A controversy that will define the future of the American Jewish community--how to respond to intermarriage--is again erupting. A new American Jewish Committee survey of interfaith families is being used to support an old, failed strategy--discouraging intermarriage and pressing for conversion of non-Jewish spouses.
That is exactly the wrong way to maximize the preservation of Jewish identity.
The Jewish community instead should do everything it can to encourage the Jewish journeys of interfaith families, and to encourage more interfaith families to make Jewish choices.
The biased results of this survey were predictable. They form part of an orchestrated campaign against intermarriage by a small group of Jewish leaders who are unhappy with the lay Jewish community's increasing acceptance of intermarriage. The American Jewish Committee, which funded the survey, is leading a coalition to promote in-marriage. Sylvia Barack Fishman, who conducted the survey, is a member of that coalition.
Fishman's key finding is that interfaith families incorporate "substantial Christian elements" in the home. The AJC's Steven Bayme states that this dynamic is "particularly ominous for Jewish continuity."
In my opinion, these opponents of intermarriage did not understand what they were observing.
My perspective is as the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, a non-profit Internet community. Our website attracts thousands of monthly readers who are seeking entryways into Jewish life.
Although many have felt judged and uncomfortable in more traditional Jewish settings, in our magazine they find the warm welcome they have been seeking. They also find numerous personal stories by members of interfaith families who are choosing to live Jewishly, who identify Judaism as the religion of their family and who raise their children exclusively as Jews. These include non-Jewish mothers who learn about Judaism themselves as they teach it to their children, as well as traditional Jews who happen to have fallen in love with a person brought up in a different religion.
On our site readers encounter people who, like them, are grappling with how to raise Jewish children while also respecting the non-Jewish partner and that partner's family.
This often includes participating in their Christmas and Easter celebrations. Many of these children report that they experience these celebrations not as religious holidays but as warm family times. Their Jewish identity is not at all compromised.
It appears that what Fishman describes as "substantial Christian elements" in fact may be nothing more that having a Christmas or Easter dinner in an interfaith family where the parents say they are raising their children exclusively as Jews. Fishman reports that the respondents in her survey tended to describe such Christian activities in which they participated as not "religious."
But she suggests that having a Christian holiday celebration in the home is the equivalent of affirming the divinity of Jesus--a notion that is simply ridiculous.
There is a grave danger that the "promoting in-marriage" strategy will simultaneously convey the implicit or explicit message that "intermarriage is bad," that interfaith families cannot live Jewishly, and that outreach to the intermarried should be abandoned. That message will only exacerbate the rejecting experience and feeling of lack of welcome that many interfaith families identify as obstacles to their Jewish affiliation.
It is possible to both promote in-marriage and at the same time respond positively to intermarrieds. That can't be done by expressing value judgments. In-marriage can be promoted on utilitarian and pragmatic grounds--that it makes it easier for people to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children--without burning bridges to the many people who will continue to intermarry no matter what Jewish leaders or parents say or do.
The Jewish community must make a concerted, well-financed and well-publicized effort to encourage, welcome and include interfaith families. That is what the majority of the Jewish public wants. To counter the coalition to promote in-marriage, there is a need for a different coalition of Jewish leaders--an alliance to promote Jewish outreach to interfaith families.