Community’s Response to Intermarriage

Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.

I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”

Eisner’s conclusion?

We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.

And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.

Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.

How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.

A great point to start us off. He continues,

Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.

If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.

By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.

Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.

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3 thoughts on “Community’s Response to Intermarriage

  1. I read Jane Eisner’s and Dan Brotman’s articles and I have to say Jane offended me a bit. I am in an interfaith marriage but that’s not the end of being Jewish for me or my daughters. My husband and I are raising them Jewish and they identify that way. My older daughter at nine years old goes up on the bima at least three times every Friday night to read as my interfaith children are the only ones attending services while all the children with two Jewish parents stay home. I’ll admit, I feel I have to work harder to make sure my children feel Jewish as there is always the fear lurking in the back of my mind that they will choose their father’s religion when they get older. If I had married someone Jewish there would be no fear and less reason to work so being in an interfaith marriage has actually made me a better Jew in some ways. Marrying within your faith does not mean the Jewish religion will survive. Look at all the articles out there about Jewish people not belonging to any synagogue and raising their children without attending any type of Jewish school, whether it be a day school, yeshiva or after school Hebrew School program. Their children have less of a Jewish upbringning than mine do in an interfaith marriage. It depends on the people, not the marriage as to how the children will be raised and to believe anything else is very short sighted.

  2. Suzanne, I think what you said, “Marrying within your faith does not mean the Jewish religion will survive,” is a great point for folks to remember. Technically kids will be Jewish, yes, but that does not automatically mean there will be any practice/knowledge. As you demonstrate, many intermarried couples make more of an effort to teach/share Judaism with their kids to ensure there’s a connection because of the additional hurdle (intermarriage). Like you, they become active in their Jewish communities.

  3. Thank you to Dan Brotman for speaking up for all of us non-Jewish partners who have agreed to let our children be raised Jewish to honor our partner’s religious identity and beliefs. It is an antidote to Eisner’s words, which (like those of others who feel the same way) make me question why I would ever agree to raise my children in a religion that rejects fully practicing and believing Jews just because one parent isn’t Jewish. If I only heard the words of Eisner et al, I would have never have agreed to give up my entire religious and cultural background and be treated as a second class citizen, only to be vilified even AFTER I am working daily to raise two Jewish children. Talk about a slap in the face. Thanks a lot, Ms. Eisner. Message received.

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