We’re Not an Exception: Intermarried and Jewish
By Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters
We are Jews married to non-Jews. We were each also raised in homes with only one Jewish parent. We are both leaders in Jewish day schools, raising our children Jewish and sending them to Jewish day schools. We are deeply committed to the future of the Jewish people.
And yet, we hear: “Intermarriage is the death of the Jewish people.” Often. And when we stand up for our parents, for our spouses, and truthfully, for our children, the response we often hear is: “Well, you’re an exception.”
Synagogue participation is dropping and has been. Jewish day schools across the country are struggling with low enrollment. When looking for answers, Jewish leaders have often zeroed in on intermarriage as the doom of the Jewish people, and that is wrongheaded. It’s similar to taking an abstinence-only approach to teaching sex ed. And guess what? It’s not working.
When a young person has internalized that intermarriage is a shonda (tragedy), but then falls in love with someone who isn’t Jewish, it can make them feel the need to choose between their heritage and the person that they love. If that young person eventually chooses their partner over their heritage, it comes with a strong sense of shame. We know. We’ve felt it.
We don’t always talk about it because we aren’t being radically welcomed, and instead feel shamed into saying nothing about feeling that we don’t completely fit in. We look for places that do welcome us. We want to be part of the Jewish community.
Instead of teaching of the evils of intermarriage, institutions should focus on the importance of raising a Jewish family and acting ethically in the world. We both received similar messages from our own families: find someone who you love, who loves you, who shares your values, and who is committed to raising a Jewish family with you. With so many Jews becoming unaffiliated, this is important for young people to internalize regardless of the religion of their spouse. Decriminalize us. Place the focus on where it should be: how we raise our children, how we act in the world, and in turn, how we shape our future.
“Well, you’re an exception,” again, says the person who just said to me that intermarriage is killing the future of the Jews. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to want to be part of a club where the members say that you, your partner, and your family are the death of the future of that club’s existence.
Now imagine that you’ve dedicated your whole career to the education of members of that club and the continuity of Jewish education, helping to raise ethical kids who are going to continue Jewish life.
We don’t believe we are the exception.
There is a significant fear in pockets of the Jewish community that intermarriage will dilute and end the community.
We propose the opposite, that if we do NOT welcome Jews who think of themselves as different in some way, if we don’t radically open our spaces to people who want to be part of a Jewish community who wants them – that will be the eventual end of the Jewish community. We have done an amazing job over history of adjusting our traditions to fit our geography, the cultural traditions of the diaspora, and we have endured.
The theme of Jewish particularism can be traced back to our very beginnings. And it’s something that we’ve always wrestled with. Moses’s wife wasn’t Jewish. Just saying.
We are not exceptions. We represent this shift and change. We want to be a part of the community. We are raising the next generation that will take that community forward in a way that allows Judaism to endure.
Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, CA and Shara Peters is the Head of School at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, CA. Their children go to their schools as well – both of which have been very welcoming to their families.