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.