Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.
Let's Not Promote In-marriage Without Promoting Outreach to the Intermarried
I write on the eve of Purim -- a holiday in which an intermarriage saved the Jewish people -- to express dismay at the news that a particular group of Jewish leaders is organizing to promote the importance of in-marriage. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not opposed to in-marriage -- it's just that many of these leaders have shown in the past that their way of promoting in-marriage is to condemn and seek to prevent intermarriage, and to oppose outreach to the intermarried. If that's what they do again, this new effort will be destructive and a great disservice to the Jewish community.
My perspective is as the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, a non-profit Internet magazine produced by Jewish Family & Life. Our website attracts thousands of monthly readers who are seeking and finding content that informs them how their interfaith families can live Jewishly and that welcomes them to the Jewish community. (This fall, Jewish Lights Publishing will publish our Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life, an anthology of our best articles.) That there is a strong desire to live Jewishly among many interfaith families is evident from routine reader comments like these: "[my main reason for visiting IFF is] to better learn how I can blend into my fiancé's Jewish family and beliefs, and how we can create a cohesive and healthy Jewish home." "I am 28, and my fiance is Jewish. We don't belong to a synagogue right now, but we want to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews, so we have begun looking around at various synagogues." The Jewish community should do everything it can to encourage the Jewish journeys of these interfaith families, and to encourage more interfaith families to make Jewish choices like these families have.
Unfortunately, our readers also report that they had been unaware that any parts of the Jewish community welcomed them, and that they have experienced rejection by Jews. This message percolates down from comments like those of Steven Cohen, who describes intermarriage as "unfortunate," or Jack Wertheimer, who in his recent Commentary article pronounced outreach efforts a "resounding failure" (even though most intermarried people are not even aware of those efforts), or Elliot Abrams, who opposes using "scarce resources" on people "who have never done a single thing to express interest in Judaism." Thus when these leaders say that in-marriage is a "fundamental norm of Jewish life," I fear that their simultaneous message, both implicitly and explicitly, will be that "intermarriage is a bad thing for the Jewish people," that interfaith families cannot live Jewishly, and that outreach to the intermarried should be abandoned. These comments will only exacerbate the rejecting experience and feeling of lack of welcome that are obstacles to affiliation by interfaith families.
These leaders don't understand that 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 implying that "in-marriage is good or right" while intermarriage is the bad and wrong. In-marriage can be promoted on utilitarian and pragmatic grounds, without burning bridges to the many people who will continue to intermarry no matter what these leaders do.
Parents know how to promote in-marriage without alienating their children who may intermarry. This is what they say: "We would like to see you live Jewishly because we have found doing so to be a source of meaning and purpose in our own lives, although we recognize that you will have to decide for yourselves. If you want to have a Jewish family and a Jewish life, your chances of doing so are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish. You may see intermarried parents who are living Jewishly and think that that could happen to you too if you intermarry, but the statistics show that at this point not more than 30% of intermarried parents raise their children as Jews. We're not saying that intermarriage is bad, but intermarried parents will tell you that while it is possible, it isn't so easy to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage. So, we hope you marry someone who is Jewish -- but if you don't, we'll do everything we can to welcome your partner and to support any effort you make to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children together."
The Jewish community should follow the same approach: promoting in-marriage on the grounds that it increases the chances that people will live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, while simultaneously making a concerted, well-financed and well-publicized effort to encourage, welcome and include those people who nevertheless choose to intermarry. I believe that this is what the Jewish public -- the respondents to the American Jewish Committee survey that found increasing acceptance of intermarriage -- wants -- and that there is a need for Jewish leaders who will forcefully advocate for that approach.