By Eli T. Cohn
I am a Millennial who recently got engaged to be married. In the short weeks since, I have been frustrated by the realization that many of my close friends and family who are rabbis would not officiate at my wedding because my fiancée is not halachically Jewish. We practice Judaism exclusively and she has never been an active member of another faith community. As an alternative, we have decided not to have a traditional religious wedding ceremony but rather one that contains particular Jewish rituals that we find meaningful. I believe that our story is a microcosm of the Millennial generation, now the most populous in the United States.
My case represents a hard truth for our community, as well as an opportunity for engagement and growth. The hard truth is that the fight over Jews marrying non-Jews is over (I refrain from using the term interfaith for reasons described below). Outside of the Orthodox community young Jews are increasingly marrying people of different faith backgrounds, and will likely continue to do so. Meanwhile, the Jewish community worries that these marriages will result in lower levels of engagement with Jewish institutions. I propose that the problem the Jewish community is experiencing with Millennial engagement is not the problem of Jews and non-Jews marrying, but rather the communal attitude toward these marriages. It is not necessary for our community to view marrying someone from a different background as symptomatic of assimilation. Instead, we should be using wedding ceremonies of all kinds as a catalyst for Jewish institutions to begin long-term engagements with Millennial couples.
It is well known at this point that Millennials are not pre-disposed to join institutions, Jewish or otherwise. I believe this is related to the changing nature of our communities. Often, Millennial communities do not exist locally or even in physical spaces. As a result, the institutional functions of personal validation and meaning making are not as relevant to the Millennial generation. We have no problem finding meaning and acceptance in global, virtual communities.
Millennials are also selfish and uncompromising. If my fiancée and I meet with a rabbi about our wedding and are told that we need to make certain personal or lifestyle changes in order to have a Jewish wedding, then we won’t have a Jewish wedding. Millennials are far more apt to tune out institutions than to feel like we need to bargain over our acceptance as individuals or as couples. Millennials want to be accepted for who we are, and right now many Jewish institutions are not meeting that challenge, since even forcing us to ask for acceptance can lead to feelings of inferiority. Think of us like Perchik and Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof; we are not asking for your permission, but we do sincerely want your blessing.
I want to offer some helpful dos and don’ts for all Jewish institutions to consider when thinking about marriage and Millennial couples, particularly those couples that come from different backgrounds:
- Do create separate young adult programming for singles and couples/families. The current young adult model in most communities defines young adults as anyone 21-40. We need to acknowledge that there are many life stages undergone during this time period, and our programming ought to reflect that.
- Do develop a unique space for families who come from mixed or otherwise non-traditional backgrounds. Let us have a space to talk openly about our relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community, our successes and our pitfalls.
- Do encourage clergy to coach couples in and potentially even officiate at extra-halachic marriages. Please, help us find ways to incorporate Jewish meaning and ritual into this significant time in our lives even if we do not opt for a traditional ceremony.
- Don’t use the terms interfaith and intermarriage. We know that the Jewish community considers interfaith marriage a problem, so as soon as you call us an interfaith couple you are labeling us part of a problem. Further, interfaith is not a nuanced term. For example, we are not an interfaith couple even though my fiancée is not halachically Jewish. Ideally we would just call it marriage.
- Don’t expect me to drop my kids off for religious school when you wouldn’t marry me. The commonly held wisdom in our community is that young Jews re-engage with synagogue life when they have kids, but many Millennials are hoping to engage at marriage, which represents the outset of the creation of a family. If we feel pushed away at marriage there is no guarantee we will be back in a few years when we have kids.
- Don’t turn people away who are trying in earnest to be a part of Jewish life.
All of these things are already happening. Millennial Jews are marrying non-Jews, we are talking openly about our troubled relationships with Jewish institutions, and we are finding ways to integrate meaningful Jewish rituals into our weddings. It would be better, both for us as couples and for our communal institutions, if these conversations were taking place within an established Jewish framework. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’.”
Eli T. Cohn is the Project Director for the South Peninsula Jewish Teen Foundation.