Real Realism on Intermarriage

By Jack Wertheimer and Steven Bayme

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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Building on a new study of Jewish identity among the children of intermarriage, the Forward editorialized about the alleged failings of the organized Jewish community. In its July 8 editorial, “Welcoming the New Jews” — i.e. the offspring of mixed marriages — the Forward declared: “The Jewish community needs to come to terms with the fact that it’s living in a new world where barriers are nonexistent and ideas flow freely. In today’s world, every Jew is a Jew by choice. Most Jews know this; it’s only the leadership of the community’s institutions that hasn’t come to terms with it.”

The Forward’s onslaught upon Jewish “leadership” is of a piece with the unrelenting pressure for ever-newer accommodations to the mixed married. For example, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has recently asked Conservative rabbis to consider ways to include non-Jewish spouses in children’s rituals of passage. Its executive director, Rabbi Charles Simon, denounced the strategy of boundary-setting within the Conservative movement as “failed.” By the same token, a new publication written by several Conservative rabbis from California and titled “A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism speaks only about the importance of outreach to mixed-marrieds with not a word about endogamy or conversion to Judaism.

Indeed, an entire vocabulary has been created in some quarters of the community to reframe assimilation as merely an aspect of the “fluidity of Jewish identity.” According to this interpretation, individuals are only continuing their Jewish “journeys,” taking a “roundabout path” to a “common Judaism.” Jewish leaders eagerly embrace this language and proclaim that realism mandates a new approach. Or, as one nationally prominent Jewish leader publicly asked when challenging an advocate of Jewish in-marriage, “What world do you inhabit?”

We too advocate for a communal approach grounded in realism. Given the dismally high rates of intermarriage and the low percentage of interfaith families raising their children as Jews, it may satisfy some to shift the burden of responsibility to “the leadership of the community’s institutions” and to fantasize that if only that community would be more welcoming we would not sustain such losses. Others, perhaps, are motivated by a wish to provide a message of solace, promising parents of intermarried Jews that their grandchildren will identify as Jews if the Jewish community would only be more flexible and accommodating. But surely this wishful thinking is hardly realistic.

Survey research provides ample evidence of a yawning chasm separating in-married families from inter-married ones. The National Jewish Population Study of 2000-01 found that children raised by two Jewish parents are more than twice as likely as those in intermarried families to attend Jewish early-childhood programs, Jewish day camp or a Jewish youth group. They are more than four times as likely to attend a Jewish summer camp. While 32% of the in-married report their children are in day schools, fewer than 3% of the intermarried make this claim. Overall, three-quarters of children from in-married families are enrolled in formal Jewish education of any sort; and in families where a parent has converted to Judaism that figure reaches 80%. The comparable figure for the intermarried, by contrast, is just 18%.

In other words, a realistic approach requires us to acknowledge the pronounced differences between in-marrieds and mixed-marrieds. All too often, Jewish leadership looks at the Jewish community as an undifferentiated whole, concluding that assimilation is as likely an outcome as renewed Jewish engagement and that nothing can be done about mixed-marriage because it is inevitable in an open society. However, research data indicate that outcomes depend upon intensive Jewish commitments. In-married Jewish families are far more likely to raise committed Jewish adults than are the homes of the intermarried.

Even the report that prompted the Forward’s editorial, issued by the most pro-outreach organization on the communal map, substantiates the vast gap. Comparing 22- to 30-year-olds from in-married families with its own sample of people raised in intermarried families, the report found: 27% of the latter celebrated a bar/bat mitzvah compared to 70% of the former; 19% of the latter had been to Israel compared to 48% of the former; 9% of the latter claim that most or all their close friends are Jews compared to 39% of the former. As the report itself states: “There is little evidence that this population, in general, feels part of a larger Jewish community or feels connected to Jewish people around the world or in Israel.

It is certainly true that a minority of young people raised in intermarried families will identify as Jews. For the most part these are people whose parents raised them unambiguously as Jews, and those families merit communal encouragement for doing so. But it is a fantasy to imagine that only communal barriers are impeding the rest from building strong attachments to Jewish life.

What, then, should we do about the changes taking place in Jewish life? The following five-point program may serve as a guidepost for Jewish leaders anxious to confront current realities in constructive ways:

1) Jewish leaders need to speak with candor. The facts on the ground are sobering and there are few grounds to believe that long-term meaningful Jewish identity may be sustained in homes lacking an unambiguously Jewish orientation. It does no good to avoid such truths in the hope of providing personal or communal solace.

2) We must acknowledge realistically that when a mixed-marriage occurs with no immediate prospect of conversion to Judaism, raising a Jewish child will be very much an uphill struggle. At a minimum, it will require a commitment from both parents to raise their children as Jews. Symbolic commitments to a vague sense of Jewishness are no substitute for serious Jewish education and exclusively Jewish religious experiences. The embrace of a “half Jewish” identity or religious syncretism only undermines Jewish life. Reform Judaism’s leaders, to their credit, acknowledged this fact when they voted to bar children being raised even partially outside the Jewish faith from attending temple religious schools.

3) Precisely at a moment when the Jewish community is concerned about securing its future continuity, two positive goals stand in tension: inclusiveness and intensive Jewish content. Increasing Jewish content often is discomforting to those less sure-footed in their Jewishness. Conversely, an all-encompassing inclusivity easily dilutes the level of serious Judaic content. Leaders in every Jewish institution must ask themselves how Jewish they wish their synagogue or school to be and what price they are prepared to pay in pursuit of these desirable yet frequently dissonant communal goals.

4) Before adopting a “new outlook” we must recognize a number of basic realities: Only the Jews can promote endogamy among their own in an American society where marriages across religious and ethnic lines are celebrated; conversion to Judaism remains the single most positive outcome of a mixed-marriage; and, Jewish continuity will require parenting dedicated to raising children exclusively within the Jewish faith. These simple propositions provide a realistic approach to mixed-marriage, even if they give offense to individuals.

5) Jewish leadership has taken steps to reach out to diverse constituencies and to welcome the minority of mixed-marrieds interested in leading a Jewish life. Those efforts remain noteworthy. However, just as Jewish leaders attempt to respond realistically to the fact of mixed-marriage, they should be challenged similarly to support initiatives designed to promote in-marriage and conversion to Judaism. Both of those goals are endangered when the exclusive communal focus is on “welcoming the new Jews.”

Steven Bayme and Jack Wertheimer are founding members of the Jewish In-Marriage Initiative. Both teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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