When I first considered producing a documentary about Leah Welbel, a woman who survived nearly three years in the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau, I envisioned a film about her courage and tenacity. However, after spending more time with Leah and her family, the film's director, Lisa Leeman, and I quickly realized that Leah and her family were dealing not only with the residual trauma of her and her Survivor husband's experiences during the Shoah, but also with probably the most crucial issue facing the Jewish community today--assimilation through interfaith marriage. The interfaith marriages of two of Leah's grandchildren had broken her heart. And the conflicts that arose from Leah's frankness on the issue threatened to rip her family apart.
Early on in production, I agreed with Lisa that we would present the conflict regarding interfaith marriage in the Welbel family in as balanced a manner possible. Although Lisa will speak for herself in the counterpart to this essay, my reason for presenting a balanced consideration of this issue stemmed from my desire not to alienate people by lecturing them. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not admit that I do want Out of Faith to motivate those who would normally not contemplate their individual roles in our collective survival to begin to do so. More precisely, I would like people, at a minimum, to recognize that if we care about the future of Judaism, we can only accomplish this through the creation of strong, two Jew unions.
However, prior to considering why we should each marry within our faith, it is completely appropriate to ask two questions: First, is interfaith marriage in fact leading to a decreased number of those who identify as Jewish? Does the evidence support the proposition that the Jewish population is shrinking precipitously? And second, if the evidence does support this proposition, does it really matter?
As space for this essay is limited, I will not spend a great deal of energy arguing that which should be obvious to even the most casual observers. If the comprehensive National Jewish Population Surveys do not convince you, just ask yourself how many Jews you know personally who are, for all intents and purposes, Jewish in name only? And of how many families do you know where none of the children have married Jews? Feel free to present me with evidence you feel suggests our community is not decreasing, let alone not growing proportionally with the national population.
The second question--does it even matter if we intermarry out of existence--is extremely important, but rarely considered. If our definition of Judaism is having Chinese food and going to the movies on Christmas Day and just “not being Christian,” why would it matter if we go the way of the dodo bird? I do not mean to be flippant. If we truly have nothing to offer the world, and there is no greater purpose in our being Jewish, is it not merely a bigoted tribalism that compels us to believe we should persevere as a distinct people when so many other ethnic groups have already lost nearly their entire cultural uniqueness? Because for all our warts, being just an American, and not a hyphenated one, is still pretty special.
Further, Judaism cannot merely be about honoring the memory of those lost in the Holocaust and supporting Israel. Jews should do both, but it is not enough to justify limiting one's pool of potential soulmates by several magnitudes--Leah unfortunately learns this the hard way in our film. Anti-Semitism, whether it manifests itself in Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism, or in some other way, cannot keep people Jewish, especially given that our society is the least anti-Semitic in history. As Alan Dershowitz states in his important book, The Vanishing American Jew, “Today's most serious threats [to American Jewry] come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness.”
So why be Jewish then? How about to preserve our special relationship with God? To mention God sends many Jews running. To mention Torah and mitzvot (commandments) makes these same people roll their eyes in condescending disapproval. However, without recognizing the predominance faith plays in Judaism, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sacred nature of marriage and justify any real reason for INTRAmarriage. Only when we honor the religious component of marriage can we begin to recognize why marrying someone of the same faith matters. Generally, we have denigrated the importance of the two-parent family in our society to our great peril. Jews are infected with this same disease. By reconnecting marriage with its spiritual significance, perhaps we can take great strides toward eliminating our precipitous fall into demographic insignificance.
In our secularly dominated society, it is difficult enough to instill Jewish values with two strongly identified Jewish parents, let alone with only one. Nearly everything in the Diaspora in which we live--the media, the public education system (although I am a strong advocate of Jewish day school education, not all can afford it, unfortunately), and the non-Jewish symbols everywhere--work against our efforts to instill in our children a sense of how important is their “Jewishness.” So if it does indeed “take a village,” the village isn't Jewish.
A strong family core is essential. So although I applaud the efforts many make to compensate for the fact that the deck is stacked against us, or to motivate “half-Jewish” families to explore and enhance their Jewish experiences, it is like trying to cure cancer with a Band-Aid. Yes, do what we can to bring people back into the tent, but if we have any chance at a meaningful survival, we need to concern ourselves more with how to keep people from leaving the tent in the first place.
To read a story and review of Out of Faith, click here. For Director Lisa Leeman's perspective, click here.