

  • Mom-of-four

    Firmly in Wertheimer’s camp on this one, I can do no better than to quote Churchill: ““Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” In this case, the enemy is those who would be acquiescent in the loss of the Jewish people.

  • Mom-of-four

    Maybe more to the point: you say ” Today, only a tiny handful of Jews would accept the societal conditions of 50 years ago.” If that is what is required to maintain the Jewish people, I’m willing to accept those conditions. I’m in that handful. The rest of you, good luck.

  • Sandra

    With all respect to Rabbi Yoffie (and I do commend him for his article), the truth is that we have failed as parents, as rabbis, as communities, when our children intermarry. When someone chooses to intermarry, is a clear indication that Judaism is not the most important part of their life. And if this is the case, if Judaism is not who you are (more than anything else), then yes – we have failed. We were unable to transmit the passion and the beauty of living a Jewish life.

  • Samuel M. Prince

    I just read a fascinating article on an unrelated topic but the analogy works. A person walks into a bakery and asks for a gluten-free chocolate cake. The baker shows him a fabulous flourless molten chocolate cake and tells him it is $100. The purchaser says, “that is exactly what I want but I only have $20. You will have to get the remaining $80 somewhere else.” For charitable fundraisers, the analogy explains what we go through every day when we solicit foundations or government grant sources.

    For Jews, the analogy shows what the extremist religious establishment thinks of everyone who is not them. I have been told that 1,000 years ago the rabbis re-interpreted Torah so that the mother determined the religion of the child. This was because Christian Crusaders were wandering around Europe raping Jewish women and leaving children in their wake.

    1,000 years later we again face a terrible problem that the religious extremists rejoice in. For every 10 non-extremist Jews who intermarry and are, therefore, shunned by the non-Reform religious establishment, there is at least one religious extremist who is no longer in the minority. We are faced with the task of growing some courage and divorcing ourselves from the religious extremists who refuse to acknowledge that it is no longer the 18th century.

    Simply put, the religion of the child should be determined by either parent’s religion. And, conversion law should be changed to state that anyone is a Jew who choose to be a Jew, regardless of their level of observance. Joining the club is only the first step in a lifetime of learning. Most of us no longer face the Spanish Inquisition unless a majority of our neighbors are Haredei Jews or rural Christian extremists.

    If we want a Jewish world that includes all Jews, we have to simply stand up and decide to change the law, as the Talmud states we can. Those who choose to remain behind are welcome to stay there.

    • Moshe

      You were told wrong. This is mentioned in the Talmud, compiled around the year 500. The Talmud finds allusions to this in the Bible itself. It is also mentioned explicitly in the book of Ezra.

  • Joseph Fibel

    I was absolutely dismayed by Jack Wertheimer’s article by someone who was in a position to know everything about this vital problem to our existence and yet did not seem to encompass any idea of even the beginnings of its solution.

    When I hear a prominent rabbi or Jewish figure high in the educational process say “stop all intermarriage,” I wonder where he has been spending his time. Our Jewish kids are in a completely mixed society, working and socializing with all kinds of people and having social and emotional relationships. I would prefer a mixed-marriage couple to be married by a rabbi so as to initiate the idea of a Jewish home to the new couple.

    A certain percentage of such couples will not have a Jewish home but if either partner has Jewish feelings a Jewish home should be encouraged by their friends, community, synagogue and parents. Both partners should be encouraged in any and all Jewish activities. Personally, I think being Jewish is terrific and learning about Judaism is a worthwhile process. By encouraging this process, we can help the non-Jewish spouse feel at home in Jewish life and increase the chances of their children remaining Jewish.

    Of course, this requires that children of non-Jewish spouses to converted or if a Jewish male marries a non-Jewish female to be recognized as being Jewish or to provide a relatively simple conversion process. Maybe it might be as simple as requiring someone to pledge: “Your people shall be my people, your God, my God and your ways, my ways.”

    Marrying in is much better than have our kids marry out.

    I guess it depends on how much we believe it is worthwhile to preserve Judaism. Forget it, Mr. (Rabbi?) Wertheimer.

  • Mike

    The notion of acceptance of intermarriage to those who are against it is anathema. Don’t worry. Children of intermarriage who participate in Jewish life are not going to worship with you. That is a major reason why the Conservative movement is in such a decline. I am the father of a son who is married to a terrific non-Jewish woman. He was raised in a Conservative home. Both knew exactly what they were doing…and they were both not teenagers, but over age 30. Our daughter-in-law is supportive of raising their children as Jews. She will not be converting and our son is not pressing her to do so. Her parents are active in their Church and it would be a terrible blow to them if she were to convert to Judaism. There are at least two sides to the intermarriage issue. And to those who disagree with this posting, feel free to rave and rant. Not only does the USA support freedom of religion, we also support freedom of speech.

  • Harold Berman

    Overall, this is an excellent article, although Jack Wertheimer’s article (at least parts of it) are more in agreement with Rabbi Yoffie than he seems to think. I quote from the end of Jack Wertheimer’s article, which sounds fairly similar to Rabbi Yoffie’s call to remain “relentlessly focused on the need for committed Jewish living” and to avoid minimalist Judaism:

    Wertheimer similarly writes:

    “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.”

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

  • Ethan Cohen

    I have trouble understanding those, such as Rabbi Yoffie, who acknowledge the importance of a Jewish home, but are unwilling to condemn intermarriage. What does it mean for a non-Jewish spouse to be a part of a Jewish home? Is (s)he excluded therefrom? Can a Jewish home also be a Christian home? Are we demanding conversion with no ceremony or halakhic validity, and hoping that the convert won’t notice? The way a couple relates to Judaism in a synagogue is a small matter against the way they relate in the home. A half-Jewish synagogue with a priest on staff wouldn’t be good enough. Kal v’chomer, a half-Jewish home is not good enough.
    Outreach to the Jews who are less knowledgeable and involved is a great thing, but it shouldn’t wait until they marry out. Make them knowledgeable and involved, and the intermarriage rate will go down.

  • Ellen

    At the end of the day, children are going to grow up and do what they want, even if it means rejecting our values. Sad but true. I wasn’t happy with my son’s intermarriage, but I felt confident he’d never convert. Weeks ago my daughter-in-law said he’d begun the process of turning Catholic because she wanted only one religion in the house. I asked him what he believed, and he said that he knew what he was taught (and he went through Hebrew School and a bar mitzvah ceremony), but he didn’t know what he believed. Still, he was doing it for her. This was despite his father and I being allowed to take them to temple on occasion and them having a bris for their youngest child just months ago.

  • rosenberg

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

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

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

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  • Freedomlover

    The key to lowering the intermarriage rate is one Rabbi Yoffie would disdain: keeping Jews attached to, and working for, the survival of, Israel. A child that has become a Zionist, even if unobservant, is far less likely to marry a non Jew.

    That means we have to do what Yoffie, during his leadership of the Union of Reform Judaism, refused to do. No matter. We parents are responsible for our children and can: 1) teach the real history of the region and the conflict, not the left wing URJ version. See David Meir-Levi’s “History Upside Down, The Roots of Palestinian Fascism and the Myth of Israeli aggression”. It is only 100 pages and is the must-get high-school graduation gift for our your child. 2) Palestinian Media Watch – what PA/PLO/Fatah/Abbas & Co. tells its own people vs what it tells the U.S./West – the genocidal anti-Semitism and terror advocacy and denial of Israel’s right to exist. http://www.palwatch.org 3)The history, archeology and jurisprudence that proves the land from the river to the sea, has always belongs to the Jews. Go to http://www.mythsandfacts.org

    The Union of Reform Judaism came out against Israel building homes for Jews in the E-1 section of Jerusalem. Yet never in thousands of years of history has any part of Jerusalem been the capital of any Arab/Islamic/”Palestinian” state. Why? Because there has never been an Arab/Islamic/Palestinian state where Israel, from the river to the sea, including all of Jerusalem, is today!

    So, key to lowering intermarriage rates? Abandon Reform synagogues. URJ synagogues seek to breed left-wing Democrats, not Jews. In that they have been extremely successful.

Ferziger Wertheimer

Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?

How to Rejuvenate Modern Orthodoxy
Modern Orthodoxy as it developed in mid-century America was dynamic, vibrant, challenging. Thanks to Open Orthodoxy, it will be again.
By Asher Lopatin

GLANVILLE

Danse Macabre

In Berlin, Dancing to the Music of Death
My mother loved Berlin, the city of her youth. My father hated everything German. And me? I stayed away—until this summer.
by Mark Glanville

Doran August

Foreign Policy

What Was He Thinking?
By seeking reconciliation with Iran, Washington alienates its allies and contributes to ever greater mayhem in the Middle East.
by Michael Doran

Fiddler

Tevye Betrayed

What’s Wrong with Fiddler on the Roof
Fifty years on, no work by or about Jews has won American hearts so thoroughly. So what's my problem?
By Ruth R. Wisse

Facebook Like Box

Horn Surnames

What's In A Name

Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained
“Dara, you’ll love this!” Actually, I don’t.
by Dara Horn

Golinkin

Conservative and Orthodox

The Crisis in Jewish Law Today
Orthodox rabbis need to stop worrying about 200-year-old battles with “Reformers” and allow Jewish law to develop organically, as it did in the past.
By David Golinkin

Kook

History

Abraham Isaac Kook Receives the Call
For a visionary rabbi in London, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 signified nothing less than the advent of the messianic era.
by Yehudah Mirsky

Gurfinkiel

The Situation in Europe

You Only Live Twice
Vibrant Jewish communities were reborn in Europe after the Holocaust. Is there a future for them in the 21st century?
by Michel Gurfinkiel

Degenerate Art

The Art World

Degenerate Art and the Jewish Grandmother
The story of the family behind the Nazi-era art trove.
By Walter Laqueur

Wertheimer

The September Essay

Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?
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.
by Jack Wertheimer

Aharon L

The Rabbinic World

Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?
Introducing the extraordinary rabbi who next week will receive Israel’s highest honor.
By Elli Fischer

Rubinstein

Yom Hashoah

Making Amends
A mysterious request leads the Canadian-born son of a Holocaust survivor back to the old country.
by Robert Eli Rubinstein

Benjamin

The Intellectual Scene

The Walter Benjamin Brigade
How an original but maddeningly opaque German Jewish intellectual became a thriving academic industry.
by Walter Laqueur

Nicholson Essay

The October Essay

Evangelicals and Israel
What do evangelicals really think about the Jewish people, what are the roots of their Christian Zionism—and what is now driving a growing number away from wholehearted support of Israel.
by Robert W. Nicholson