Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage

by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg

As Gary Rosenblatt has revealed (“Continuity: Why Should We Care,” January 22nd), a group of two dozen “concerned Jews” have met, exchanged papers, and propose to take some as yet undefined action to counter a “disturbing trend” of increased intermarriage. The group seeks a strategy to re-direct the approach of communal leaders and change-makers, like philanthropists, so as to promote in-marriage. We write to urge this group to re-frame their effort, not as one to discourage intermarriage, but rather as one to promote Jewish engagement.

Intermarriage is the reality of our time, as the Pew Report confirms, whether or not Jewish leaders “acquiesce” to that trend, as the group complains. Seventy-one percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married after 2000 married someone not Jewish. Most Jews today are marrying someone who is not Jewish. This is not a shifting tide of the ocean; this is the ocean.

We ask the group to consider: how will that vast population respond to an organized communal effort to promote in-marriage? Promoting in-marriage as ideal or preferable will necessarily have the effect of turning off those who will intermarry – as most will – to Jewish engagement. People don’t go where their choices are demeaned.

The New York Times recently featured a photo exhibit by an Israeli, Yael Ben-Zion, of twenty intermarried couples, including five with a Jewish partner. Ben-Zion is quoted as saying that “the really important questions” interfaith couples face include, “Are you accepted by your family and community?” A campaign to promote in-marriage will only contribute to interfaith couples and families feeling not accepted by the Jewish community.

We understand that the group is motivated by studies showing that by traditional measures, interfaith families are relatively disengaged from Jewish life and community. But we have no doubt that that picture of engagement would be markedly different today if the “audacious hospitality” recently endorsed by URJ President Rick Jacobs had been the Jewish community’s response to the continuity crisis that arose in the early 1990s.

Nearly twenty-five years later, however, the prevailing attitude towards intermarriage among too many Jewish leaders – and too many Jews – is still terribly negative. While Mr. Rosenblatt professes not to consider intermarriage a “disease,” that is the message that the group’s approach to intermarriage conveys. That message contributes directly to feelings of lack of acceptance, and the interfaith couples in Ben-Zion’s photo exhibit are the least of it. The relatively few attempts to ask interfaith families about their experiences with Jewish communities – focus groups assembled by philanthropists, surveys conducted by a federations, qualitative studies by academics, as well as numerous surveys conducted by InterfaithFamily – have consistently revealed negative off-putting experiences.

Conversely, audacious hospitality matters, and has a direct impact on families’ willingness and desire to make Jewish choices. As one Catholic mother wrote in her response to InterfaithFamily’s recent user survey, “The temple that we belong to is very open to interfaith marriages and that is why I am choosing to bring my son up Jewish.”

We recently spoke with a rabbi who leads one of the thriving urban groups that is attracting young Jews to worship services, text study and other Jewish experiences. Many of the participants are interfaith couples and the rabbi told us that she imposes no restrictions whatsoever on participation. She doesn’t ask whether a person is Jewish or not Jewish or some place in between; whatever anyone wants to do Jewishly, she allows. That is the kind of radical invitation and acceptance that is needed to maximize Jewish engagement. Another similar group describes their approach as “radical accessibility” – the idea that everyone is welcome to find meaning and community there.

Mr. Rosenblatt describes the programs that his group is apparently considering as those “that would bring young Jews into contact with each other socially, … subsidized child care, day schools, summer camps, and intensive Israel travel [to] provide the experiential and textual elements needed to create literate, caring Jews.” All of these programs, many of which are already funded, are desirable – regardless of their impact on intermarriage – because they strengthen Jewish identity and lead to increased engagement in Jewish life and community – something that we all want.

But if we want Jews in or from interfaith families to be so engaged, we can’t promote our programs by touting them as the cure or antidote to intermarriage. That is self-defeating, destructive and unnecessary. As importantly, there is an opportunity cost to spending time and resources thinking about ways to encourage endogamy rather than engagement. Interfaith families make up a substantial and increasing portion of our population. Why not focus on spending those resources on understanding and engaging that already existing population?

We were heartened by one voice in the group who is quoted as writing that “the communal response to increasing intermarriage should be encouraging intermarried families to raise their children as Jewish…” We urge the group to take that approach. Rather than promoting in-marriage, promote Jewish engagement – and in particular, join us in promoting Jewish engagement by interfaith families.

Edmund Case is CEO and Jodi Bromberg is President of InterfaithFamily.

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Comments

  1. says

    What a clear, thoughtful, and important response to the resurfacing of an outdated [excuse the pun!] approach, in-marriage presented to the community over a decade ago and yielded little success. Engagement of interfaith families creates opportunity for more Jews in the world.
    Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.

  2. Sara Davies says

    I came to Judaism as an adult, long after I was married to a non-Jew, long after we had children we chose not to raise religiously – which made sense because both of us were secular atheists at the time. I hoped to find a community where I could learn about Judaism, engage with my heritage (my mother was Jewish), and explore my spirituality, but I encountered the obstacle of not being accepted as an individual because of my family.

    It seems wasteful and counterproductive to shut people out who want to participate. It also runs counter to the principles of derech eretz: “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.”

    In my view, the purpose of religious engagement is to develop a relationship with the Divine, and to use that energy to repair the world. Others may define a Jewish life as strict adherence to ritual, but I believe ritual and study are a means to an end, not an end in themselves – a technology for achieving spiritual awareness.

    Hence, part of the question that might be explored in greater depth is what people view as the mission and purpose of Judaism. Is it to maintain tradition through strict adherence to the letter of the law, or to foster connection with God, the planet, and other human beings (the spirit of the law)?