The Debate is Over

Shaul Kelner, a Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University, takes Steven Cohen–and outreach advocates like ourselves, as well–down a notch with his wonderfully sensible op-ed for The Forward.

Essentially, he argues that debating over the value of outreach to the intermarried is misguided because in a pluralist Jewish world, there are spaces where outreach is promoted and there are spaces where it is shunned:

…one would and should expect that the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements will each adopt policies tailored to their particular constituencies and ideologies. The same goes for the federations, Jewish community centers and other agencies.

One size does not fit all. In practice, this is precisely what has been happening. Why, then, isn’t it reflected in the debates that play out in the press?

Ever since the so-called “continuity crisis” was declared in the early 1990s, intermarriage has been treated rhetorically as the hot-button boundary issue portending the demographic decline of American Jewry. Intermarriage has since become a normal part of most American Jews’ friendship and family networks, but the conceptual frameworks that policymakers and expert observers offer seem strangely frozen in time, as if the experience of the past 17 years has meant nothing.

It’s a valid point, one made by author Anita Diamant in an interview we did with her for the 200th issue of our Web Magazine. She said opposition to intermarriage is a rearguard action. In Reform synagogues and even many, if not most, Conservative synagogues, intermarriage is an accepted part of life, and non-Jewish partners are an accepted part of the community.

Kelner also makes the good point that prophets of doom and gloom have been predicting the decline of the American Jewish community for years and it still hasn’t happened:

In 1990, many read the famous, but exaggerated, 52% intermarriage rate as evidence that the community was collapsing. Instead of decline, the 1990s brought massive institutional growth: day schools, university Jewish studies programs, and even many of the family foundations whose investments of billions into Jewish life are helping set the communal agenda today. The Reform movement, the denomination where intermarriage is most common, did not face institutional decline but rather saw a 13% growth to 896 synagogues in 2007 from 790 in 1985.

And, he could also note, that the Reform movement grew in numbers from 1990 to 2000, as demographer Len Saxe argues in his latest study.

The (New York) Jewish Week Editor Gary Rosenblatt plants another flag for pluralism in his latest column on people who ask to cancel their subscription. One of the most common reasons people cancel is Julie Wiener’s monthly column on intermarriage. “Just about every time ‘In the Mix,’ Julie’s column, appears, a few subscribers cancel,” he says.

But that doesn’t change his resolve to keep publishing the column, he says, because “the way we see it, we simply are recognizing that intermarriage is here to stay–affecting the majority of Jewish families indirectly if not directly–and that our job is to report on the community as it is, not just as we would like it to be.”

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