Is Intermarriage Worse Than Bernie Madoff?

Jonathan Tobin is a fiercely intelligent, exceptionally eloquent Jewish journalist who was recently appointed editor of Commentary, an esteemed conservative (small-c) Jewish magazine. I would be a big fan, if it weren’t for his equally fierce, equally exceptional retrograde politics on Jewish issues. Intermarriage, unsurprisingly, is one of his favorite bugbears.

In his first op-ed as editor of Commentary, Tobin makes the remarkable argument that intermarriage and assimilation are bigger villains than Bernard Madoff. Moreover, he says, the whole notion of marketing Judaism to Jews “on the fringe”–the “outreach model”–has been a failure. Therefore, in this brave new world of shrunken philanthropic resources, Jewish givers should abandon outreach and focus only on inreach, like Jewish day camps, day schools and the like.

This all sounds quite reasonable–if only his key assumption were true. “Outreach” has become a buzzword in the Jewish world over the last 20 years, but talk and treasure are two very different things. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all Jewish charitable funding goes to outreach to the intermarried. It’s hard to see how that pittance of an investment could be considered a “failure,” as Tobin calls it. It’s like working out once a year for 10 years and then giving up exercise because you haven’t lost any weight. No payin’, no gain.

Moreover, the dichotomy between outreach and inreach is a false one. Take Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program that has sent more than 200,000 young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel. Studies have shown that young Jews come back from the trips with a greater attachment to Israel and Judaism. More than a few birthright romances have led to marriage. Is birthright inreach because it’s helped Jews marry Jews, or outreach because it’s brought “fringe Jews” into the fold? What about Jewish camping scholarships? Are those inreach or outreach? With a few small exceptions–including our website, which consumes an exceptionally small piece of the multi-billion-dollar Jewish philanthropic pie–the distinction between outreach and inreach has become meaningless.

The Madoff scandal and stockmarket collapse will necessarily force Jewish givers to prioritize their funding, and stop funding causes deemed less essential. Reaching unaffiliated and intermarried Jews should not be one of them.

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5 thoughts on “Is Intermarriage Worse Than Bernie Madoff?

  1. I don’t know if i agree or disagree with this commentary. I’m intermarried, and we live a very Jewish life. We go to synagogue, have our children in a Jewish school, and we celebrate the Jewish holidays all year long, yet I feel like I am part of a very very small minority among intermarried couples. Most of the other intermarried parents I know were at most, marginally connected to Judaism before marrying outside of their faith, and now that their husband/wife is non-Jewish, they have basically assimilated to the point where there is virtually nothing distinguishably Jewish about them– they might light a menorah or spin a dreidel once a year and go to a very abridged Passover Seder, but that’s pretty much the extent of their practice of Judaism. If anything, most of the interfaith families I have seen, make much more of a big deal about X-mas and then label it as a “secular celebration”.
    While I applaud the work interfaithfamily.com is doing in order to bring more intermarried families into the fold, I do wonder if it is worth it. When I find myself as one of the only intermarried families considering a Jewish day school for our children, or see my intermarried friends’ “holiday cards” and facebook pictures containing their children in front of a Christmas tree, with not a single nod towards the Jewish holidays, I have to wonder if I’m part of a very small minority. I want to believe that there are many other intermarried couples out there who have a strong commitment to raising Jewish children, but other than a few of the articles I read on this website, I don’t see too many out there.

  2. GGF,

    We are out there. I don’t know where you live, but my Hubby and I found a Conservative synagogue with about 25-33% intermarried couples. Most of us are pretty involved. It’s not always easy. Keep working on it.

    –Phaco

  3. I think that it is a false dichotomy to assume that all intermarried Jews are on the ‘fringe’ of Judaism. However, sometimes Jewish institutions actively inhibit our ability to be fully integrated into the community. I would love to send my children to Jewish schools, but at the moment most of the Jewish schools in my country (England) wouldn’t accept my children. There’s a bit of circular logic going on whereby interfaith couples are defined as being on the fringe, refused access to certain institutions and services because of this, and then their lack of participation is used to prove that they are not actively Jewish.

  4. While Yonah Tobin may feel that the efforts at Jewish outreach to unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples have been a dismal failure, my opinion is that it’s not outreach per se that is at fault, but its methodology.

    All efforts so far at outreach have been towards showing the world our unique cultural context, our culinary expertise, our unique lifestyle or our varied liturgical customs.

    While of tangential value, these efforts are largely misdirected. First and formost our faith, the Jewish faith, is about G-d. Leave out our personal relationship with G-d and you have at root nothing.

    While all the varied activities surrounding outreach may showcase parts of our Jewish milieau, the act of becoming and being a Jew is not the result of an ethical choice, nor about the pursuit of a lofty ideal, but the result of an encounter with G-d, an encounter whose result is a new direction for one’s life and a changed horizon.

    Our faith is largely about countering the urges of human pride and egoism, and together with the assistance and inspiration of G-d, to leave off from creating division, and building walls of indifference, hate and violence between each other.

    One’s encounter with that Transcendent hand makes hearts capable of understanding the languages of all, reestablishing the bridge of authentic communication between one’s fellows, earth, heaven and G-d.

    It is this facet of our faith which should be showcased first, and everything else should be of secondary concern.

  5. What a refreshing viewpoint. You’re so right, rabbi. But so many efforts by the organized Jewish community at reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples miss this central point, instead attempting to promote our faith’s unique liturgical milieau, or our culinary excellence, or our devotional constructs. They’ve put the cart before the horse. Without first experiencing and building a relationship with God, you don’t have Judaism, you have emptiness.

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