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.