I am always surprised when Jewish leaders share in public discourse as if they were talking with a close circle of friends. In Jane Eisner's recent piece "For 2013, A Marriage Agenda," she laments her children's choices in love, or lack thereof, and their chances of raising a Jewish family. Fair enough, but in seeking a solution she resorts to obsolete arguments against intermarriage that demonize non-Jews, alienate intermarried families and marginalize Jews-by-choice. This pessimistic outlook of the Jewish community only serves to perpetuate the problem and is no way to start the New Year.
Eisner introduces her arguments as if they are novel and even a bit subversive, as if intermarriage is rarely discussed publicly in the organized Jewish community. Consider the following passage written 14 years ago:
The Jewish community is hysterical about Jews marrying non-Jews. With the exception of Israel, no other issue captures as much attention, discussion, and debate in Jewish life. Organizations are scrambling to solve this "crisis" but they are doomed to fail because there is no intermarriage crisis in the United States today. But we do have a problem: we have not yet formulated a set of beliefs, behaviors, and institutional structures that define what it means to be a Jew in a pluralistic society.
When Gary Tobin wrote these words in 1999, he hoped that his book, "Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community," would change minds and policies. If Eisner's piece is any indication, Jewish suspicion of intermarriage and conversion persists.
There are two fundamental truths that greatly inform how American Jews should approach intermarriage. First, Jewish communities have absorbed non-Jews throughout history. From ancient times, rabbis recognized that love knows no bounds and that there would be those who choose partners from other faith-traditions. Second, American Jews simply cannot enjoy the benefits of American pluralism, which we surely do, while pretending we are not living in the most dynamic religious marketplace in the world.
In the 1980s, when rates of intermarriage reached 50 percent, many communal leaders resisted this trend, while others took more enlightened approaches. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) from 1973-1996, initiated the Reform Movement's 1983 acceptance of patrilineal descent and devised an "outreach" program for non-Jewish spouses. Writing in defense of these controversial policies, Rabbi Harold Schulweis argued that the Jewish people are hemorrhaging members rapidly, and that we need to cast a wider net to retain young Jews and ensure the continuity of Judaism. This strategy has never been more true than today.
Eisner is driven by concerns for the future of liberal Judaism and recognizes that, "Parents do not want to alienate their children with what may seem like outdated prejudices, while religious authorities, such as they are, are reluctant to judge for fear of rejection." Yet this is exactly what she is advocating.
Prejudice does not just seem outdated, it is. If religious leaders are worried about rejection, the solution cannot come in another form of rejection. If we rant against intermarriage, we give up all hope that those coming into the Jewish orbit will stay and bet everything on forcing young Jews to marry other Jews. Eisner's admits that, "most younger Jews in America simply reflect trends in the larger society, where highly educated people are marrying later, giving birth later, and living in a far more pluralistic environment than even a generation ago." This is the reality of life in the 21st century and we are not going to reverse a trend that is synonymous with success and freedom in America. Attempts to do so will resonate as ghettoization and likely to achieve the opposite result.
We are at a crossroads. Judaism is changing. Jewish life is changing. We have choices to make. Will we fearfully cling to an unsustainable vision of the past or will we welcome change and diversity? Eisner's statement that, "We hope that those coming into our community will compensate for all who leave, but they won't," is not only pessimistic, but needlessly insulting and alienating to those of us who are intermarried or Jews-by-choice. In launching her complaint against individualism and individuals making what she deems bad choices, Eisner fails to challenge the community to do better by moving beyond our collective fears and valuing those who join our people either by marriage or conversion.
The real crisis is how we understand Judaism in a vibrant religious marketplace. As Tobin concludes, "Our challenge is to envision a community within the context of America where ethnic and religious walls are permeable. Judaism must become attractive both to those who are born Jews, or they will choose to leave, and to those who were not born Jews, so that they will choose to join." Rabbi Irwin Kula takes it a step further saying that the "freedom and openness of America invites us to bring our traditions to the marketplace of ideas."
Thinking that we can change the choices individuals make is a fool's errand. Trusting our children's instincts and focusing on fostering the positive attributes that Judaism has to offer will have a far greater impact upon not only the raw number of Jews, but on the strength of Jewish identity as well.