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Edmund C. Case

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Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families?

Posted: 11/14/10 06:59 PM ET

From remarks at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Nov. 9.

Intermarriage is a huge reality for the Jewish community. Half of Jews are intermarrying, which means that two-thirds of new Jewish households are intermarried; half of young Jewish adults have intermarried parents.

The Jewish community has choices: it can take steps to engage interfaith couples; it can ignore them and let them drift away; or it can push them away.

These choices have huge consequences. If more than half of interfaith couples raise their children as Jews, the Jewish community will grow and be enriched; if less than half do, it will wither away.

There is a clear and relatively inexpensive road map for efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life. Local Jewish communities could make explicit welcoming statements -- "interfaith families welcome here" - and they could make that welcome tangible by offering services and programs at four key points:

• help interfaith couples find Jewish clergy for their weddings
• discussion groups to help them work out how to have religion in their lives
• introductory classes on Judaism
• classes to help them raise Jewish children, and religious education for those who are not ready to join a synagogue.

Communities could also provide resources and trainings to help local Jewish professionals and program providers attract and work sensitively with interfaith families.

Adapting Our Attitudes Toward Intermarriage

Why don't communities express explicit welcoming messages and offer services and programs to interfaith families? Despite the importance of engaging interfaith families and the clear and relatively inexpensive road map to do so, Jewish federations and foundations allocate less than one tenth of 1 percent of their total spending to it. I believe this is because of deep-seated negative attitudes Jews and Jewish leaders have toward intermarriage.

Just a few years ago there was a cartoon in the Boston Globe. It showed a couple standing in front of two headstones, with a skeleton clawing out of one grave turning to the other and saying "Harold, do you hear this? He's marrying a shiksa!" That is tribalism. It helped Jews during a long period of social isolation. Those days are now over.

Some people believe intermarriage is bad because some research shows lower Jewish behaviors and attitudes among intermarrieds compared to in-marrieds. But other research says that Jewish behaviors and attitudes are determined not by whether one's parents are in-married or intermarried, but instead by one's experiences of Jewish living, education and friendship. We don't know what surveys would show if the Jewish community behaved differently and actually extended welcoming messages and offered services and programs.

Some people still think that intermarriage can be prevented or reduced to insignificant levels by exposing Jews to intensive Jewish experiences. Jewish camp and education, Israel trips, and guiding young people to places and experiences where they will meet other Jews are all wonderful, and if fewer participants in these experiences intermarry, that is a fine result. But many still will. Last year's Birthright Israel studies showed that 28 percent of married trip participants did. The value of these experiences is not as a deterrent to intermarriage, but that they increase the participants' Jewish identity and desire to have Jewish families and children -- regardless of who they marry.

Adapting Our Messages About Intermarriage

Some people say Jewish communities already communicate welcome to interfaith families. From our vantage point at InterfaithFamily.com, that is very out of touch. People tell us that they don't feel welcomed in Jewish organizations when they hear "don't intermarry" messages, when they feel subtle pressure to convert, when the first reaction they experience is suspicion.

A woman, who is not Jewish, has raised Jewish children for 10 years and is active in her synagogue, told us this: "Imagine yourself newly married, new to Judaism, sitting somewhere hearing a speaker describe your marriage as the greatest threat to Jewish continuity. Or imagine you are searching about intermarriage on the Internet and see the negative comments posted on many blogs. Would you feel welcome? Would you be inclined to raise your children as Jews, or would you wonder if there might be a more welcoming community for you elsewhere?"

Some people think Jews can effectively communicate to young Jews that they should not intermarry, they should marry other Jews. The Jewish community tried that, for decades, and failed miserably. In-marriage is wonderful, but it is wishful thinking to think it can effectively be encouraged. If anything, young people today are offended by the message: They judge others as individuals, not by group characteristics. As Jack Wertheirmer just reported, in his study of young Jewish leaders, the millennial generation has a non-exclusivist ideology.

Some people say that in-marriage is a Jewish norm, like working to better the world. Norms change; given the huge reality of intermarriage and the shift to non-exclusivist outlooks, it is doubtful that in-marriage is still a Jewish norm. Talking about in-marriage as a norm brands those who intermarry as "norm violators," a sure way to push people away.

It doesn't work to say the in-marriage norm can be promoted before marriage occurs, but the intermarried can be welcomed after the fact. It doesn't work to say Reform leaders don't need encourage the in-marriage norm but federation and Conservative and Orthodox leaders should. What Jewish leaders say is immediately and widely disseminated, and no once can control who hears it or how they react.

Promoting in-marriage doesn't stop people from intermarrying, but it risks leaving them feeling rejected and alienated from the Jewish community and its institutions. When we indicate that in-marriage is preferable, if we are not very, very careful not to demean intermarriage in any way, then we are communicating a message that you are bad if you marry out and that your partner is second-class.

And when that happens it's not just interfaith couples who are pushed away from Judaism -- their parents and Jewish relatives are, too.

A New Approach

There needs to be a fundamental change in Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage. We need to embrace the potential for positive Jewish outcomes, and stop talking about intermarriage as bad.

At InterfaithFamily.com, we hear this all the time: "Because of my interfaith marriage, I believe I live a more Jewish life. ... I have educated myself and my children about Jewish practice to a far greater extent than I would have otherwise." And the flip side is, any rabbi of a Reform synagogue will say that some of the most active, most involved congregants who take on primary responsibility for their family's Jewish life are the parents who are not Jewish.

Our children's partners do not have to be Jewish themselves to support our children and our grandchildren being Jews and living Jewishly. When we talk to our children about marriage, we should not promote in-marriage, we should promote engagement in Jewish life, with a supportive partner, whether or not that partner is a Jew.

Most Jews would say they want their children to marry Jews. But what they really want is for their grandchildren to be Jewish. We will collectively have a better chance of having more Jewish grandchildren if the community's message to our young people is this: Living Jewishly has been a great source of meaning and value to us; we hope you will want it for yourself and your family and children; if you do, we hope you will choose a partner who will support your family's Jewish engagement; you, your partner and children will always be welcome, will always be part of our family and we will always support the Jewish choices you decide to make.

A community that is not welcoming like this is not a community that young people want to be part of. When we talk to them we have to have that in mind.