From “Oy Vey” to “Mazel Tov”

Have you heard? More than 60% of children of intermarried families are being raised with a Jewish identity. But you didn’t hear that from The New York Times.

Intermarriage offers a huge opportunity for the Jewish community, but only if we stop shooting ourselves in the foot. The recent lamentation over American Jewish intermarriage, coupled with the Pew survey finding that 20% of children of intermarriage are being raised “Jewish by religion,” misses two key points. First, if we include being raised “partly Jewish by religion” (25%) and “Jewish not by religion or mixed,” (16%), three-fifths of all children of intermarriage are being raised with some Jewish identity; only 37% are being raised with none. Second, and more important, organized Judaism has created its own “intermarriage problem.”

After ten years of hysteria in response to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey’s reports of an intermarriage rate of 52%, the American Jewish Committee in 2000 asked several questions about intermarriage in its annual survey of American Jewish opinion. Evidently the results were shocking, for it appears those questions were never asked again. So shocking that the presentation of those results on the AJC website is garbled (the only survey results for which that is so).

42. Please tell me if you agree or disagree with each of the following statements: Agree Disagree Not sure a. “It would pain me if my child married a gentile.” 39 56 4 b. “Intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.” 80 18 2 c. “The best response to intermarriage is to encourage 25 68 7 the gentile to convert to Judaism.” d. “The Jewish community has an obligation to reach out to 81 16 4 intermarried couples.” e. “It is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.” 50 47 4 f. “The Jewish community has an obligation to urge Jews to 69 27 4 marry Jews.”

Deciphered, we find that:

  • 80% of those surveyed agreed that intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.
  • 68% disagreed with pushing conversion as the best response to intermarriage.
  • When half of the respondents were asked whether rabbis should officiate at intermarriage ceremonies, 57% said they should, even if “a gentile clergyman is involved,” and another 16% said they should if there is no co-officiant. Only 22% said rabbis should refuse to officiate.

These numbers have probably become even more accepting in the intervening 13 years.

Consider the disconnect between these welcoming attitudes and the establishment Jewish strategy (circa 1995) of 1) prevention, 2) conversion, and 3) outreach as last resort. Even though today around 50% of Reform Rabbis will perform intermarriages, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is still officially opposed to officiation at such weddings and strongly opposed to co-officiation. Conservative Rabbis can be expelled from their Rabbinical Assembly for any participation in an intermarriage ceremony; for Orthodox rabbis, participation is practically unheard-of.

A Jewish world in deep denial about the reality of intermarriage has little chance of encouraging those who do intermarry to make Jewish choices. What would American Judaism look like if we really faced reality: intermarriage is inevitable, conversion is NOT the best response, and Jews want rabbis to meet the needs of Jews in love with anyone? A rabbi’s refusal to marry a couple from different religious backgrounds will not prevent them from marrying; it will just push them further away from any future Jewish connections.

Imagine if the response to any Jew who finds love beyond Judaism were “mazel tov!” instead of “oy vey!” or “will the outsider change who he/she is?” If we can welcome and celebrate those new families, intermarriage is a real opportunity to grow the Jewish people, and the circle of people sympathetic to and connected with it. If we stop trying in vain to diminish the number of intermarrying Jews, we could increase the number that make being Jewish part of their family life.

Fifty Jews marrying each other creates 25 Jewish households. 50 Jews marrying non-Jews creates 50 households with ate least one Jewish member. This is why on college campuses today there are more students with one Jewish parent than with two. If more of these intermarried households produced children who identified with and were welcomed by the Jewish community, we could stop worrying about the Jewish future. Imagine doubling the size of Hillels, of Jewish volunteers, of audiences for Jewish art and music.

What must we do?  Jews marrying non-Jews need to know that their Judaism and the Jewishness of their family does not have to be all or nothing. Children raised in homes with one Jewish parent need to know that they do not have to choose one set of grandparents over the other to be part of the Jewish family. If we want a non-Jewish partner to respect Jewish culture and ethnicity, we must be open to the other culture’s being part of the mix. Pew’s 62% of American Jews who believe Jewishness is primarily ethnicity and culture may not see their Jewishness as either/or. A person can participate in multiple cultures simultaneously – American, and Jewish, and gendered, and part of their community, and any other labels the individual may choose.

Facing reality, we must adapt. A priest participating in a wedding might be to appease the devout mother of an ex-Catholic who himself is happy to raise Jewish-identified children. A Christmas tree can be as much a cultural symbol as a menorah for a secular Jew who denies the existence of miracles. A cultural Jewish identity like Humanistic Judaism might well be a successful route to connect both the “Jews of no religion” and intermarried families to their Jewish heritage.

Refusing to marry more than half of American Jews to the people they love is a losing strategy. Rejecting the choice of many of these couples to celebrate both family cultures has turned away the better part of a generation. It is time, and crucially so, for American Judaism to say “mazel tov!” to love to ensure a brighter future for all of us.

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One Response to From “Oy Vey” to “Mazel Tov”

  1. Pingback: Disaffiliated Jews | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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