Slate on the Intermarriage Debate

Lock and load

The prolific Shmuel Rosner gives Slate an overview of the latest exchanges of fire in the Jewish intermarriage wars. It’s nothing earth-shattering, covering studies that have been reported on elsewhere, but the opening anecdote nearly made my head explode. Rosner relays the story of a 30-something Jewish woman married to a Catholic man who walks into a Maryland synagogue:

Maybe, she asked the executive director of this temple, you have a Seder to which I can come with the kids, so that they’ll have a first positive exposure to Judaism?

But the executive director gave her advice she didn’t expect: If this is your children’s first encounter with Judaism, don’t start by bringing them to a Seder. It is long, can be boring at times, and requires a lot of reading. Better start their schooling in Judaism with a lighter practice.

I can’t imagine worse advice. As I wrote several years ago for the San Diego Jewish Journal, there is no better Jewish educational and outreach opportunity than the Passover seder. It takes place in one’s home, so it has none of the formality and austerity people associate with institutional settings. It involves food, which is the perfect carrot to entice newcomers (and not only does it involve food, it involves the two things kids most like to do with food: eating it, and playing with it). It encourages questioning and debate, which so many secular American adults–and children of all religious backgrounds–crave in their religion. Several activities–namely, the hunt for the afikoman and the Four Questions–are reserved exclusively for children. Numerous haggadahs are tailored for children and tell the Passover story in easily accessible terms, with lots of colorful pictures. What more could you want from a child’s first experience with Judaism?

What does the executive director suggest? Sending them to Hebrew school where they can go numb listening to poorly trained teachers and interacting with disinterested peers? Bringing them to High Holiday services, which are long, inaccessible, somber and formal? Perhaps he’s thinking of the frivolities of Purim, but even that doesn’t provide the comfort level of celebrating a holiday in someone’s home. About the only “lighter” activity I can think of is lighting candles on Hanukkah, but that doesn’t have the same sense of community that a big seder of family and friends provides.

Coming next week: an in-depth look at the latest intermarriage study, It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Intermarriage and Engagement, and sociologist Steven Cohen’s critical response to it at the conference of Reform rabbis last month.

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