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As much as intermarried couples face a struggle for acceptance from some U.S. Jews, the American Jewish community is easily the most enlightened in the world when it comes to responding constructively to intermarriage. Depending on what country you’re comparing the U.S. to, we either have a low rate of intermarriage–Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries have intermarriage rates far north of 50%–or a high one–countries where the Jewish community is dominated by the Orthodox, like Canada, South Africa and Turkey, have very low rates of intermarriage.
An article in the San Jose Mercury News (free login required) talks about how Reform worship is beginning to appear in Poland. It begins with the story of a woman who “was discouraged from joining Warsaw’s Orthodox Jewish community by one member because her husband isn’t Jewish.” The story continues to talk about intermarried Jews and children of intermarriage who don’t feel welcomed by the country’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is the only one officially recognized by the state.
The fact that the Orthodox Jewish community is the only officially recognized community is a problem throughout Europe. With less division between church and state than in the U.S., some Jewish communities in Europe actually receive funding from the state, which makes it that much harder for more progressive options, like Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Judaism, to gain a foothold. And without progressive options, intermarried couples have no place to go.
Unlike in the States, where many intermarried families feel the relatively equal tug between one partner’s Jewish heritage and the other partner’s Christian heritage, in the former Soviet Union, there is no Jewish family tradition that Jewish partners can draw from. Quite the reverse, in fact. While Jews were as atheistic and irreligious as everyone else under communism, they were still identified as Jewish on their identity cards and are now subject to anti-Semitism because of their Jewish identity. Even though they know little of Jewish culture or religion, the greater society regularly reminds them of their difference as Jews. So far, this kind of negative identity formation has helped strengthen some Jewish communities–nothing breeds brotherhood like a shared enemy–but it has also sapped the country of many of its wealthiest and best-educated Jews. How it will all turn out is anyone’s guess.
A wonderful first-person piece in the San Diego Jewish Journal has a slightly different take on intermarriage outside the U.S. It’s written by a young Jewish-Chinese man from the U.S. and records his experience on his first trip to Israel as part of the free birthright israel program.
Like other children of intermarriage, his attitude towards Israel is ambivalent, even in some cases bordering on hostile. Since his Judaism is not a central part of his identity, he has a hard time understanding why young people would stay in a country surrounded by enemies and subject to a universal draft. But seeing the way the country is bonded by tragedy helps him understand a little better what makes Israelis so tied to their country. Like Russia, nothing breeds brotherhood like a shared enemy.
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