Debating Intermarriage, and Jewish Survival

This article asks some provocative questions about the trials of intermarriage.
Read through this article with the discussion questions and open a conversation with the teens about intermarriage.

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Published in the New York Times, October 18, 1992

In a synagogue in Denver, a Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. in Manhattan, a community center on Long Island, couples are gathering these days for a kind of reconciliation.

These couples -- Jews and non-Jews in mixed marriages -- are not estranged from one another. With the encouragement of rabbis and other leaders who would once have condemned such marriages, they are taking part in a nationwide effort to preserve America's Jewish population.

The goal is to welcome mixed families into Jewish life, to get non-Jewish spouses to convert, and especially to make sure that the children of mixed couples are raised as Jews. In an array of almost 600 programs that vary widely in form and content, the couples take courses aimed at introducing adults to Jewish life and culture, Jewish beliefs and holidays. They go to workshops on child rearing in interfaith families. Internal Struggle

Programs like these are proliferating, and their advocates say they are working. But they have provoked an intense, even angry debate within Judaism.

At recent High Holy Days services, many rabbis made a point of praising or denouncing these attempts to encompass mixed couples within the Jewish fold. At last month's convention of B'nai B'rith, one of the largest and oldest Jewish philanthropic and mutual-aid organizations, there was an hour of emotional exchanges about admitting non-Jewish spouses as members before the proposal was sent to a committee for more study.

And many temples in the Reform branch of Judaism, which has led the way in welcoming intermarried families, are struggling over questions like these: How much can they include non-Jewish spouses in rituals and decision-making? Can non-Jewish parents recite blessings or honor the Torah during a child's bar or bat mitzvah? Can non-Jews hold synagogue offices or vote on important issues?

The stakes in these debates go far beyond personal homecomings, organizational politics and theological nuances. In the Bible, Jews are repeatedly warned that intermarriage endangers the survival of a distinct Jewish people. Reaching out to non-Jewish spouses means casting off the remnants of Judaism's deeply rooted practice of considering an intermarried Jew estranged from the community. It means changing a centuries-old wariness about actively encouraging conversion.

To many rabbis and other leaders, especially from the more traditional Conservative and Orthodox branches, reaching out to non-Jews is futile and even dangerous. They not only doubt that such efforts can prevent the decline of an already small Jewish population (about 5.5 million in the United States); they argue that such efforts undermine the remaining inhibitions against marrying non-Jews and may ultimately dilute Judaism itself. Painful Numbers, Painful Choices

For all the debate over intermarriage, there is no dispute about the underlying problem.

Since the mid-1960's the Jewish population has been eroding from within, as a result not of pogroms but of love. An extensive survey of America's Jewish population by the Council of Jewish Federations found that from 1970 to 1990, while the United States population was rising by 22 percent, the number of "core" Jews -- people who identified themselves as Jewish by birth or religion and had not converted to another faith -- grew just 2 percent.

And the rate of intermarriage more than quintupled, from 9 percent for Jews married before 1965 to 52 percent for those married after 1985.

Once Jews intermarry, their children seldom grow up Jewish. The population survey found that just 28 percent of the children of mixed marriages are brought up as Jews, while 31 percent are reared in no religion and 41 percent are reared wholly in another faith or in an amalgam of Judaism and other beliefs. Only 10 percent of those mixed-marriage children marry Jews, and few of their own children will remain Jewish. Statistically, there is truth to the quip: "What do you call the grandchildren of intermarried Jews? Christians."

Some experts say these demographics may well spell the decline of the Jewish population in coming years. Sidney Goldstein, a Brown University sociologist, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Yearbook that if present trends continued, it was likely "that the core population will decline toward five million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century."

For Jews, who lost a third of their population to the Nazi Holocaust, the question of survival is obviously painful. But it is also complicated: intermarriage is rooted in precisely what many Jews most treasure about American society, its openness and an acceptance of Jews unprecedented in history. Jews by Culture, Secular in Beliefs

In the United States, religion is usually seen as a personal choice, a matter of belief and practice, rather than an inherited ethnic identity. A large number of Jews are attached to their Jewishness in cultural terms but secular in their beliefs. For such people, it is hard to resist assimilation in the American melting pot; that may well include marrying outside the religion.

The whole question of whether and how to reach out to non-Jews has produced an enormous "increase in anxiety and angst, bordering on paralysis" among Jewish leaders, said Steven Bayme, a critic of the stress on programs for mixed couples who is director of Jewish communal affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

The annals of marriage between Jews and non-Jews are filled with classic stories of couples who did not think that their religious differences mattered, only to be caught in the midst of family squabbles, to find that every holiday season turned into a minefield, most of all to discover that the coming of children had revived long-dormant but powerful and often disruptive religious feelings.

The programs offered around the nation seek to confront those feelings head on. At Congregation Emanuel in Denver, 35 interfaith families gather on a Sunday afternoon for a "Shabbat Fantasy." Beginning with the lighting of candles, they try to experience, in a condensed way, all the major events of a traditional 24-hour Jewish Sabbath.

First hesitatingly, then in a rush of memories, parents share their reminiscences of childhood Sabbaths. It is one exercise in Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me, a two-year program aimed at introducing children of mixed marriages to their Jewish heritage. Like the Interfaith Family Network on Long Island, the Denver program avoids anything resembling a pitch for conversion, although happily advising anyone who moves in that direction.

In fact, about half the families taking part have joined synagogues, as against 14 percent of interfaith families in general. "I have watched strong Jewish families come into being," said Saundra Heller, the program's director, "and I've seen real grappling with Judaism that frequently doesn't occur in Jewish-Jewish families."

Anna Luria and Howard Burg of Caldwell, N.J., dated for more than three years and didn't think it was a big deal that he was Jewish while she was still groping for a spiritual home. "I used to ask my parents what religion we were," she said recently, "but I couldn't pin them down." As for Mr. Burg, she went on, he seemed to feel "that once he was bar mitzvahed, he didn't have to do another Jewish thing; he was never told that he shouldn't marry a non-Jew."

But six months before the wedding, her fiance's parents "asked me to convert if it didn't really make any difference," she recalled, "and as the wedding approached, my mother-in-law began to worry about not having Jewish grandchildren."

The young woman was puzzled that Jews who appeared casual about observing their religion could be so intense about their Jewishness. "Now I'm on the other side, and I can understand how people can be so upset," she said. "I see the danger of the Jewish religion dying out."

But Mrs. Burg was not won over until she encountered Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where she found "warm people sincerely observing their religion," one where "we were welcomed as a family." She converted six years after she was married.

"I would like to raise my children with enough depth of spiritual feeling about Judaism that it would be important to them and express itself if they were dating a non-Jew," she said. "They should know that marrying a non-Jew is not the ideal, although it worked out for us."

At the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York, Egon Mayer, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, has compiled a directory of 561 programs for adults or children in intermarried families at 373 Jewish institutions around the country. Most are given by Reform groups or congregations, which represent the most liberal strain of Judaism and take in about 40 percent of Jewish households.

"Twenty years ago, the very idea of a directory like this would have been laughable," Professor Mayer, a leading proponent of reaching out to intermarried families, said. "Ten years ago I would have gotten about 50 responses. Today I am constantly running across new programs."

Tevye, the title character of "Fiddler on the Roof," declared that his daughter was dead to him because she married a Christian. Even though some Jews still feel that way, Professor Mayer said that for the most part "we have revoked the Tevye message." Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?

But other Jewish leaders protest that the efforts to welcome intermarried Jews and their spouses may be sending a dangerous message: that intermarriage is inevitable and efforts to prevent it are futile or unnecessary.

Dr. Bayme, of the American Jewish Committee, says that if all opposition to intermarriage collapses, the likely intermarriage rate for such a small minority group as American Jews would not be the current 52 percent but over 95 percent.

Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, thinks the pendulum has already swung too far toward inclusiveness. "Where are the great successes of outreach after more than a decade?" he asked in May at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. As intermarriage becomes accepted, he went on, the motive to convert has declined.

Still, there are large areas of agreement between advocates of inclusiveness like Professor Mayer and critics like Rabbi Epstein and Dr. Bayme. Even the strongest advocates acknowledge that intermarriage will often produce non-Jewish children and sometimes lead to marital problems.

Because so many Jewish rituals and practices are centered in the home rather than the synagogue, from lighting Sabbath candles to observing dietary laws, Jews are far more apt than Christians to feel that children cannot be brought up within the faith unless the family practices it together.

Similarly, everyone agrees that the future of the Jewish population in the United States depends above all on the ability of families and religious institutions to instill in young people a strong sense of Jewish identity. And by that, many Jewish leaders mean not just cultural and ethnic identity but religious identity.

"The big questions of God, belief and spirituality are the questions for late-20th-century non-Orthodox Jews," said Susan Weidman Schneider, author of "Intermarriage" (Free Press, 1989) and editor of Lilith, a Jewish feminist quarterly.

Rabbi Epstein and Dr. Bayme acknowledge that traditional punitive attitudes toward intermarriage clash with the values of most Jewish families today and reduce the chances of keeping mixed couples within the Jewish community.

These leaders endorse efforts to reach out to intermarried families, but only if such programs do not erase all distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in the synagogue, never condone raising a child in two faiths simultaneously and always reinforce the ideal of Jews' marrying Jews.

They recognize that sermons and educational materials insisting on the case against intermarriage and dating non-Jews may distress those already intermarried, "That," said Dr. Bayme, "is a risk we have to take."

It is a risk Professor Mayer rejects: "Would I want my daughters to marry Jews? You bet. Would I talk to them about it? You bet. Would I want my rabbi sermonizing about it from the pulpit? No.

"Without the personal knowledge of individuals possible in a heart-to-heart talk, you are more apt to hurt and alienate than to console and help."

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the issue of marrying Jewish is important to so many non-affiliated Jews?
  2. Why do you think most people agree that intermarriage is "not ideal"?
  3. What do you think about the issues of intermarriage?
  4. Do you know what your parents think?
  5. How will your opinion affect your personal choices in relationships?