Interfaith Families

With intermarriage an acknowledged part of the American landscape, the only remaining debate is how to respond to interfaith unions.

Around 50 percent of Jews in North America marry a non-Jewish spouse. Among them, only 30 percent raise their children as Jews. The following article examines this trend and the ways the Jewish community might encourage families where one spouse isn’t Jewish to make Jewish choices and identify with the Jewish community. This article originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the magazine and the author.

Last December, Edmund Case strolled the aisles of an Israeli vendor fair in search of gifts for his wife and two children. Like other patrons, he believed this was an ideal way to shop– supporting Israel’s economy while simultaneously checking off a long holiday to-do list. The difference, however, was that this corporate lawyer turned Jewish-outreach guru wasn’t preparing for Hanukkah–he was shopping for Christmas.

Christmas Presents Made in Israel

“This year, all the Christmas gifts were made in Israel,” he says with a chuckle. “As a joke I signed the card to my 20-year-old son ‘Santa’ but I wrote it phonetically in Hebrew letters. Some people would be aghast at that and say this is syncretism, it’s a melding of religions and that this is an ominous development for Jewish identity. Mind you, this is something I wouldn’t do before I thought my children’s Jewish identity was solidified. But my kids have no confusion about this. They are Jewish, we celebrate Hanukkah in our home, but on Christmas, they exchange gifts at their grandparents’ house. That’s all it is. It doesn’t have religious significance.”

Welcome to the world of intermarriage in the American Jewish community. According to the United Jewish Communities’ National Jewish Population Survey 2000 released last fall, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States compared to 5.5 million a decade ago. Though some researchers refute the NJPS findings, citing slightly higher population figures, the bottom line is clear: The American Jewish community is, at best, remaining stagnant. While factors such as Jewish women sacrificing childbearing years to pursue higher education and careers are in part to blame, a main source is intermarriage.

In 1990, the NJPS reported that 52 percent of American Jews intermarry. If the new population statistics are any indication, results of the 2000 intermarriage study, scheduled for release this spring, will likely be discouraging as well. If this is the direction the future is taking, a question arises as to how to keep Judaism alive in the children of interfaith marriages.

“From the perspective of America, intermarriage is a wonderful union,” says Steve Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department for the American Jewish Committee. “It’s a triumph of American tolerance and equality. Those are wonderful values but they contradict fundamental Jewish values to marry within the faith, build a Jewish family and raise Jewish children.”

With half of Jews in the United States believing it is “racist” to promote marriage within the faith and only one-fifth of the Jewish population opposing mixed marriage, it’s no surprise that interfaith unions are at an all-time high. So how, in an age of political correctness, can parents explain to their children that choosing to only date and marry a fellow Jew is not discrimination?

“It’s racist only when you believe that gentiles are inferior to Jews,” says Bayme. “It is not racist for Jews, a tiny minority, to want to preserve distinctiveness that is imperiled by mixed marriage.”

Preventing Intermarriage

Judaism has to be taught as something relevant so that kids can never imagine it sharing a level of importance with any other faith, say Orthodox leaders. With 98 percent of National Conference of Synagogue Youth graduates marrying Jews (“Only God is perfect,” offers one rabbi), the Orthodox Union’s emphasis on education and community seems to be working.

“Continuity and the threat of intermarriage has been on the priority list of every generation of traditional Jews since the day the Torah was given on Sinai,” says Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, executive director of programs at the OU. “We strive to find a Torah way of life that is palatable, exciting and interesting to teenagers ?so that Judaism isn’t some ancient tome on a shelf only for the great bearded rabbis.”

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s United Synagogue Youth and the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth have similar philosophies. Both organizations run an array of teenage programming–everything from post-Shabbat dances to summer trips to Israel.

“The best methodology to prevent intermarriage is to provide the most solid types of all-around educational experiences that will motivate a person to live and identify Jewishly,” says Jules Gutin, director of the Department of Youth Activities for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Unlike USY, which forbids high school-age officers to date non-Jews, leaders of NFTY and other arms of the Reform movement cringe at the thought of educational programming and policies promoting “prevention.”

“The most repeated mitzvah [commandment] in the Torah is to welcome the stranger, to …treat the stranger as the one born,” argues Dru Greenwood, director of the Department of Outreach at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “That is a mitzvah that is taken to heart by the Reform movement.”

Making Jewish Choices

“The percentage of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews is not more than 30 percent,” says Case. “To [increase that number], Jewish leaders have to change their attitudes because they get in the way of making families interested in affiliating feel welcome. We need to stop using off-putting language like goyim and shiksa?and [end] negative attitudes about the leadership and participation of non-Jews in synagogues?. I’m not saying intermarriage is a good thing, just that the Jewish community should be welcoming.”

Rabbi Avis Miller, chairperson of the committee that in 1995 authored the official Conservative position on intermarriage, argues that rather than create a support system where couples can bond over the rejection of conversion or share Hanukkah and Christmas decorating tips, an educational approach to outreach needs to be emphasized with thought-provoking programming and experiences rich in Jewish culture.

“What happens in support groups is that you are defined by your intermarried-ness,” says Miller. “I’ve had people come to me for conversion and say, ‘We’ve become friendly with these people, we have them over for dinner, and I just can’t tell them that I have decided to convert. It will throw everything out of equilibrium.'”

Despite the schisms among the branches, most agree that creating a Jewish atmosphere in the home can be simple. Whether you play klezmer, light Shabbat candles, read Jewish books or hang Israeli art on your wall, little touches can go a long way.

Raising a Jewish child is more about what you do than what you say, explains Karen Kushner, a San Francisco social worker who has run interfaith workshops for over 20 years. “If we never take a child to see a Jewish play or go to a Jewish fair they will never have any idea of what is important to us. Look at how much money people spend to join health clubs and how much time they spend working out. So what are the kids going to learn? What’s important in life: working out and looking good. So we’ve got kids who look good and they’re intermarrying.”

One of the most valuable resources of Jewish continuity are grandparents. Stories recalled from a grandmother’s youth–carp for gefilte fish swimming in the bathtub or memories of the establishment of Israel–will not only leave indelible marks on the minds and memories of a child but will help to foster a sense of roots. Don’t be surprised, however, if the relationship takes some work. Many parents experience mixed emotions when their child marries out of the faith and those feelings may resurface when they have an interfaith grandchild.

“There is some mourning that has to go on,” Kushner warns. “The initial response is anxiety, fear, guilt and a sense that their particular genes are not going forward in the Jewish community. [They ask] ‘What did I do wrong?’ And even though they know the world is diverse, that kids go away to college and meet all kinds of people, parents have fantasies.”

Fear that thousands of years of Jewish heritage will stop short with their children can trigger a surge of Jewish identity within a grandparent. What may follow is competition with gentile grandparents for the affections and affiliations of the child.

Instead, bubbes and zeides should invite the in-laws to join in Jewish customs or meals. All competition accomplishes, Kushner says, is kids running from religion because they don’t want to hurt anyone by choosing sides.

If history serves as a guide, it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be unanimity among the various Jewish movements regarding interfaith marriage. But if our population continues to decline, even at a rate of 5 percent each decade, all will certainly agree that the issue of continuity must be addressed carefully and swiftly. The clock is ticking.

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