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There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forward’s Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language – when in-marriage “fails.” Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So let’s focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, let’s encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, You’re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen – until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage – espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, you’re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion — who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a brit milah, who shep naches at their daughters’ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation — we say welcome. It’s a pleasure to know you. Come learn. You’re one of us if you want to be.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.