Reprinted with permission of the Forward.
According to the recent preliminary release of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How should the community respond to them?
Against the backdrop of a Jewish population that the NJPS describes as declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make about the religious identity of their children are critical to the future vitality of the community. I believe that every attitude, every practice, every policy should be evaluated primarily by this standard: Will it increase the likelihood that the children of interfaith families will be raised as Jews?
About 30% of interfaith families are sadly lost to the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life and instead to raise their children exclusively in a different faith. But the majority of interfaith families–up to 30% who are engaged in Jewish life and say they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, and the roughly 40% who say they are doing “both” or “neither”–offer fertile ground in which to grow the American Jewish community.
If we want interfaith families to raise their children as Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative–“bad for the Jewish people,” “communal suicide” and the like–they are made to feel worse than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews.
If we want interfaith families to come into our community, we shouldn’t stand at the door saying, “you can’t come in unless you convert.” Conversion is a wonderful personal choice that should be encouraged, but promoting it too aggressively and too early pushes away people who might otherwise come in–resulting in fewer children raised as Jews. The less aggressively we promote conversion, the more likely that people who are intermarried will choose it.
Non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews should be more than just welcomed–they should be the object of profound gratitude from the Jewish community. Instead of barring a non-Jewish parent from the bima (podium) at his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah, we should be honoring that parent for his or her contribution to Jewish continuity.
As the intermarriage debate reopens, I am deeply concerned about arguments that question the quality of the Jewish life of interfaith families. After all, we don’t make in-married Jewish families pass an observance test before we include them without reservation in our community. A child of intermarried parents who exclusively attends a synagogue school and becomes bar or bat mitzvah should be presumed by all to have an unambiguous Jewish identity. We should do everything we can to get more interfaith families to raise their children like that. Telling intermarried parents that even if they raise their children Jewishly, their children won’t really be Jews–they will be “Jewish and something else”–will discourage them from even trying. The result will be fewer children raised as Jews.
Yes, the nature of Jewish life in interfaith families involves intimate exposure to other religious and cultural expression. Thousands of children raised as Jews have Christian relatives and participate in their holiday celebrations. This may not “compute” as Jewish life when viewed from the perspective of a traditionally observant Jew, but it doesn’t make a child raised as a Jew “something else.” Jewish leaders who think otherwise are out of touch with the thousands of interfaith families raising their children as Jews while honoring their non-Jewish relatives.
In the words of Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, we need to make Jewish life so vibrant, so magnetic, so attractive that people will want to get involved. Continuity programs aimed at doing so should be strengthened and expanded. But we can simultaneously invite interfaith families to participate in those programs, as well as provide programs specially aimed at welcoming interfaith families themselves.
Every evaluation of intermarried-outreach programs shows that the Jewish involvement of participants increases, whether measured by self-assessed degree of involvement, decisions to join synagogues, decisions to raise children as Jews or decisions to convert. But outside of Boston, San Francisco, Metrowest New Jersey and a few other areas, there is almost no federation support for outreach programs. The United Jewish Communites has not included outreach to the intermarried in the program for the pre-General Assembly “Hadesh” conference, at which participants learn about successful continuity programs in various communities. We need not only to provide programs, but to publicize their existence–and the message that the Jewish community welcomes the involvement of interfaith families.
When the UJC announces the NJPS’ intermarriage rate at the General Assembly in a few weeks, the American Jewish community will once again be confronted with the reality of intermarriage–regardless of whether the rate is somewhat higher or lower than the 1990 survey’s published figure of 52%. It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counter-productive and self-defeating strategies, or to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich our community by doing what is necessary to increase the numbers of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews.