Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
Can Intermarriage Be a Form of Outreach?
Reprinted with permission of the author from the New Jersey Jewish News.
May 3, 2007
The skyrocketing number of interfaith marriages means that there are more people of other religious backgrounds within the orbit of Jewish families and the influence of the Jewish community. At the very least, we know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are not Jewish who have Jewish grandchildren. And that figure doesn't even speak to the exceptional diversity of religious backgrounds we begin to see when we look at members of the extended family.
I recently met a woman whose sister-in-law was a nun (and a leader in her order), and whose brother-in-law was a well-known and respected congregational rabbi. While there are many in the Jewish community who continue to see such phenomena as threatening to Jewish survival, I see yet another opportunity to transform an "enemy" into a friend, something that Jewish history has taught us well how to do.
Numerous Jewish community relations councils--throughout the country and in cities of all sizes--have worked tirelessly to nurture tolerance among various segments of the non-Jewish population. Some of their efforts have been technically defensive but most of the time they have followed the notion that education through familiarity is the key to promoting tolerance. So they make sure that people in the community learn about the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Jewish life, beginning with simple things such as the rituals surrounding Shabbat, kosher dietary laws, and the timing of the Jewish holidays. All of this is a sincere effort to make members of the Jewish community seem less like "others" or "outsiders" by actively sharing our rites and beliefs with people from other religious backgrounds.
In an effort to find friends in the community to make their work easier, we are missing the proverbial answer that is right in front of us: all of the non-Jewish relatives of those who have intermarried. These relatives can seamlessly be incorporated into Jewish celebrations and life-cycle events, and we know we can count on them to support us. In an era when anti-Semitic events seem to be increasing, we should be able to use all of the resources at our disposal. Why not seek out interfaith families and their extended family members when facing a community crisis or even when there is a need to communicate basic information, including the back story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
We realize that there are those who will continue to criticize the outreach performed by groups like the Jewish Outreach Institute, but there are more ways in which we share common ground than ways we disagree. We are all concerned about Jewish survival.
Interfaith marriages facilitate cooperation between Jews and those with other religious backgrounds in effortless ways that do not require outreach events, programs, or services. As a result, they help the Jewish community gain more positive footing in society on the whole.
However we choose to address interfaith marriage, it remains a reality on the ground. When we consider its potential impact through extended family, intermarriage can actually help protect the community rather than harm it.