Recent weeks have been filled with news and opinion about intermarriage. Unfortunately, important Jewish leaders continue to respond in ways that will discourage interfaith families from engaging in Jewish life.
Item: The American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 reports that 51% of Jews are intermarrying; 33% of “core” Jews–those who say Judaism is their religion, who say they are of Jewish parentage or upbringing but have no religion, or those who consider themselves Jewish–are married to non-Jews, up from 28% in 1990; almost one-third of core Jews do not have Jewish mothers. However, the number of American Jewish households affiliated with a synagogue has increased by 15% to about 1 million. Forty-one percent of affiliated households belong to the Reform Movement, up from 35% in 1990. Thirty percent of core Jews identify with the Reform Movement, more than any other.
Response: According to JTA, Steven M. Cohen said that counting households rather than individuals is “artificially boosting the Reform movement by adding non-Jews to their memberships. If the Reform movement is drawing a lot of intermarried households, they’re picking up one Jew per household or maybe one and some kids.” Jonathan Rosenblum, in the February 8 International Jerusalem Post, writes that “intermarriage continues to decimate American Jewry” and suggests that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement, is not devoted to Jewish survival.
Item: An intermarried congregant of a Pittsburgh Reform synagogue sought to be admitted to Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic program.
Response: The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Responsa Committee reaffirmed HUC’s ban on ordaining intermarried Jews as rabbis or cantors.
Item: A study of Conservative Jews shows that those who attended the Movement’s Ramah summer camps are more religiously observant and Jewishly committed than those who did not attend. However, while 78% of Ramah alumni said it is “very important” to marry someone Jewish, only 30% said they date only Jews. One alumna said that she wanted “100 percent” to raise her kids Jewish, but would probably marry a non-Jew if she fell in love with one.
Response: According to JTA, Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, national Ramah director, described the findings that Ramah alumni are relatively accepting of intermarriage and interdating as “scary” and said the camps “may need to do more to discourage intermarriage.”
The common theme here is a negative reaction not just to intermarriage itself, but further to any proactive response to intermarriage. Instead of applauding or implementing actions that encourage more interfaith families to make Jewish choices for themselves and their children, such actions are criticized, or not even contemplated.
Among the religious movements, the Reform Movement certainly has been the most welcoming of interfaith families. Mr. Cohen takes a cheap shot that the Reform Movement is picking up “only one Jew per household [and] maybe some kids.” The new AJIS survey suggests that the Movement’s welcoming of interfaith families has led to more Jewish involvement by those families. These include not only Jews, but also non-Jews who engage in Jewish life, and who even may ultimately choose to become Jewish. That approach should be praised, not belittled.
The fact that an intermarried Jew would want to become a Reform rabbi is a striking, even if rare, testament to the depth and strength of Jewish commitment that is possible in an intermarriage. In upholding the HUC ban on accepting intermarried rabbinical students, the CCAR Responsa Committee said that a rabbi should teach by personal example the ideal of in-marriage. Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC president, has stated that Jewish continuity is the primary value underlying the decision. But having more intermarried people get more involved in Jewish life arguably would serve the value of Jewish continuity more than anything else would. Instead of barring them, why not encourage intermarried people to become rabbis and thus role models for extensive engagement in Jewish life by others like them?
The fact that Camp Ramah alumni are more committed Jews is to be applauded. The fact that many of those alumni are accepting of intermarriage, instead of leading the camps to a futile effort to discourage intermarriage, should be taken as a clear indication that being Jewishly committed and being accepting of intermarriage in one’s own life is not necessarily contradictory. The fact that the child of a non-Jewish mother is not allowed to attend Ramah camps is particularly counter-productive. That some such children and their parents want to attend Ramah camps should be recognized as a clear indication of potentially strong Jewish commitment in those children. If there is so much concern that not enough children of intermarriage become committed Jews, wouldn’t it make more sense to admit those children to a camping system that demonstrably produces committed Jews, instead of excluding them?
All of these negative responses to intermarriage and outreach are supported by an ideological position that I believe will weaken, not strengthen, the Jewish community. Mr. Cohen has posited the Orthodox on one end, written off the intermarried on the other, and then focused on the “critical Jewish middle”–those affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements–as if interfaith families do not constitute a significant part of that “middle,” which is plainly not the case. He suggests that acceptance of intermarriage causes Judaism to become “less centered on collective Jewish identity,” but his own important work, The Jew Within, shows that those in the Jewish “middle” are increasingly uncomfortable with tribalism, chosenness, and particularism for many reasons unrelated to intermarriage.
Given negative leadership attitudes towards intermarriage, it isn’t surprising that intermarried Jews have relatively infrequently joined Jewish institutions, engaged in Jewish learning or practiced Jewish ritual, as Mr. Cohen tiresomely emphasizes. But the increased affiliation with Reform synagogues suggests that welcoming interfaith families can positively impact those behaviors. In Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies has pioneered federation funding of outreach programs; in a recent evaluation, respondents reported increased Jewish involvement, synagogue membership, Jewish choices with respect to child-raising, and even conversion, after participation in the programs. I agree with Mr. Cohen that Jewish leaders of congregations, JCCs, federations and other agencies can rise to the occasion, innovate in practice and strategy, provide more Jews with personal meaning, and build meaningful Jewish communities. But responding positively to intermarriage by welcoming and including interfaith families will only enhance these transformative efforts.