Egon Mayer died on January 30, 2004 at age 59, after a six-month battle with cancer. The cause of Jewish outreach to interfaith families has lost a true pioneer and champion. I have lost a personal hero. Beyond his professional accomplishments, he was a man of extraordinary qualities, as ten friends, family members and colleagues who spoke at his February 1 funeral made clear.
I was a beneficiary of Dr. Mayer’s work long before I knew who he was. In the mid-1980s, I was able to find places in the Jewish community that would welcome my interfaith family. The work of two individuals, more than any other, made that possible. One was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, of blessed memory, who opened the Reform Movement to intermarried families through the Reform Jewish Outreach program and the doctrine of patrilineal descent. The other was Egon Mayer. He was an opinion leader who fostered welcoming attitudes toward interfaith families in significant parts of the organized Jewish communal world.
As his colleague Rela Geffen explained at the funeral, in the 1970s Egon Mayer was one of a small group of sociologists and demographers who began to study intermarriage and talk about it with Jewish communal professionals. His approach, unique at the time, was to see intermarriage not only as a threat to Jewish continuity, but also as a potential opportunity. In 1985, he wrote Love and Tradition: Marriage Between Jews and Christians, a ground-breaking work in which he explained the then-novel idea that an intermarriage did not necessarily mean a rejection of Jewish connections, and advocated for the importance of welcoming interfaith families to the Jewish community. In 1988 he became the founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. After the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that half of Jews were intermarrying, he continued his research, and trained outreach professionals and developed outreach programs that have influenced countless interfaith families. When intermarriage was debated in the Jewish community — as it most vigorously was — and when news stories about intermarriage appeared, Egon Mayer invariably was the person articulately arguing for the pro-outreach view.
I met Dr. Mayer for the first time in January 1998. My class at Brandeis’ Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service was making a trip to New York to visit the major communal organizations. I contacted Egon and asked if he would meet with me, explaining that I was a “recovering” lawyer who wanted to do something, at that point undefined, in the outreach field. That was the beginning of a much-too-short relationship in which he gave generously of this time, wise advice, and encouragement at every step of my journey — after I joined Jewish Family & Life!, which had already created the online magazine InterfaithFamily.com, in 1999, and which for a time helped to maintain the Jewish Outreach Institute’s website; when I founded InterfaithFamily.com as an independent non-profit and acquired the website at the beginning of 2002; and as we thereafter expanded our work.
By 2001, when the Coalition to Promote In-Marriage made several particularly heated attacks on intermarriage, Egon told me he was tired of fighting with the anti-outreach forces. He continued to share his thoughts, and to advise and encourage my own writing and speaking out on the issues. I received no higher praise than a compliment from Egon, but his brilliance, insight and eloquence are unparalleled, and will be sorely missed.
What stood out most clearly at Egon’s funeral, however, were not his extensive professional accomplishments, but the descriptions of his character, which resonated completely with my own experience. Many of the ten speakers at the funeral said he was “kind,” “gentle,” “generous,” “supportive.” One referred to what were, for Egon, “effortless acts of loving kindness.” During his illness, his main expressed concern was the sadness and pain that those who loved him would experience. A close professional colleague said Egon was the finest person she had ever known, in terms of integrity, values, and most importantly, in the way he treated people; she explained that Egon was always kindly because he did not want to cause the people he dealt with any more pain than was necessary.
As his rabbi, Lee Friedlander, said, “how remarkable he was.” What struck me as most remarkable, was that such a caring person had devoted much of his professional life to such a controversial subject and yet maintained a positive outlook. Egon was no shrinking violet; he was brilliant, he was tenacious with ideas, and in private at least he could be quite acerbic in his assessment of opposing arguments. But as one speaker said, Egon had a characterological bent to see the glass as half full. That was his approach both to life in general, and to intermarriage in particular.
Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, relates that Hillel said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Torah.” I’d like to think that Egon maintained his optimism because he knew in his heart what his brother said in his eulogy: that in his advocacy for inclusion in the Jewish community, Egon Mayer was indeed a “pursuer of peace.”
May his memory be for a blessing.