When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.
There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.
A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.
Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.
“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.
“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”
In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.
In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.