Welcoming Intermarried Couples Is New Priority for Jewish Institutions

Fighting Intermarriage a Losing Battle for Denominations

Losing Battle? A generation ago, Jewish organizations were shocked into action by a study showing half of all Jews were marrying outside the faith. Now, they seem more intent on welcoming intermarried families than fighting the practice.
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Losing Battle? A generation ago, Jewish organizations were shocked into action by a study showing half of all Jews were marrying outside the faith. Now, they seem more intent on welcoming intermarried families than fighting the practice.

By Uriel Heilman

Published August 06, 2013.
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In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.


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