This article is reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Report.
Edmund Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life, debates Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Dear Jack Wertheimer,
Given a community that is declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make about the religious identity of their children are critical to the future of the North American Jewish community. Welcoming interfaith couples without the non-Jewish partner converting would increase the likelihood that their children would be raised as Jews. Let’s stop demeaning intermarriage as a bad thing for the Jewish people, explicitly invite interfaith families to communal activities, encourage their participation in Jewish worship, learning and social action, and make them feel wanted and accepted. Conversion is a wonderful personal choice. It’s true that currently, the children of a Jew-by-birth and a Jew-by-choice are more likely to be raised as Jews than the children of intermarried parents. But we will lose more potentially Jewish children by promoting early conversion than we will gain by genuinely welcoming interfaith couples. Jewish leaders and institutions need to understand the tremendous potential for positive engagement in Jewish life by interfaith families, and for their raising children with as unambiguous a Jewish identity as the children of two Jewish parents. This is already happening in thousands of families. It could happen in many thousands more, if the community made a concerted effort to welcome them in.
Dear Edmund Case,
Intermarried Jews who seek to raise their children in an unambiguously Jewish fashion are welcomed. Hundreds of rabbis and cantors officiate at their wedding ceremonies, based on the hope that they will create a Jewish home; Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues extend full membership privileges to them; numerous institutions offer classes to the intermarried and enroll their children in schooling; and most Jewish organizations think nothing of elevating intermarried Jews to their boards. The problem is not a lack of hospitality, but the unwillingness of the vast majority of the intermarried to raise their children unambiguously as Jews. According to statistics you’ve recently employed, 70 percent of intermarried families in the United States raise their children in dual faith, or no faith, or non-Jewish homes. Data I have seen puts the figure at 82 percent as of the mid-1990s. These families have decided not to embrace Judaism and identify with the Jewish people, a decision that has little to do with the posture of the Jewish community and everything to do with a family’s negotiation of the fault line created by intermarriage. Your argument deflects responsibility for these decisions from intermarried families to the larger Jewish community. This blame game has resulted in ever more capitulation to the intermarried, which has only made the underlying reality worse. And that reality is incontestable: Intermarriage is a bad thing for the Jewish people.
The Jewish Outreach Institute 1995 survey found that 28 percent of interfaith families were raising their children as Jews; Boston’s 1995 survey found 33 percent. Whatever that number currently is, it is too low. I seek to increase it. You offer nothing constructive in response. Trying to prevent intermarriage is futile. Programs to strengthen Jewish identity have great value, but many graduates will still intermarry. Encouraging young people to in-marry because it will increase their chances of living Jewishly is fine; telling them not to marry out because intermarriage is a bad thing for the Jewish people will push away those who do intermarry. The many interfaith couples I hear from describe a Jewish community that is far from welcoming. Many can’t find rabbis to officiate at their weddings. Many encounter hostile expressions from Jews, Jewish leaders, like you, and Jewish institutions. Only a handful of local communities have comprehensive outreach programs, and nowhere are such programs adequately publicized. It’s not a question of blame or assessing responsibility. Interfaith families who are fortunate to find welcoming rabbis, synagogues and communities obviously are more likely to make Jewish choices. Interfaith outreach programs increase the Jewish involvement of participants. A concerted genuine effort to make interfaith families feel wanted could only have positive results.
The most constructive action Jews in North America can take is to build a dynamic, more meaningful Jewish community that also may attract interfaith families. It is not accidental that young people reared in such families who participated in Birthright Israel have been inspired, for in Israel they encountered a living Jewish society. American Jewry needs to project the same vitality, and avoid the trap of mobilizing its public institutions to fix a set of problems originating in the private domain of the family. As for outreach programs, let us not imagine that they are cost-free. At a time of severe shortages of rabbis, educators and communal workers, at a time when there are not nearly enough dollars to help committed Jewish families shoulder the high costs of Jewish living, and at a time of growing poverty in several Jewish communities around the globe, is it prudent to invest our limited resources in pursuit of those who may have no desire to be “reached?” Even more important, some forms of outreach undermine Jewish culture because they foster religious syncretism and offer bland, universalized messages in place of specific Jewish teachings. In the name of hospitality, rabbis co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy at dual-faith wedding ceremonies; synagogues bestow ritual honors upon non-Jews; “how-to” books for the inter-dating and intermarried offer distorted versions of Judaism; and few Jewish leaders dare to articulate in public a clear communal preference for endogamy. Rather than surrender to the presumed inevitability of intermarriage, let us build compelling Jewish communities.