Our Passover Question: How Do We Involve Jewish Intermarried Families in Communal Life?

By Jill W. Smith

Passover is a holiday replete with tradition. The entire Jewish family, both literally and figuratively, comes together to celebrate the community’s freedom from oppression and redemption. Through storytelling and the symbols on the Seder plate, we are reminded that as a community we are stronger together than we are apart. One of the distinguishing themes of the Passover holiday is the emphasis on being inclusive; it is common to invite non-familial, non-practicing Jews, and non-Jewish guests to the Passover table to share the story of our people. This same welcoming approach that we take at our Seder table should serve as metaphor for the way in which we work to involve intermarried families in Jewish communal activities.

The Genesis Prize Foundation seeks to advance the discussion about intermarriage and inclusion in the Jewish community and thus launched a blog to encourage a conversation around meaningful ways to involve intermarried families. Since launching the blog, we have received enthusiastic feedback from community and professional leaders. We have had several people reach out to us and ask to contribute – we are flattered by the interest the blog has generated so quickly which highlights the importance, value, and timeliness of this blog.

While important and thought provoking conversations about Jewish inclusion began long before the announcement of Michael Douglas as the Genesis Prize Laureate in January 2015, the impetus for the blog arose with his selection. Michael Douglas’ professional achievement in the film industry and commitment to his Jewish heritage are among the reasons for his selection. Particularly compelling about Michael Douglas’ story is his choice to affiliate with Judaism, as the son of one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, and being married to a non Jewish spouse. His conscious choice to embrace his Jewish identity makes his journey emblematic for many in the global Jewish community.

By now the narrative and numbers are familiar: the Pew study “Portrait of American Jews” (2013) shows that in the US, of those who married between 2005 and 2013, 58% married a non-Jewish spouse. Comparing this number to those who married between 1970 and 1974, just 35% married a non-Jewish spouse. The trend is clear. And intermarriage is not just a US issue; the current rate also mimics the trend of intermarried couples in Western Europe (around 40-45% in Britain and France), and the intermarriage rate is far higher in the former Soviet Union (80%). There are two ways for the Jewish community to look at these statistics: they can be viewed as an irreversible sign of assimilation or as an opportunity to send a signal of welcome to intermarried couples and their children.

The 2013 Pew study may have heightened the Jewish community’s sensitivities to intermarriage, but throughout history, Jews have been marrying non-Jews. Dating back to biblical times, Moses, Ruth, David, Joseph, Esther, and Solomon were all intermarried. The “early willingness to reach across tribal and ethnic boundaries was a source of strength, which Jews later forgot or chose not to remember,” wrote Susan Katz Miller in her Huffington Post article quoting the book Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage. The Jewish community can use these stories as a source of strength, to show the current and future generation of Jews that leading Jewish figures retained their Jewish identities despite intermarriage.

For some, there was optimism in the Pew report regarding intermarriage, specifically that more than half (59%) of adults under the age of 30 with one Jewish parent consider themselves Jewish. Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman from Pew even suggest “intermarriage may be transmitting a Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans” (“What happens when Jews intermarry,” November 2013). Because there appears to be a proclivity for young adults from intermarried families to identify as Jewish, the time is ripe for action. And currently, there are some organizations modeling the way for such inclusion. The Genesis Prize Foundation counts many among our thought partners: Hillel International, Moishe House, Interfaith Family, Honeymoon Israel, and Big Tent/Jewish Outreach Institute, to name a few.

The late and revered Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, called Judaism an evolving religious civilization. The current demographics strongly suggest now more than ever is the time to continue our evolution and ensure intermarried couples feel welcome.

Michael Douglas will receive the Genesis Prize Award at a ceremony in Jerusalem this spring. So as the global communities says, “Next year in Jerusalem” at the Passover Seder, let’s think about ways as a community we can make all feel welcomed in the Jewish family.

Jill W. Smith is Deputy CEO of the Genesis Prize Foundation.