Welcome Intermarried But Maintain Norms Preferring In-marriage? A Review of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

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logoThe Jewish People Policy Institute has issued a rather amazing report, Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, a project headed by Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay. The report is based on the 2016 Jewish World Dialogue, which involved surveys and discussions in which 715 highly engaged Jewish leaders from around the world participated. The JPPI is a prominent Jerusalem-based think tank chaired by Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross and Leonid Nevzlin.

I describe the report as amazing because of the realistic and somewhat positive tone with which it describes intermarriage, and because of the great emphasis it places on being welcoming. At the same time, the report expresses a profound conundrum: whether it is possible to be genuinely welcoming of intermarried families, and also maintain communal norms that prefer in-marriage over intermarriage. I don’t think the Dialogue participants or the authors of the report go quite far enough to support the genuine welcoming that I believe is needed.

The Importance of Welcoming

The main finding of the report sets up the conundrum: there is remarkable consensus among engaged Jews regarding the need for the Jewish world (1) to be inclusive and welcoming toward all those who seek to participate in Jewish life, but also (2) to maintain selective communal norms. (emphasis added)

“Twenty-five years after the American National Jewish Population Study revealed the substantial increase in intermarriage in an open society, most Jewish leadership groups strive to seed, nurture, and strengthen a broad range of quality Jewish cultural and educational programs and a communal environment that welcomes all who seek to participate.” (emphasis added) (9)

The main recommendations of the report include striking support for programmatic efforts to welcome and engage interfaith families:

  • to “seed and support programs that reach out to Jews with weak identities and/or those whose Jewish status may be uncertain but still seek to learn and engage in Jewish life.”
  • “[T]he government of Israel, Jewish federations and philanthropies should continue to invest, both to encourage as many Jews as possible to intensify their engagement with Judaism, and also to create a welcoming environment.”
  • to “acknowledge those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, in terms of behavior and self-identity, but have not yet undergone conversion and become fully fledged members of the Jewish people.” (10-12)

The endorsement of the need to be welcoming to people in interfaith relationships is extremely heartening, especially considering that the report is a product of an Israel-based think tank and involved many Israeli participants. Even in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations, the emphasis on welcoming is striking: “Jews around the world expect Israel to offer a welcoming environment to all those wishing to participate in Jewish life and identify with the Jewish people.” (9)

Attitudes and Norms

The rub with being welcoming comes with what communal norms are to be maintained, and whether that can be done while still being welcoming. “[N]orms are needed to maintain the Jewish people as a collective, and prevent it from disintegrating into a fragmented and diffuse collection of groups and individuals.” (10)

The key chapter “Jewishness Meets Intermarriage” starts with a brief review of statistics showing high rates of intermarriage, such that “[M]ost Jews understand that the Jewish community, except in Israel, is gradually becoming one for which interfaith marriage is normative…,” together with surveys showing that intermarried families have a weaker connection than in-married families to the Jewish community and to Judaism. (67-68)

Dialogue participants were asked a series of questions that ascertain their attitudes towards intermarriage. The first question was whether the Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews, whether because doing so might succeed, or to make a symbolic declaration that in-marriage is preferable. Even though the participants expect intermarriage will continue to be a significant feature of Jewish life, more than 80% believed the community ought to encourage in-marriage.

The authors note that these participants “want the community to invest in measures that according to their [own] assessment are not going to completely alter the trend of intermarriage (some might still hope that the trend can be somewhat reversed).”  (68-69) The authors also note that it is not clear what the programmatic implications of encouraging in-marriage would be: “after trying to promote it for many years, no magic bullet has been found for this endeavor – only maintaining a certain communal norm, welcoming all people, and providing opportunities for Jewish learning and living. Essentially, doing everything possible to encourage distanced Jews to intensify their involvement with Judaism.” (69-70)

Dialogue participants were also asked whether intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism. The authors aptly summarize the argument: If non-Jews intermarry and agree in higher numbers – “as they do” – to raise Jewish children, the Jewish community no longer “loses” Jews to intermarriage, it “gains” non-Jews and their children who become part of the community. But again, “Even as they see a reality that cannot be reversed, and even as they hear the many success stories of integration of intermarried couples into the community, and even as they hear some of their leaders celebrate intermarriage as an opportunity for growth – they remain doubtful.” (72)

The authors locate the source of this hesitation in the studies that show lesser engagement among intermarried families. Many of them cannot overlook the studies that repeatedly show that intermarriage leads to a lesser engagement with Judaism and are not certain that is it within the community’s capabilities to bring interfaith families to the level of engagement of in-married families. (72)

Dialogue participants were not asked whether being Jewish requires a commitment to Jewishness alone (whether religious or peoplehood exclusivity). The authors say this is a question in need of exploration, as there is a growing share of Jews who do not see their Jewishness as exclusive. (75)

The one communal norm the report addresses is Jewish leadership: while many Jews want intermarried families to be full participants in Jewish life, they still have an inclination to preserve some symbolic features that point to the advantage, from a communal viewpoint, of in-marriage over intermarriage. (75) Thus, “Jews want their religious leaders to be unquestionably Jewish, and most of them want their communal leaders to be Jewish.” There is less agreement on whether a communal leader must have a Jewish spouse. (86)

The authors make an interesting comment about the “leader as role model” argument: “The question of ‘leader as role model’ becomes significant… only when the encouraged ‘model’ is an in-married Jewish family. Clearly this is what most Dialogue participants believed to be the case.” This is a very clear example of an underlying attitude that supports maintaining a norm.

The Conundrum

I have argued elsewhere that it is extremely difficult if even possible to encourage in-marriage and at the same time genuinely welcome the intermarried. Expressions of preference for in-marriage risk making those who intermarry feel that their relationship is sub-optimal and disapproved. The authors recognize this when they raise the question, “What if encouraging in-marriage alienates intermarried couples – an alienation that Dialogue participants were acutely worried about.” “Obviously, a strong desire to be ‘welcoming’… could be complicated by a campaign to encourage in-marriage.” (70) Similarly, if leaders don’t see the potential benefit from intermarriage, they will be less inclined to make efforts to engage interfaith families. The authors suggest that Jewish leaders can argue in favor of the model of the in-married Jewish family “without it implying the justification of criticism of Jews who made the personal decision to marry a non-Jew” (89); I don’t think that is the case.

Relying on studies showing lesser engagement of intermarried families is suspect when the community has not been welcoming and when very little effort has been made to “invest in interfaith families” with programming targeted to engage them. Again, the authors recognize this: “[P]roponents of outreach policies [argue] not that intermarriage is a blessing, but rather that with the right policies (being more welcoming, investing in interfaith families etc.) the potential is there for a beneficial effect on the community.” (73)

These expressions of attitudes of Jewish leaders are extremely important; as the authors note, “[C]onnected Jews make the communal rules. It is highly engaged and connected Jews who grasp the challenges, and attempt to tackle them. These Jews, participants in our groups, seemed somewhat readier than we had expected to make definitive assertions concerning the value of in-marriage to the community and its long term interests.” (72) The authors say “It is fair to suspect that had the Dialogue included more Jews of no religion, more disconnected Jews, and more unaffiliated Jews, the answers … would have been different.” (71-72) I suspect the same would be true if more less- and moderately- engaged Jews and their partners were included; the leaders may be behind the rest of the community. In the report’s recommendations, the authors say that the community “accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses;” “acceptance” in my opinion is not a warm enough response to achieve the engagement that the community appears to want to achieve.

I do see promise if one of the recommendations of the report is implemented: to create communities of practice that will develop “best practices in dealing with the broad range of contemporary Jews and Jewish groups,” “leadership training programs so leaders can deepen their understanding of the new milieu,” and welcoming language and messaging in organizational materials. (11)

Definitions of Jewishness and Interfaith Families

The report includes a fascinating discussion of definitions of Jewishness that have implications for engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I have summarized separately. One part of the discussion is particularly important.

The report identifies four aspects of Judaism as primary components of Jewishness: in the order in which they were ranked in surveys, they are culture, nationality/peoplehood, religion, and genealogy. The authors note that putting less emphasis on genealogy “fits nicely with … understanding that intermarriage is an irreversible part of Jewish life and with the cautious optimism some have concerning ‘the community’s ability to turn this challenging trend into an opportunity.’” But they also note that as Jews emphasize nationality/peoplehood, comfort with intermarriage could seem to rest on shaky ground, because intermarrieds currently show less connection to other Jews and Israel. One of the report’s recommendations is to “create initiatives that consciously seek to enhance the understanding of the Jewish peoplehood component among all who participate in Jewish life (Jews and non-Jews who affiliate with the community).” I would only note that efforts to influence non-Jews who affiliate with the community, and their partners, will be hindered to the extent that maintaining a norm of in-marriage makes interfaith couples feel second rate.

 

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