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Accepting the Gift of Interfaith Marriage

Remarks at the World Union of Progressive Judaism convention, February 9, 2011.

Is it true that lots of intermarrieds have lost or thrown away their connection to Judaism in the past? Yes, it is. Is it also true that many liberal congregations have active, passionate members who are intermarried? Yes, this is also true.

Intermarriage can be either bad for the Jews, or good for the Jews. The future is up to us and what we do next.

What is absolutely true is that intermarriage rates are high and will continue to be high because one Jewish dream has come true: we are now equals in society. As Professor Marc Dollinger has explained, intermarriage signals the success of reaching a Jewish goal, not a failure. It is the result of Jewish equality in American society. The only way it will stop happening, Dollinger says, is if Jews are considered less equal than non-Jews. And that is not a goal we are pursuing!

Let's be clear. This success gives us an opportunity. With 50% of Jewish young adults choosing partners from other religions, the Jewish community is standing at a tipping point. We could lose more Jewish families or we could also gain more families. It depends on which way we tilt.

Let me explain how the 50% intermarriage rate will impact every community. For any group of twenty teenagers, there can only be a maximum of fifteen marriages/partnerships. Why? Because 50% of the teens, that is ten of them, will intermarry while only five endogamous Jewish-Jewish marriages can be created by the other ten teens as they marry/partner with each other. At that rate, two thirds of the next generation's marriages will be intermarriages.

If the Jewish community welcomes in half of those couples, our numbers will be stabilized. If we welcome in more than half, the Jewish community will grow.

If the Jewish community does not extend a sincere welcome to these couples, the loss will be compounded by the loss of their children and, all too often, their parents as supporters and contributors to our synagogues. Excluding intermarried children will turn their parents away from the Jewish community.

The demographic loss, while significant, is not the only loss the Jewish community will suffer, for the community will also lose the insights, the energy and the potential commitment to Jewish causes of three generations.

The Jewish community of tomorrow will surely judge our decisions today.

There are many stories about exceptional interfaith couples on InterfaithFamily.com that relate how partners who have not converted to Judaism contribute to religious school boards, to Jewish social action activities and to the support of Israel. There can be many, many more people like this in every Jewish community. It only needs commitment to be welcoming and inclusive.

Can these families really raise educated Jewish children? Yes, they can and they will if communities offer them support. In Boston and in San Francisco, where there have been intensive outreach programs that welcome interfaith couples, where synagogues put energy and sensitivity into recognizing the needs of interfaith couples, over 60% of interfaith families are rearing Jewish children.

The Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in their study, It's Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage, shows definitively that it was not whether the parents of young adults were Jewish or intermarried that determined their identity and practice, but whether the Jewish parent had positive, rich Jewish experiences in their home, at camp or in a youth group. If we insure that our young adults have these experiences, they will want to continue their Jewish life with whomever they marry. And if we make it clear that they and their partner will be fully accepted in our synagogues, they will want to be in our communities.

But can the children of interfaith marriages be serious Jews, committed Jews, leaders for the next generation? Yes, they can and already are. We have rabbis, cantors, educators and federation leaders who all grew up in interfaith families already involved today. They are living proof of what the Steinhardt Institute study tells us.

Pretty much every non-Orthodox family is touched by intermarriage in either nuclear or extended family. The Jewish community needs to make room in the extended family of Judaism for the partners of our relatives. An easy place to begin is with an explicit statement: "interfaith families welcome here."

Every synagogue and Jewish organization should have that sign — real or figurative — on its door. Today, that means on the home page of your organization's website. The internet is the central clearing house of all connections and information where young adults search for everything. As the premier website for interfaith searchers, with over 420,000 visitors last year, the InterfaithFamily.com Network should be part of every synagogue's set of connections and resources.

A major change in Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage is necessary. It is time to put an end to talks with titles such as "Intermarriage: The Greatest Threat to Jewish Continuity" and begin talking about "Intermarriage: The Unacknowledged Gift to Jewish Continuity."

It is not only a gift because these marriages increase our numbers, it is a gift because often it is the non-Jewish partner who pushes the Jewish partner back into the Jewish community with their curiosity about Judaism and their clear sense that a family needs a religion. And they give us the priceless gift of helping to raise Jewish children. They give up introducing the religious holidays and customs of their childhood to their children. They take on the formidable task of learning the history, customs and rituals of Judaism to support and encourage their children in its ways. And they get little acknowledgement or gratitude, and in large measure become invisible and unrecognized links in the chain of Jewish continuity instead. But they are a link in that chain.

Too often the interfaith couples who are raising Jewish children are hearing messages like this one that we were told recently:

My husband and I have been to many lectures, where we were openly welcomed, but the speaker eventually had to put in their two cents about intermarriage…. being bad, bad, bad. So on one hand we're welcomed into the event, but on the other hand, we are expected to put up with insults about our marriage.

Instead of expressing gratitude to these couples, we ignore them and talk about interfaith couples who have not joined synagogues and who do not raise Jewish children — as if this were the only choice being made by interfaith couples.

Only when the Jewish community stops compartmentalizing all interfaith couples in one box and recognizes that there are many interfaith couples who want to be part of the Jewish community and many others who might make that choice if the community were more welcoming, only then will we have a true realization of the gift we are being offered.

The goal of continuity does not need to be connected to in-marriage. We need to talk to our children about staying connected to Judaism with whatever partner they choose. What we all really want is Jewish grandchildren whose love of Judaism mirrors or exceeds our own love of Judaism. What we really want is for Judaism to continue in our families for generations.

A story:

Leaving the office on my first day working for interfaith outreach in San Francisco, I met a man in his 70's who struck up a conversation with me at a bus stop in that friendly San Francisco way. He asked me what I did for a living and I took a risk and expressed my passionate stand for interfaith outreach.

When he heard about my work, he told me this story: "My father was a Jew. When I was 12, I wanted very much to be a bar mitzvah but when my dad took me to the neighborhood rabbi, he threw us out saying I couldn't be in their school because my mother was Catholic. All my life I've had best friends and girlfriends who were Jewish and have always been drawn to Jewish people."

By this time we were both hanging from straps in the crowded #45 bus. When I looked up at him, I saw that his eyes were shiny with tears. He leaned in close to me and whispered, "I've always wanted to think of myself as a half Jew. Do you think that would be all right?"

It was standing room only in the noisy rush hour crowd so I leaned close and said directly into his ear, "No, you're not a half Jew, you're a whole Jew!"
Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles.
Karen Kushner

Karen Kushner is a consultant to, and past Chief Education Officer for, InterfaithFamily. She is known for the workshops, trainings and booklets of the Jewish Welcome Network, which provided outreach consultation and resource to synagogues, Jewish schools and agencies of all denominations and affiliations.

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