The Intermarriage Debate is Flaring Up (Again), Months After Pew Survey

Warnings About Assimilation Reignite Discussions

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By Julie Wiener

Published January 28, 2014.
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(JTA) — In the months since the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews renewed communal concern about assimilation, the intermarriage debate is flaring up again.

Jewish religious and communal institutions had been shifting away from seeing intermarriage as a problem to be combated and toward focusing on engaging the intermarried. But in recent weeks, there have been several high-profile warnings against abandoning the traditional Jewish emphasis on endogamy, or in-marriage.

When the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, gave a speech suggesting that high intermarriage rates should be accepted by Jewish leaders as the inevitable result of life in an open society, he was criticized by the editors of two of America’s leading Jewish newspapers. Meanwhile, a new group of Jewish thought leaders has been convened by three longtime advocates of Jewish in-marriage hoping to influence the post-Pew conversation on assimilation.

“Pew gave a new impetus to the people who want to promote a more overt pro-endogamy camp in the community,” said Jonathan Woocher, president of the Lippman-Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. “There’s been more coming up about it in the last couple months than previously.”

Partisans on both sides of the debate cite the findings of the Pew survey, released in October of last year, in support of their views. The survey found that 58 percent of American Jews who married since 2005 have non-Jewish spouses, a proportion that rises to 72 percent among the non-Orthodox.

Advocates for in-marriage point to survey findings that people with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish or engage in Jewish activities. But their critics say the prevalence of intermarriage means that the communal focus needs to be on engagement rather than on what they see as futile efforts to turn back the tide.

In his December speech at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention, Jacobs had called for an “audacious hospitality” to welcome the intermarried and others into the Jewish community.

“Incredibly enough, however, I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease,” Jacobs said. “It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close.”

Jacobs’ speech, however, has met with some belated pushback. The New York Jewish Week’s editor, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote a Jan. 15 column warning that intermarriage “becoming the norm poses a threat to the sustainability of American Jewish life.”

The next day the Forward newspaper wrote in an editorial that the approach supported by Jacobs has so far “not proved sustainable.” The paper concluded that “encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is too essential to surrender to the uncertainties of American assimilation.”


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