The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
This article was published in Jewish newspapers including the New York Jewish Week, j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, and the Philadelphia Exponent, and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Until recently, most of us would have been hard pressed to imagine a presidential candidate other than Joe Lieberman raising Jewish kids. Yet here comes Howard Dean, married to a Jewish woman, raising two Jewish children. And the American Jewish community, always quick to criticize interfaith marriages, has expressed noticeable interest... and pride.
Despite the Jewish community's talk about interfaith marriages being responsible for the wholesale extinction of American Jewry, Howard Dean and his Jewish family have become folk heroes. He is the non-Jewish presidential candidate who can light Hanukkah candles, follow a synagogue service, and recite the schecheyanu (Jewish blessing of thanks); and he has learned it all from his wife and kids. Although raised an Episcopalian, Dean has made the choice to raise his children Jewish and has done so at the expense of his own faith tradition.
Whatever celebrity cachet might be attached to this potentially presidential interfaith marriage, Dean and his wife Judith Steinberg are part of a growing trend in the Jewish community in America. So, if it's possible to raise Jewish children in an interfaith home, and the success stories are present, shouldn't the Jewish community be applauding the families who are dedicating their lives to Judaism? Shouldn't they be welcoming intermarried Jewish families in the same way they are welcoming Dean and his yiddishe mishpokhe, Jewish family?
Take Marie Cohen, for instance. Marie, her husband, and their three daughters (all non-celebrities) live in Atlanta, GA, belong to a synagogue, and live a Jewish life. Marie has never converted and in fact is still a practicing Catholic, yet she is raising three unambiguously Jewish children. She gave up instilling her own faith tradition in her daughters because, "my husband just knew his kids had to be Jewish ... I knew I just wanted my kids to believe in God and have a sense of morals and values."
Marie has dedicated herself to becoming a great Jewish parent, enrolling in educational classes and participating in "Building Blocks: The Aleph-Bet of Creating a Jewish Home"--an Atlanta-based program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. This special program, facilitated by Debbie Antonoff, a Jewish educator, and sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute, seeks to aid the non-Jewish spouses of interfaith marriages in making Jewish homes, families, and lives. And yet for all of Marie's hard work, the Jewish community does not praise her or applaud her for putting three more Jews into the world. Instead, she is quietly ignored or written off as an unusual exception to the intermarriage rule.
Although there has never been any large-scale organized campaign from the Jewish community to welcome them, one third of intermarried families are already raising exclusively Jewish children. They do so despite enduring slights--unintended or purposeful--from rabbis, in-laws, communal professionals, as well as members of the synagogue community.
Of course it is true that too many intermarried households--like too many Jews in general--have opted out of the Jewish community. But among the intermarried families that opt in, we see newcomers to our tradition who bring fresh perspectives and new experiences. And it is often they--and not their Jewish spouses--who are most interested in exploring what Judaism has to offer. By ignoring them, the community misses a tremendous opportunity.
If we can praise intermarried "celebs" who raise Jewish children, why is it so difficult to praise our own family members, neighbors, or close friends who do so? Like pulling down Lenin statues in old Communist Bloc nations, it's time for the organized Jewish community to tear down the long-disproved notion that "all intermarriages are bad for the Jews." Yet so many of our leaders are gripped by fear, plain and simple... that any positive acknowledgement of an intermarriage will somehow open the floodgates--as if those floodgates haven't been open for more than two decades already!
The messages we as a community send to intermarried families will have a profound impact on the future of American Jewry. We need to commend the non-Jewish spouses in intermarried households who are making the choice to raise Jewish children. We should give the impression that you can mean something to the Jewish community even if you are not on TV or campaigning for high political office. If you are making a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, you are the reason the Jewish community will prosper. It's time we put down our guard, realized the potential of this important population, and got behind these remarkable families! Perhaps a Jewish intermarried First Family is what's needed to finally wake up the community to this reality.