Intermarriage in Britain: Tragedy or Opportunity?

marriageBy Ed Case

As a leader in efforts in the United States to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community, and having considered trying to export those efforts to Britain, I read with great interest the recent report by David Graham of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), “Jews in couples: Marriage, intermarriage, cohabitation and divorce in Britain.”

Regrettably, I found the tone and messaging of the report unfortunate. Viewing intermarriage as a tragedy to be feared, as something that might “engulf” the community, is not a smart communal approach. The trends identified in the report, of growth in segments of the community (Secular/Cultural, Reform/Progressive, young cohabitating adults) that are relatively heavily interfaith, suggest that the British Jewish community would be wise to increase efforts to engage their growing number of interfaith families, adding to efforts already underway.

Graham labels intermarriage “demographically corrosive,” largely based on the statistic that only 31 percent of the children of intermarried Jews are raised as Jews. As best I can tell, this statistic is based on the 2011 census, in which parents listed the religion of their children. Graham seems to acknowledge this ambiguity when he refers to “the children of Jews who are not being raised, or at least identified, as Jewish.” But relying on that statistic presents an incomplete picture of how intermarried parents expose their children to Jewishness. In American surveys, significant percentages of intermarried parents usually say they are raising their children “Jewish and something else,” or that they haven’t yet decided. It is reasonable to assume that this is true in Britain as well.

Graham admittedly takes “the perspective of ethnic preservation,” quoting Marshall Sklare as saying (in 1970) that “intermarriage strikes at the very core of Jewish group existence.” He also quotes Milton Gordon, who said (in 1964) that intermarriage leads to “the disappearance of the ethnic group as a separate entity and the evaporation of its distinctive values.” The problem here is that Jewishness is not just an ethnicity and our experience in the States shows that the boundaries of who is included in the Jewish community can be expanded without the loss of distinctive Jewish values.

Indeed, in America today, there is a ferment of activity based on ethics, culture, and spreading Judaism as a wisdom system or technology that helps people to lead better lives and to make the world better. The traditional measures of attitudes and practices used in the report are being increasingly challenged as not depicting the way people identify and act on their Jewishness or find it meaningful. The report acknowledges that the gap between intermarried and in-married Jews is smaller on ethical and cultural variables, and wider as to ‘socially exclusivist’ and religiously observant variables; the same is true in the States, where more and more non-traditional young Jews are not socially exclusivist or religiously observant in traditional ways.

Graham does not exhibit an objective or neutral attitude towards intermarriage. He assumes, for example, that “it might be expected that someone who shares their life with a non-Jew will exhibit weaker levels of Jewish attachment in general.” Even American social scientists that openly advocate to discourage or prevent intermarriage at this point agree that intermarriage is a natural result of acceptance and mixing in an open society, not a choice to leave Jewishness behind.

Besides, we don’t know what the Jewish identification and behavior of intermarried couples and families would be if they were genuinely welcomed to Jewish life and Jewish communities. Describing intermarriage as “corrosive” sends a clear message of disapproval to them. As Liberal Rabbi Aaron Goldstein has written, when the children of an intermarried couple “are not recognized as Jewish, or even, if they are, their parents’ relationship is described in terms of ‘marrying out,’ the message of rejection, intentional or not, could not be clearer.” People don’t want to engage with communities that brand their relationships as second-class or sub-optimal. But as Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romaine has written, we have a much better chance of keeping couples “within the Jewish orbit” by not “slamming the door in their face.”

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In January 2015, while I was CEO of InterfaithFamily, I had a series of meetings in London to explore the feasibility of bringing the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model to Britain. I met with several rabbis from the Reform movement, a rabbi from the Liberal movement, representatives of JHub, and with Rabbi Guy Hall, a pioneering rabbi who officiates and co-officiates at weddings of interfaith couples in Britain.

The InterfaithFamily/Your Community model places a full-time rabbi and a full-time project manager in a community. Your Community staff build personal ‘trusted advisor’ relationships with interfaith families, through officiation referral and other consultations, and provide Jewish learning and community building experiences, in particular workshops and ‘meet-ups’ where interfaith couples can talk with others like themselves about making decisions about religious traditions for their families. In addition, they raise awareness and connect interfaith families with local resources, and advocate for increased welcoming by providing trainings and participating in meetings of other community organizations.

While some local synagogue rabbis have at the outset viewed the Your Community rabbi as a ‘competitor,’ over time most realize that the Your Community rabbi is reaching many couples who are not yet ready to become synagogue members, and is in fact frequently refers couples to synagogues. Independent evaluations show that the short-term desired outcomes of the Your Community model are being achieved, with survey respondents stating they feel more connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples, families, and organizations and comfortable incorporating Jewish practices into their family life.

While there clearly are relevant differences between Britain and the United States, I believe that the kinds of services and programs provided by the Your Community model, and the kinds of outcomes being achieved, are needed and with appropriate modifications would be beneficial in supporting existing efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. In connection with my trip I spoke and met with fundraising consultants, but at the time was not able to identify any readily available and interested funders. (Because services and programs for interfaith families are largely staff-driven, they are expensive; the approximate cost of the Your Community model is over $250,000 (£190,000) per annum.)

Aside from importing the InterfaithFamily Your Community or other American models, I believe that British Jewish leaders could learn from the experiences of those involved in engaging interfaith families, for example, at gatherings like the upcoming Interfaith Opportunity Summit. Instead of the report’s conclusion that Jewish community leaders should focus on divorce rates, cohabitation, and age of first marriage as demographically impactful, the report’s statistics and trends, indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice, demand increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.

Edmund Case is the founder of InterfaithFamily and an independent writer, speaker, and consultant.