Challenging the Jewish Community’s Response to Intermarried Couples: Learning from Doublelife

The recently published memoir, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, shines a spotlight on the Jewish community’s response to intermarried couples.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Intermarriage is a reality of contemporary Jewish life, but on many levels, there is still great ambivalence about how to deal with this phenomenon. Many synagogues struggle with engaging with intermarried families; community day schools debate accepting children from intermarried families; and children often search to understand whether their identity is that of their mother, their father, or both parents.

This ambivalence is not new. Many years ago when I was the director of a Jewish family service agency, I proposed that we create a six-session pre-marriage workshop for interfaith couples planning to marry. Its goal was to provide a safe space for them to explore and understand the challenges they might face in the future. It was not easy to convince the board of directors that this was an important service to offer to the community, but it did put its stamp of approval on the workshop.

However, the local rabbis were quite concerned that, by offering this workshop, the agency was placing a stamp of approval on the couples planning to intermarry. The board and staff had to convince them that we were providing an important service to the community – enabling the young couples to understand the dilemmas, issues, and challenges they would face as spouses and as parents in the years to come. The program was deemed very successful by the participants and they found it very helpful in preparing them for the married life.

One take-away message of Doublelife is the importance of Jewish community support, such as provided by this workshop, for interfaith couples. This book describes Harold and Gayle’s search for meaning in their journey through both the worlds of Christianity and Judaism at a time when there was no community support to assist them in negotiating life’s challenges. Harold and Gayle tell their story through a series of letters to each other as they go through the various stages of marriage, family life, and their careers. They reflect on the events that eventually led to their making a decision to identify with Judaism and the Jewish community.

Their story has a very happy ending, Jewishly. They adopt two children and raise them as committed Jews. Harold becomes the CEO of a Jewish Federation and Gayle gets involved in Jewish life through the synagogue. They decide to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle and then move to Israel.

What makes Doublelife required reading for Jewish communal professionals and clergy is its descriptions of the many roadblocks that the Bermans encountered along their journey. At many points, the couple might have been sidetracked. They approached several synagogues and rabbis before they found a place where they felt accepted and at home. They had to find their own way and determine where they wanted to invest their energy.

Their journey might have been just as meaningful and a whole lot less troublesome had the Jewish community developed a helpful response to intermarried couples who want to explore their relationship to Judaism and Jewish life. The Bermans could have experienced an openness and warmth from the beginning and would not have had to search out every possibility on their own.

There should be programs for people like the Bermans that respond to the reality of intermarriage and do not proceed from that assumption that those who intermarry should be punished for their choice of partner.

Reading Doublelife will give you an appreciation for the needs of intermarried couples and how we could be responding to them in a more helpful way both in Israel and in communities around the world. Judaism does not seek to proselytize and reach out to non-Jews to increase our numbers. At the same time the Jewish community should not turn those away who marry outside the religion. Instead we should be responding to their interest in exploring the meaning Judaism has or may have for them and their families.

The book is a wake-up call for the Jewish community. It is time that we understand that preferring intra-marriage does not mean ignoring those who do intermarry. Stories like that of the Bermans can remind us of both the trials and tribulations of the intermarried family and the importance of engaging them in a supportive process so they can make an informed decision about their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope
by Harold and Gayle Redlingshefer Berman
New York: Longhill Press, 2013

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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Comments

  1. Todd Berman says:

    If I am not mistaken, Harold Berman has criticized exactly what the author claims here. Harold seems to advocate taking a traditional stance against mix-marriage; however, being a mensch about it. The author’s desire to basically promote mix-marriages is not a recipe for bringing Jews closer to the Jewish community. The lesson he seems to have learned is the opposite of the one intended by the Berman’s book.

    When will Jewish professionals learn the lesson that the only way to attract productive Jews to Judaism is to show that Judaism is worth living not watering down?

  2. I applaud Mr. Donshik’s emphasis on the importance of engaging interfaith families in a supportive process. Our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative is designed to do just that — to learn more about it, visit http://www.interfaithfamily.com/yourcommunity.

  3. Jews in the US, are, on Paternal side Ydna and subclades, on average:
    14% R1b germanic
    16% R1a slavic
    7% G North Caucasus
    18% J1 Semitic(Arabic-Yemenite)
    20% J2 Mediterranean (Phoenician-Anatolian)
    6% Q1b Uralic-Altaic (White Turks)
    14% E1b1b1 Berber-North African
    8% I1 Nordic Scandinavia and I2a Balkanic Nordic
    and a few T from Mesopotamia(?????) (NORMALLY Jews should be ONLY T from Mesopotamia..!!!!)
    and very rare N1 Finnic
    This is the result of ONLY INTERBREEDING LIKE MAD???????
    No, of course, but by a mad proselytism which was stopped brutally after (around 1450) in Eastern Europe when Catholic/Orthodox Churches took the absolute Power and forbid for sure that time any conversion of Pagan or even more Christians….
    35% of Jews, at least, aren’t “believers nor practitioners of the Moses’ Law” but THEY ARE and REMAIN Jews…..If those inter marry, kids rejected with father or mother never became Jews, as Ruth’s kids and Rabbi Akiba’s ones did…
    Rabbis became quite Paranoïac and with evidence are NOW in the greater demographic and psychological mistake Rabbis did ever.
    Serano ham and lobster eating Jews, should be anathematized and socially and politically strongly rejected like Spinoza has been …then I will have some confidence in Rabbinate’s Wisdom …….and honesty…..?

  4. I won’t read the book because I’ve already lived the tail. I by-passed membership in a conservative synagogue I was most naturally drawn to because of my childhood association in favor of a reform temple, after pressing for and finally receiving permission to start an Intermarrieds Chavurah. Later, I left that temple when the rabbi came to speak to our Chavurah, and despite the synagogue’s early if hard-won blessing, made the group members feel small. I then joined a “traditional reform” congregation that embraced everyone – those who intermarried and those who were shomer shabbas, and everyone in between. Their outreach group helped families like ours cope with “being different,” and made a comfortable home for children, regardless of their parents’ religious affiliation. Many spouses in that congregation ended up converting to Judaism – not mine, but many.

    I don’t “advocate for” intermarriage, and as a woman returned to the dating scene, dated only Jewish men. I learned something about myself. But there is a difference between giving permission – however grudging – or even encouraging intermarriage and acknowledging that intermarried members of our community are still searching for connectivity and an entry point to Jewish communal life. That is far better than the opposite. Everyone who’s savvy enough to be reading ejewishphilanthropy is aware of the statistics on assimilation. I hope we continue to find ways to embrace these families so that their energy can contribute to our community, and their children can contribute to our Jewish future.

  5. Mr. Case, I have been a fan of your organization for a long time and its resources have helped me enormously as an educator in the Jewish and interfaith communities.
    Mr. Berman, in no way do the Jewish educators and professionals with whom I work advocate a “watering down” of Judaism for anyone. Vibrant Jewish culture, religion, learning, and meaning-making for people of all ages, Jewish backgrounds, configurations of marriage are the ideals to which we aspire. Your term “productive Jews” is at once provocative and judgmental. Who determines the catechesis to meet that standard? I teach many kids being raised in interfaith homes (as Jewish, both, or neither) and promise that their education is robust, inclusive, and meaningful. These families know, love, and engage Jewish life and learning.

  6. Ed is right. There are various programs out there serving intermarried individuals (see: http://www.themotherscircle.org) and also working with communities, institutions, communal professionals, and volunteer leaders to better serve and welcome intermarried families (see: http://www.bigtentjudaism.org).

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