Making Space for Intermarriage

Wedding between Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, 2012; have shifted considerably since 1990. photo by Allyson Magda/Facebook.
Wedding between Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, 2012; photo by Allyson Magda/Facebook; screenshot JTA

By Mollie Feldman

The recent piece by Jane Eisner in The Forward speaks to the familiar rhetoric surrounding the dangers of intermarriage. The standard argument reasons that the children of intermarriage are less likely to be raised Jewish and, thus, intermarried couples threaten Jewish continuity. Yet, this reasoning lacks a certain specificity that is essential to the debate.

To be specific:

Intermarried couples who do not raise Jewish children threaten Jewish continuity. Please do not forget, however, that the same rings true for in-married Jewish couples not raising Jewish children.

Eisner, in her criticism of the RRC’s policy to admit intermarried rabbis says, “It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine the inherent complications when it’s the rabbi who is intermarried. What if his or her spouse wants the children to be baptized? Have a Christmas tree? Reject religion entirely?”

I wish to elaborate on the “What if?” segment of Eisner’s thought.

What if the non-Jewish spouse wishes to raise Jewish children in a Jewish home?

What if the non-Jewish spouse participates in and volunteers at the Jewish institutions with which the family affiliates?

What if the non-Jewish spouse seeks to raise their children with a deep sense of spirituality and Jewish connection?

I trust in the integrity and professionalism of our Jewish leaders to assume that they would explore these issues with a potential partner before marriage.

Furthermore, the standard framing of this debate (i.e., the ‘simplicity of in-marriage’ vs. the ‘complications of intermarriage’) is falsely simplistic. There are many elements – beyond the presence of a Christmas tree – that impact raising a Jewish family. Many elements, in fact, that may present challenges to both in-married and intermarried couples.

What if two Jewish partners envision the Jewish life of their family very differently? What if they disagree about how to observe the dietary laws? How to observe Shabbat? What if only one partner sees Jewish day school as a worthwhile investment? These questions are no less important (and not necessarily easier to answer) for in-married couples.

The diversity within our Jewish communities means that even relationships with two Jewish partners often involve differing opinions. These couples work together to clarify values and decide how to structure their Jewish family. I believe that intermarried partnerships need not be excluded from undergoing that same process. I hope that we can recognize the possibility for non-Jewish spouses to commit to and support Jewish family structures. I hope that we can have faith that Jewish leaders (such as rabbis) as well as all individuals committed to Judaism will care deeply about the Jewish character of their home life and, as a result, will responsibly consider this when choosing a life partner. I hope that all couples seeking to raise a Jewish family while including a non-Jewish spouse will be supported in making that choice.

Mollie Feldman is a first-year student in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, working towards a dual MA-degree in Jewish Professional Leadership and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. She is a graduate of the Pardes Experiential Educators Program and the Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults Certificate Program at HUC-JIR.