Time to Change the Channel for Intermarried Families

by Harold Berman

Intermarried families are a huge issue for the Jewish community. Intermarried families are a huge opportunity for the Jewish community.

I am in the unique, and some would say unenviable, position of agreeing wholeheartedly with both of these statements and seeing no contradiction. Most in the Jewish community, however, choose one side or the other, and then typically draw a line in the sand.

Stephen Donshik’s recent column about my wife’s and my book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, beautifully illustrates this paradox. I was gratified that Stephen called Doublelife “required reading for Jewish communal professionals and clergy” and “a wake-up call for the Jewish community.” As a formerly intermarried couple turned traditional Jewish family, we wrote Doublelife specifically because no other narrative of this kind exists in print, and we thought it was important to show that despite the challenges, there are meaningful ways forward that the Jewish community has yet to embrace.

The wide range of, shall we say, passionate, comments to Stephen’s article shows that the line in the sand is alive and well. In the coming paragraphs, I hope to make the case that those on both sides of the line are refusing to admit vital truisms of the other side, and that the paradox ultimately is no paradox at all.

Intermarried families are a huge issue for the Jewish community. Among the 600,000 or so intermarried families in the U.S., a large number are not involved in Jewish life, and often purposely so. Some have specifically chosen to raise their children in two faiths or none, abdicating the choice of religion to the child when he grows up. In many cases, choosing one or the other religion would threaten some of the very assumptions on which the intermarriage is based. And so, outreach to these families can even be counterproductive. They are not interested in websites, introduction to Judaism courses, or workshops on how to make your own seder plate. They simply want to be left alone.

Other intermarried families have chosen Messianic Judaism as a “solution” to the two-faiths dilemma, or on the more liberal side of the theological spectrum, Unitarianism. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Scobac of Jews for Judaism, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on missionaries and cults, has reported to me that, “a huge percentage of Messianic Jews are married to gentiles. Based upon my observations and the experience of my colleagues, there is no doubt about this.” Needless to say, the seder plate workshops won’t work with this group either.

And of the intermarried families who do choose to raise their children as Jews, an uncomfortable number of their children fail to carry the torch. According to some studies, less than a quarter of the children of interfaith families marry a Jewish partner and as few as 4% raise their own children as Jews. The advocates of outreach to the intermarried often blithely ignore these very real facts on the ground, insisting that they have all the answers, and that any lack of engagement on the part of the intermarried is due simply to the Jewish community not being welcome enough.

Intermarried families are a huge opportunity for the Jewish community. Even as large numbers of intermarried families and their children head for the exit doors, there is a not insignificant number moving in the opposite direction.

My wife and I often speak to groups about our experience going from intermarried to Jewish, and I am fond of beginning by saying that we started out as a Jewish outreach worker’s worst nightmare. Imagine a Jew who grew up Reform but has entered adulthood without any affiliation save for that twice-a-year synagogue visit. His all-time favorite food is lobster. Next on the list is shrimp. He meets the love of his life, who happens to be a devout Christian, and more than that, works full-time in a Texas mega-church as the Minister of Music. Unable to find a rabbi to stand alongside her minister, and unable to grasp that there are any issues here, they are married by a Justice of the Peace.

Had an outreach worker managed to find us in those days, even the most optimistic would not have envisioned this same couple years later as an Orthodox Jewish family, living near Jerusalem, their children fluent in Hebrew and Jewish texts. Yet here we are.

“Yet here we are” may engage our audiences, but if we’re only talking about one improbable journey to Judaism, then it’s an entertaining footnote rather than an opportunity for the Jewish community. Ed Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily, followed up on Stephen Donshik’s article about Doublelife with his own article about the work his organization is doing with interfaith families. I admire Ed, both for being a pioneer and for his passion in reaching out to interfaith families. Having said that, despite Stephen’s article calling Doublelife “a wake-up call for the Jewish community,” the only mention of the book on InterfaithFamily.com is a paragraph where Ed criticizes my advocacy to more fully honor converts, and then says of families like mine that “Jewish leaders must realize that this is not likely to happen in anything but a marginal fractional” of intermarried families.

So which is it – a “marginal fractional” or a “wake-up call?” It is true that, statistically, relatively small numbers of intermarried families have chosen to become Jewish and lead deeply meaningful Jewish lives. However, the numbers are far larger than most imagine. And they are growing. Just in the small town of Efrat, where I live, we have met so many American families where one of the spouses was not born Jewish. In Jerusalem, where I work, I have come across a surprising number of children of intermarriage who are learning intensively in yeshivas, searching for a Judaic depth that was absent from their upbringing. Through our own web site – J-Journey.org – we receive a steady stream of e-mails from intermarried families asking for guidance. The conventional wisdom is that the central address for intermarried families is to be found in the more liberal Jewish movements. But just as our own journey was significantly influenced by Aish and Chabad, walk into virtually any Orthodox outreach organization and you will find no shortage of intermarried families and their children searching for Jewish meaning and substance.

Families like mine are more than a “marginal fractional.” And even if our numbers are still small, they need not be. But only if we take a different approach, one that focuses less on “removing barriers” and more on transforming lives, less on creating special programming for interfaith families and more on simply creating meaningful yet accessible programming for the entire Jewish community (ala Aish and Chabad) that will attract and inspire inmarried and intermarried alike.

In Stephen Donshik’s article, he discusses the lack of community support we encountered on our own journey. As we describe in Doublelife and elsewhere, we did not encounter any lack of welcoming or intermarried programming. Rather, we had a hard time finding communities that embodied the life-changing experience that Judaism can be. We searched for Jewish settings where we could immerse deeply in Jewish life, and too often came up short. Paradoxically, we found our footing in the very places where conventional Jewish wisdom says intermarried families dare not tread.

The “wake-up call” is that, as a community, we have yet to examine what truly works. It’s fair to say that intermarried families who have chosen to become fully Jewish families reflect highly successful Jewish outreach. And so, whether or not the ultimate goal of intermarried outreach is conversion, the Jewish community could learn a lot by speaking to those who have become Jewish about what experiences drew them in, what worked and what didn’t, and what they found attractive about Judaism that we should be emphasizing more.

To my knowledge, we haven’t done that at all. Instead, we talk about welcoming and open tents and removing barriers while barely discussing just what it is we are welcoming people into, what we expect will be gained (beyond simply Jewish continuity), and why it’s important in the first place. But without seriously examining what has turned the Jewish community’s success stories into success stories, we continue to spin our wheels, and continue to shout at each other from across the line in the sand.

That is the wake-up call. And the opportunity.

Harold Berman the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope“, the first true-life account of “an intermarriage gone Jewish,” is the former Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of J-Journey.org, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews.