Question: Can Jews Encourage In-Marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families

A proposal I made for a workshop at the annual convention of the Jewish Federations of North America has been accepted. In November, I will be speaking before an audience of important Jewish leaders on this question: Can We Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families? The session will involve presentations by me and my ideological nemesis, Steven M. Cohen, and then responses by some of the top federation executives in the country – Barry Shrage from Boston, Jay Sanderson from Los Angeles and Steve Rakitt from Atlanta. The panel will be moderated by Alisa Doctoroff, Chair of the UJA Federation of New York.

I’ve decided to seek help in shaping my presentation from InterfaithFamily.com’s community of readers. I have fifteen minutes to convey our position on a complicated question. I don’t want to spend a lot of time citing statistics, I want to tell stories – your stories – about how expression of preference for in-marriage affects interfaith couples. So please post your comments below.

I’d like to give three reference points for background. In an article I wrote for IFF then years ago, How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating, I basically took the position that it was OK for Jews to say the following to young adults: We would like to see you live a Jewish life; if you want to, the statistics show that your chances are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish; it is possible, but it isn’t so easy, to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage. I’ve also said many times that it is not OK for Jews to say that intermarriage is wrong, or bad, or a violation of Jewish norms, because that message won’t deter the half of young adults who will intermarry anyway, but it will deter them from engaging Jewishly because people won’t go where they feel disapproval. So I’ve said in the past that it is possible to encourage in-marriage, but only in a very careful and limited way.

Recently Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, took the position that Jewish leaders should fully shed the preference for in-marriage. He said that “preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families. You simply cannot say, ‘We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another.’” Paul did add, however, that “This is not to say that we can’t discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I’m talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.”

Finally, I blogged recently about a report that  Steven M. Cohen had said that Jews and Jewish organizations are already plenty welcoming of interfaith couples. In response, I received a very powerful message from an individual that I posted on the blog (scroll down to July 21, 2010 comment). Here is part of what she said:

For all practical purposes, I am the ideal interfaith partner. I gave into everything, gave up all the religious traditions of my family and my childhood, and accepted that I was always going to be fundamentally different and separate from my children. And yet, the message that I get is that it is never enough, that I am simply wrong for not being Jewish, and I am a threat and a second class citizen. When I hear rabbis stress the evils of interfaith marriage in synagogue, how does Dr. Cohen think I feel? How do my children feel, knowing that their father was considered wrong, and that he married an unacceptable person? Is it so much to ask that yes, they soft pedal the admonitions and prejudice against intermarriage, given that we are advocating and living Jewish choices?

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Should Jews and Jewish leaders fully shed the preference for in-marriage because it is not possible to welcome the non-preferred intermarried? Or is it possible to state a preference and still be welcoming – and if so, how? And if you were the person with fifteen minutes to make our case, what would you say?

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7 thoughts on “Question: Can Jews Encourage In-Marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families

  1. I don’t think that you can make blanket statements about it being easier to raise Jewish children with two Jewish parents.

    My husband is a practising Christian. He agreed to raise our children Jewish. He’s informed about Judaism, keeps a kosher kitchen and is currently working out the logistics of how to build our sukkah. He’s willing to limit his career options because we need to always live within walking distance of a shul.

    My husbands best friend is Jewish. He thinks that all religion is nonsense, loves bacon and hasn’t been to shul since his bar mitzvah.

    Which one would it be easier to raise Jewish children with?

  2. It’s the same thought process wherein we say that no matter the color of skin, everyone should be treated the same and we are equal, but one expresses the view/opinion that only one race is really tolerable.

    And even if the non-Jew were to convert, then you get slammed with how Jewish is that person still and whether their conversion is valid.  When does it end?  It is time to just push all that nonsense aside and just preach the goodness and openness that Judaism is and everyone, Jew or non-Jew, will be welcome.

  3. I have always said when it comes to talking intermarriage, we should almost treat it like drug prevention (bear with me).  In drug prevention there are two strategies used:  one to hopefully stop young people from using drugs, then there is harm reduction – a strategy that minimizes the harm associated with drugs.  THis includes things like needle exchange sites.  

    I know the Jewish community wants to think prevention, but the fact is, there are some of us already intermarried, some of us who even have kids.  So what’s the problem with a little outreach to those who are intermarried to help raise Jewish families.  And it seems to me, there are a huge number of interfaith families who would bemore than willing to raise their kids Jewish, if only they had a little help.  

    I think its insulting to write us off.  I’ve already been handed that card when trying to convert an adopted child.  I was told no way, as long as my husband isn’t Jewish.  The rabbi said, the child wouldn’t be raised very Jewish in that environment.  I said um, hello?  I am OBSERVANT.  I keep Kosher with my husband.  I keep Shabbat.  

    He was suprised.  Basically gave me a “good for you” and still said no.  

    So where does that leave me?  

  4. Because of my interfaith marriage, I believe I live a more Jewish life.  I always felt it was important to raise Jewish children and, because my husband cannot impart knowledge of Judaism and knowing that I carry the primary responsibility, I have educated myself and my children about Jewish practice to a far greater extent than I would otherwise.  I am also motivated by the knowledge that it would be extremely unfair to ask my husband (1) to raise his children as Jewish and (2) not pass on his religious traditions, if I was not going to actually encourage Jewish practice.  

    We have sent our children to Jewish pre-school, we have started saying Shabbat blessings on Friday nights, and we are sending our older child to a Reform Jewish Day School.  I am a leader in our synagogue.  I don’t think I would have done any of these things if I had married a Jewish man.  I certainly didn’t observe to this extent when I was a child (with two Jewish parents).

    I have to say I am mostly confused about why there is a need to encourage in-marriage rather than encourage Jewish choices in raising a family.  Isn’t the concern about interfaith marriage that there will be fewer Jews?  If children are raised Jewishly, then I can’t see that the preference for in-marriage is anything but discriminatory.  Is there any other reason?

  5. I also wanted to comment on your readers comment about being in shul.  My husband and i have sat through too 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 please put up with the insults will be throwing your way about your marriage. 

    The worst was being invited to a lunch by an observant couple.  One of the guests started talking about intermarriage and eventually blurted out, “when the Nazis couldn’t kill us in the camps, they married us instead”.  Woh.  My husband being compared to of all people – a Nazi??  Our host graciously explained who we were, although this person (who actually happens to be the wife of a retired Rabbi) didn’t actually apologize. 

  6. First and foremost, you look for a kind, intelligent, caring, loving partner, who is a contributing member of society. But with all those things assumed and equal, how can it not be easier for both parents to be the same religion? One spouse must take second seat, (even if very minimally) must learn many new practices, and ideas( even very minimally  – becasue we have already assume they are functioning caring involved parent and spouse), will be on occaision insulted (however easy going), may be emotionally alone during life traumas (but of course not phsyicially, becasue the interfaith spouse will be there)….

    I could go on and on. PLus throw in, inlaws, friends, soceity…..

    I see life through the prisim of G-D and religion. Our paths toward G-d may differ, but they are firmly focused towards g-d. But the intracacies of life throw so many bumps in the road, any and all differences can cause conflict. Another religion, another different fundamental way of looking at life will create however small another source for conflict. Marriage is a remarkable state of being (21 years), but also hard work, why make it tougher?

    I am the non jewish partner (Catholic), having raised two girls, exclusively jewish. I would prefer them to marry someone jewish, (even better jewish from an interfaith marriage). Why? Marriage is hard, like everything  worth waiting for, but why stack the deck. Am I predigoius? I don’t think so . I also tell them, seek someone with similar level of education, similar hobbies, simialar engery levels…

    I think it is perfectly acceptable to promote in- marriage, but work towards greater acceptance of interfaiths. Having said that I think couples do need to choose. Choose one and stick with it… The whole “exposure” thing is either, the failure to come to compromise, which doesn’t say much for the couple’s relationship, or apathy. And if it’s apathy, then why get to hot and bothered?

  7. Community and Judaism go hand in hand.  We cannot practice our religion in isolation.  Just like in any good relationship, love, respect, committment and acceptance are qualities that hold a Jewish community together and also grow it.

    I live in a small Jewish community in a somewhat isolated location in Canada, which has a number of interfaith families.  Some individuals in my community also have this negative attitude towards non-Jewish partners and parents.  This attitude seems to be motivated more by fear of change and the familiar than anything else.  Unfortunately, if left unchecked this negative attitude will eventually be the death knell of our community.

    People need to understand (especially the rabbinical community) that if the non-Jewish partner chooses to respect and support the Jewish partner’s beliefs and lifestyle, they deserve the community’s respect, acceptance and support.  If the non-Jewish parent is committed to their childrens’ Jewish education and Jewish upbringing, they deserve the community’s respect, acceptance and support.

    It’s time to get rid of the double standard and put everyone on a level playing field.

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