The Next Big Thing is Now: Outreach to the Intermarried

March 2006

In February 2006 the New Jersey Jewish News began a yearlong community dialogue called “The Next Big Think.” Editor Andrew Silow-Carroll wrote that the movements and causes that inspired Jews in the past–Zionism, absorption of Jewish immigrants in America and Israel, the fight against anti-Semitism, the redemption of Jewish captives the world over–had succeeded, and that the big social issues–the role of women and gays in religion, response to the intermarried, Who is a Jew?–had been largely resolved, were nearing resolution or had failed to galvanize large numbers of Jews. He invited Jewish thinkers to identify the “The Next Big Thing” in Jewish life: what issues will define the Jewish agenda and what we will need to address to grow and flourish in this “post-historical era.” President Edmund Case wrote an article in inaugural February 9, 2006, issue of “The Next Big Think,” titled “The Next Big Thing is Now: Outreach to the Intermarried.” After the essay appeared, Steven M. Cohen requested that Case retract his statement about Cohen’s views on outreach to the intermarried. Case’s letter was published in the March 30, 2006, issue:

Steven M. Cohen has asked me to retract my attribution of certain views to him. I wrote:

Too many Jewish leaders, like Steven Bayme, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer, … don’t care if aggressively promoting conversion distresses and pushes away non-Jewish partners who are raising Jewish children–not to mention their Jewish partners and in-laws. These Jewish leaders sanctimoniously preach that such families can’t be called “Jewish,” that their homes can’t be called “holy.” Their take-away message: Unconverted non-Jews raising their children as Jews shouldn’t be included in the Jewish community–such people and their Jewish behaviors just aren’t good enough.

In an email to me dated March 14, 2006, Professor Cohen stated that he does not say, and has never said, that intermarried families raising Jewish children cannot be called “Jewish” or that their homes cannot be called “holy.” He stated that I had cast him “as, in effect, a bigot.” He also stated that he is “very proud of my long association with my friends and colleagues, Steven Bayme and Jack Wertheimer,” and he assured me that he had never heard them “express the sorts of views that you attribute to them and to me.”

The basis for the statements in question is “Revisiting and Promoting Conversion” (New York Jewish Week, January 13) by Drs. Bayme and Wertheimer. Decrying the “intemperate responses” to the new efforts to encourage conversion announced by the Reform and Conservative movements, they said: “Others go further, urging that the very term ‘interfaith family’ be changed to ‘Jewish family’ when gentile spouses agree to raise their children as Jews.” I understood that to mean that in their view, interfaith families raising their children as Jews should not or cannot properly be called “Jewish families.” Drs. Bayme and Wertheimer conclude their essay by stating that for intermarried families, “conversion offers the best hope to create ‘wholly’ Jewish homes as well as ‘holy’ Jewish homes.” I understood that to mean that in their view, in-married and conversionary families have “holy” homes, but intermarried families do not.

Although Professor Cohen’s friends and colleagues explicitly or implicitly said that intermarried families who raise their children as Jews cannot call themselves “Jewish families” and do not have “holy” homes, I acknowledged to Professor Cohen that I could not point to any evidence that he himself had made those statements. He requested that I write a letter to the New Jersey Jewish News retracting my attribution to him of those views, and I hereby do so.

As I told Professor Cohen privately, however, I believe that what I said was not unfair to him, given how allied to his friends and colleagues he stands on issues relating to intermarriage. Moreover, I invited Professor Cohen, a most formidable writer and debater, to himself write a letter to the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, distancing himself from the views of his friends and colleagues; he chose not to do so.

What is important in this discussion is the message that interfaith families get from the Jewish community. In a recent paper, “Engaging the Next Generation of American Jews,” Professor Cohen suggests that the community has been very welcoming to the intermarried for fifteen years. But it is the polar opposite of welcoming when eminent Jewish leaders suggest to intermarried couples raising Jewish children that their families are not “Jewish,” nor their homes “holy.”

In his first email to me, Professor Cohen said that my position and actions are “counter to the best interests of the Jewish People and its future.” I do not presume to speak for the Jewish People, but I suggest that instead of insisting that I be more careful with attribution, Professor Cohen’s considerable talents would be far better spent persuading his friends and colleagues to be more careful not to express views that he himself characterizes as “bigoted.”

Steven M. Cohen’s response: Letter to the Editor of New Jersey Jewish News, Responding to Edmund Case:

To the editor,

For the record, and contrary to assertions made in a recent column by Mr. Case, I have never said, nor have I ever held the view, that intermarried families are not Jewish families. Nor have I ever said, nor have I ever held the view, that intermarried families are not holy.

My views on intermarriage can be summed up as follows:

I am deeply concerned that only 12% of the grandchildren of intermarried families identify as Jews. I am pained and worried that only about a third of intermarried families are raising their children as Jews. I am also anguished that intermarried families exhibit very low rates of affiliation with synagogues, or ritual practice at home, or patterns of involvement in organized Jewry. I wish that intermarried families were more active in Jewish life, and that they would all decide to raise their children and grandchildren as committed Jews.

Moreover, as a matter of principle, I believe that Jews should marry Jews, and that Judaism teaches that Jews should marry Jews. A Jew is anyone born or raised Jewish, or who converts to Judaism. The marriage of a Jew to a Jew-by-choice is an in-marriage and NOT an intermarriage.

We have a rich and wonderful culture, religion, community, people, and set of values–all of which we can introduce to the non-Jews who have become part of our families by way of marriage. While we should continue to teach that Jews should marry Jews, we should also encourage non-Jews who marry Jews to convert to Judaism. In the event that conversion does not take place, we should welcome into our families and communities the children of Jews and non-Jews, and advocate that they be raised unambiguously in one faith tradition–Judaism.

To be clear, we must welcome intermarried couples and their children into our families, our friendship circles, our synagogues and our community, as I have in my own family and my own life, and we should do all we can to welcome and encourage conversion.

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.