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Help the Intermarried Keep Israel Strong (/June 2002)

By Terry Elkes, President, Jewish Outreach Institute

The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program ( www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org ). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

As president of an outreach organization that promotes Jewish choices among the intermarried, I come to that role from both a typical and somewhat atypical angle. Like many parents, I have been impacted personally by the phenomenon of intermarriage. However, I see my support for outreach as directly relating not only to the future of my own family, but the future of the State of Israel, as well.

I am convinced that had a strong, vibrant and democratic Israeli State existed during the 1930s, the Holocaust would have been averted. Jews may still have been deported from Nazi-occupied lands, but they would have had a place to go, as opposed to taking involuntary return trips back to the ovens of Europe.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, over a million Jews expelled or fleeing from all parts of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and Africa, have had the benefit of this place of refuge. As Jews we can never get too comfortable with life in the Diaspora, as our German, Austrian and other European brethren sadly learned, and as recent events in Europe regrettably affirm.

Since its independence in 1948, Israel remains an island of democracy in a sea of totalitarian states. For more than five decades, its very existence has been subjected to a continued series of threats, wars and acts of terrorism from its neighbors. Its remarkable survival has been due to the inherent nature of its people, combined with strong support from Jews all over the world--especially in North America, where memories of grandparents and of great grandparents fleeing from European anti-Semitism are still fresh.

Israel's survival and its strength have not only been enhanced by American Jewish support, but by support from the U.S. Government as well. This is because Israel's democratic philosophy and operating precepts are consistent with U.S. interests. (This doesn't mean that we necessarily agree with all that takes place in Israel; we may disagree on issues as diverse as a lack of religious pluralism or how best to obtain a peace settlement in the Middle East.)

Israel's ability to survive in the future will continue to depend on its own strength, both militarily and spiritually, in its adherence to democracy and freedom, and above all to continued active support from the United States government and an active North American Jewry.

The phenomenon of intermarriage presents a challenge and an opportunity in that it could either erode or enhance that support. Today, more than 60% of American Jews choose a partner from another faith. What's more, just 30% of the intermarried elect to raise their children as Jews. This trend is due in no small way to the confluence of the Holocaust and the creation of an Israeli state, which when combined with a vibrant post World War II American economy and the embracing of civil liberties for all, enabled American Jews to move into the mainstream of American life. Today in our free and open society, Judaism is a matter of choice both for those born Jewish as well as those not so born.

We must work to raise the awareness in the Jewish community of opportunities inherent in welcoming interfaith couples. I remember the words of my dear colleague, David Belin of blessed memory, who said, "Judaism is not only a religion, but also a culture and a community of people bonded together by shared values...what some people call a 'peoplehood.' Its gates are open to all, including those not born Jewish."

By building these bridges and developing effective means of communication we can help to assure the creative perpetuation of Jewish culture and heritage in a free and open society. And at the same time insure the existence of a vibrant and active American Jewish population and continued support for Israel for generations to come.

Terry Elkes

Terry Elkes is president of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

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