What Israelis–and Americans?–need to know about intermarriage in North America

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed I wrote, What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America.

About a month ago I blogged about the MASA “Lost Jews” ad campaign, which implied that all of the 50% of young Jews outside of Israel who intermarried were assimilated and “lost.” This is a common misconception in the English-speaking Israeli press, and I called it “the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.” MASA is a great program that brings young adults to Israel for six months to a year, but promoting it as an antidote to intermarriage will alienate the 50% of young adults who have intermarried parents and who might potentially be attracted to the program.

The ad was pulled, reportedly at the direction of Natan Sharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel which controls the MASA program. The controversy even generated an article by Associated Press writer Amy Tweibel, which was widely distributed on newspaper websites all over the US, for example, on the San Francisco Examiner site.

Mr. Sharansky, who is a great hero of the Jewish people, reportedly said that it was important for Israelis to better understand North American Jewry, and vice versa. I thought that was a welcome idea, but then I got worried about who would be teaching Israelis about intermarriage in America, and what they would be told. That’s why I wrote the op-ed, because it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.

If the teaching ever takes place, I don’t know if I’m optimistic about the chances for a balanced presentation about intermarriage. I think that the Jewish Agency or MASA are likely to turn to Jewish thought leaders who hasten to view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish continuity. That’s the approach taken by Jack Wertheimer in a recent op-ed in the Forward, Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation.

I can’t tell whether fundamental attitudes about intermarriage have changed among Jews more generally. The recent case of the Feinbergs, who wrote into their will that any descendant who intermarried would be disinherited, is another example of deep-seated hostility towards intermarriage. My colleague Ruth Abrams blogged recently about the case, and our friend Julie Wiener quoted me in her column for the New York Jewish Week,
Does It Pay to Marry a Jew. Not only were the Feinbergs wrong to think they could deter their descendants from intermarrying, but they likely discouraged their descendants who did intermarry from engaging in the Jewish life that the Feinbergs wanted to preserve. In talking with Julie I expressed frustration at the apparent ongoing unwillingness to see intermarriage as an opportunity. Julie as I recall disagreed, saying the outcry over the MASA ad and its prompt undoing indicated that attitudes had become more favorable. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “What Israelis–and Americans?–need to know about intermarriage in North America

  1. Dear Ed:

    I think the outcry over the Masa ad, and the fact that your protest about it was given immediate publicity, and then the ad was withdrawn very quickly, spoke volumes.

    Ten years ago, the protests of interfaith family outreach leaders like yourself would have been noted, but not necessarily acted upon.

    So progress is occurring!

    Now, like yourself, I am dubious as to how Israeli outreach leaders might be taught about the Diaspora intermarried families — they are likely to hear from Jews who think intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.”

    But we can keep publicizing our own viewpoints and protesting when we see Israeli stuff like the Masa ad. It seems to be like we are starting to have a cumulative impact in a positive direction.

    I loved your response to the Masa ad.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    Half-Jewish Network
    http://www.half-jewish.net

  2. Many Jews supported the Masa ad but it wasn’t covered in the media.  I and many others called and wrote to Masa supporting the ad.  I was told that there were a lot more support than protests against it.  The ad didn’t necessarily focus on intermarriage but on assimilation and was correct about the outcome for the Jewish community.  Negative reaction to something gets more media coverage than positive reaction. 

    The Israeli leadership knows about intermarriage and the effect is has on the Jewish community.  It’s common sense that children raised in a family with two parents of the same faith have a stronger identity based on that faith, regardless of whether if the faith is Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

    Children of interfaith families should be fully welcomed in the Jewish community if they wish to identify as Jews or want to convert.  I just don’t agree with the attitude that intermarriage is the same thing as inmarriage and that it strengthens the Jewish community.  This isn’t true also for any other religious or cultural community.

  3. Just a postscript that the [url=http://www.jta.org]Jewish Telegraphic Agency[/url] included my op-ed as a “Featured Story” on October 26. You can find the JTA version [url=http://jta.org/news/article/2009/10/25/1008716/op-ed-what-israelis-need-to-know-about-intermarriage-in-north-america]here[/url].

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