The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
I am a non-Jewish person who works for a Jewish organization. How do I politely tell my bosses and other colleagues how offensive I find their focus (un-Godly obsession?) on battling intermarriage? In my opinion it’s pretty much racist to focus on who anyone else should date or marry — and I would never tell my own child to do so.
If I was working with regular white people (or blacks or Puerto Ricans) who constantly discussed the need for their children or other members of their community to only date or marry within that community, I would tell them to keep their bigoted opinions to themselves. Why is it any different for Jews? Why do they think it’s at all appropriate to reveal their biases like that?
I find it especially disturbing since they are extremely liberal in most ways and even laud the ‘diversity’ in our neighborhoods and even within the Jewish community. How can you be a fan of diversity while fiercely fighting the relationships that boost that diversity. What hypocrites!
—Befuddled in Brooklyn
What If it Were Native Americans Asking These Questions?
SCOTT PERLO: Befuddled, before you go back to your bosses in Brooklyn, we need to talk. I can tell you, in one sentence, why the Jews with whom you work are concerned about intermarriage:
We are afraid of disappearing.
Jews are 2% of the population of the United States; we are 0.2% population of the world: 1.2 billion Catholics, 1.6 billion Muslims, 500 million Buddhists…13.9 million Jews.
There’s an argument to be made about just how worried we should be (and we do argue about it, incessantly); however, when you’re a 0.2% minority of anything, some anxiety is legitimate.
After a few generations of the new reality of intermarriage we have learned a thing or two. First, many interfaith families are vital members of Jewish communities. Second, it is statistically less likely for them to raise children who will identify as Jewish adults. That, combined with a low birth rate, makes us a bit nervy about the future.
It’s interesting that you refer to us in contrast with “regular white people.” Many Jews benefit plenty from white privilege – I’m one of them. But about half of us are from Africa, Iran, Iraq, Uzbekhistan and Afghanistan, Yemen – the list goes on.
It’s interesting that you assume that concerns over intermarriage come from bias towards others. But what if your coworkers aren’t biased, but are trying to preserve something precious, ancient, and a little fragile? I have to ask you: if Native Americans, 0.9% of Americans, focused on marrying within their communities to preserve their ways of life, would that discredit claims to value diversity or liberal credentials?
Before you call them hypocrites, ask yourself: do you think their focus on Jewish marriage comes from negative attitudes towards other kinds of people? I’ll put money on the answer being no. Are they trying to make sure that only the oldest cultures/religions/nationalities still around has a strong future? I’ll put money on that answer too.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
As a Happily Non-Jewish Intermarried Man, I Get Where They Are Coming From
HALLOCK SVENSK: As a happily inter-married man, I’m glad my wife’s parents and the other Jews in her life were not battling intermarriage (though I doubt they would have won in any case) and were open to welcoming a lanky goy into their lives, home and family. That said, in coming to appreciate the importance of Judaism to my wife’s sense of who she is, I’m also glad that there is a strong Jewish community that is capable of nurturing that part of her life (now our life) and I recognize that creating a Jewish sense of identity requires having others around you who are invested in that goal as well. One of the paradoxes of diversity is that in order to have truly distinct views, perspectives, beliefs you need pockets of (relative) homogeneity where those views can be cultivated.
In that context, I am sympathetic to the concern of Jews who worry about Judaism - as a minority religion/culture - continuing as a strong and vibrant tradition and who see Jewish couples and Jewish families as the strongest way to perpetuate and uphold its traditions. If the goal is wanting to honor and maintain certain traditions, I don’t see a problem with encouraging someone to find a partner who is willing to undertake that project with them and who is committed to those traditions, and I wouldn’t consider that to be a racist goal. Obviously, having married a Jewish person, I have made a commitment to upholding those traditions which are not historically my own and believe a non-Jew can do a respectable job of it, but I don’t begrudge people who disagree with me on that.
Hallock Svensk grew up in New England and now lives in California. His wife is Jewish and half-Chinese.
Explain to Your Boss that the Real Problem Isn’t Intermarriage
JODI BROMBERG: Oy. I won’t defend your bosses’ and colleagues’ negative views about battling intermarriage. Like you, I agree that their views are outdated and unproductive.
How to respond? You could try and explain that the battle is not intermarriage, and talk about the interfaith families you know that are living vibrant, Jewish lives and making significant and meaningful contributions. You could also talk about how more people would be interested in Judaism and making Jewish choices—including the growing population of interfaith couples—if they focused the conversation on the value and meaning of Jewish practices, rather than on who people love.
Your bosses and colleagues may not “hear” what you’re saying, given that you are not Jewish, but I encourage you to open a dialogue. The problem is that they have the notion that ifonly Jews would marry other Jews, our quest for a continued vibrant Jewish community would be assured. You might mention that that’s unrealistic, given that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry a partner outside of the Jewish faith.
Your bosses and colleagues don’t see that the real battle is with disengagement—Jews who don’t see the value and meaning that Jewish practices can add to their and their partners’ lives, and find their spiritual needs met through sessions at their local yoga studio, or their desire for community met through a Mommy-and-me group.
Encourage them to reframe the conversation: to focus on showing the relevance of Judaism in today’s world in a way that resonates. Explain that when they focus the conversation on who people marry, instead of communicating the value of Judaism, they’re alienating the very people—like you, Befuddled—who might be most interested in that message.
Jodi Bromberg is the president and incoming CEO of InterfaithFamily, whose mission is to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and move Jewish communities to welcome them.
Your Intermarriage Obsession Is Just So Offensive