What to Do about Intermarriage
Welcoming interfaith families is not enough. We need to help them transform themselves through Jewish life.
‘The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?” So mused the headline of Uriel Heilman’s recent Jerusalem Post article. In truth, this is hardly breaking news. The war on intermarriage was fought and lost years ago. Much of American Jewry has long come to embrace intermarriage, and even those who oppose it seem resigned to its existence, much like the weather.
American Jewry’s primary question now, as Heilman describes, is simply “how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.”
And therein lies the problem. We obsess about being welcoming. We trip over ourselves to be inclusive.
Last Rosh Hashanah, a Los Angeles rabbi announced during his sermon that he had decided to perform interfaith weddings. His congregation gave him a standing ovation. The Reform movement is now seriously considering ordaining intermarried rabbis, with leading voices explaining the move as an imperative in the name of inclusion. Many synagogues, in their literature and websites, prominently trot out some version of “we welcome interfaith families.”
What’s wrong with welcoming? Who doesn’t want to be welcomed? I should know. I’m not intermarried, but I was once.
Earlier this year, my wife and I wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope about our own Byzantine path from intermarried couple who met in a church choir to Orthodox Jewish family living in Israel. If not for the many caring people who welcomed us when we were exploring Jewish life, we likely would never have become a Jewish family.
Welcoming is critical. But it’s not enough. And the question “how can we be welcoming” is the wrong starting point. Instead of asking how we can welcome interfaith families, we would serve them better by asking how we can help them transform themselves through Jewish life. Welcoming, without more, is simply a technique to get people in the door. But Jewish transformation goes to the heart of our passion and purpose as a people.
Helping intermarried families feel comfortable may encourage them to enter our doors. But it won’t help them grow. And it may not even convince them to stay. To be sure, being welcoming and effecting Jewish transformation is hardly an either/or equation, and notable examples of doing both well can be found. But the communal starting point is nearly always one of welcoming, hardly ever one of transformation, and in the meantime, the majority of intermarried families are either unengaged or under-engaged in Jewish life.
I’ve met intermarried couples who joined a synagogue because they were made to feel comfortable.
But I’ve never met an intermarried couple (or in-married, for that matter) who got excited about Jewish life, who gave their kids a rich Jewish education, who chose to become a Jewish family, simply because they felt comfortable. In virtually every case, they encountered a gifted Jewish teacher, had a meaningful experience in a service, or found that Judaism spoke profoundly to their worldview.
If our mindset is transformation, true welcoming will inevitably follow.
If it’s welcoming that intermarried families are looking for, then they don’t need the Jewish community at all. They can feel exceedingly welcome in any number of alternative settings, from other religious groups to the local neighborhood association. What they can’t get from these other settings, and what only we can provide, is an amazing 3,500 year old tradition that can speak to the soul.
If our mindset is transformation, true welcoming will inevitably follow. The reverse, however, is often not the case. Our communal conversations about intermarried outreach tend to get stuck on questions such as whether a non-Jew can have an aliya, whether a non-Jew can join the synagogue board, or whether “non-Jew” is the most sensitive term to describe someone who is not Jewish and is married to a Jew.
What if we instead start by asking, “How do we show this family the greatest depth possible? How do we demonstrate what Judaism has to say about the issues we all face? How do we model a caring community based on Jewish values? How do we get our most inspiring teachers in front of them?” If questions like these were our starting point, I suspect many more intermarried families would be banging on our doors, many more would be drawn to convert, and those not drawn to convert would be much more enthusiastic about the prospect of raising their children Jewish.
Many intermarried families appear to agree that welcoming is not enough. In a 2010 landmark study, Professor Steven Cohen, a leading authority on intermarriage demographics, concluded from his survey of hundreds of intermarried parents that most felt welcome by Jewish institutions, but many nevertheless felt discouraged from participating because of a “competence barrier.” In other words, many intermarried families take the smile as a given but are thirsting for the substance.
Cohen went on to say that “the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”
Indeed, when my wife and I started to get excited about Judaism, we had no difficulty finding people, from Reform to Orthodox, who were nice to us and made us feel welcome. What drew us in, though, were those people and experiences that made the Torah come alive, that made us feel like we couldn’t get enough.
To be fair, our community does have some intermarried programming that speaks to transformation.
But it is not the norm. It is not what we speak about first, or most, or sometimes ever. Can anyone say with a straight face that our emphasis on welcoming has been a resounding success? Notwithstanding some intermarried families who are happily engaged in Jewish life, the statistics do not paint a pretty picture.
We don’t need more of the same. We need a paradigm shift. The time has come for a new conversation.