Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.
New Coalition Formed to Fight Intermarriage
Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Week from its March 2, 2001 issue. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.
In the face of widespread popular Jewish acceptance of intermarriage and a sense that the Jewish community's leaders have given up any effort to oppose it, a group of 25 Jewish intellectuals, rabbis, lay leaders and communal affairs professionals is galvanizing to fight for change.
After an initial, closed-to-the-press meeting Feb. 20 at the offices of the American Jewish Committee here, they are now asking leaders of the Jewish community to boldly and loudly state support for what has been the Jewish norm of Jews marrying Jews.
This week the nascent group issued a statement saying that it intends "to work together to help restore the ideals of in-marriage, and to promote its importance to the future of the Jewish community, and to the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people. We believe that there exists a leadership responsibility to shape the communal climate and set norms."
Steve Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, who organized the meeting, said that their goal is no less than "to change the culture" around intermarriage in American Jewish life.
The as-yet-unnamed coalition - which includes three Reform rabbis and two Conservative rabbis who work in congregations, along with Modern Orthodox sociologists and the head of an influential foundation, as well as the author Elliott Abrams - has not yet determined how it will programmatically address its mission.
Sociologist Egon Mayer, who recently wrote in an opinion piece in this newspaper arguing that fighting intermarriage is like "arguing against the weather," called the new endeavor "ludicrous" and "comical."
Mayer, founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which promotes outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried families, said, "They're going to make speeches to people who in every other aspect are integrated into American life, and expect those people to listen?"
"It doesn't cost anything to pontificate but the American Jewish Committee could use its collective intelligence in better ways than this."
In response to this dismissal, Abrams said, "It almost amounts to censorship, if he's saying that people should shut up rather than try to change things."
Abrams, who participated in the meeting, and is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C., said that "defeatism isn't a useful tactic. The rate of intermarriage isn't fixed, and can be affected." Abrams is the author of "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive In A Christian America" (Free Press, 1997).
"I'm afraid that we're reaching a place where intermarriage can't even be discussed," he added. "We've already reached that in some synagogues, where people get angry at the rabbi, whose contract might not be renewed" if he or she discusses the subject.
There is no doubt that marriage between Jews and gentiles is a fact of American life, whether one buys the 52 percent rate of recent marriage between Jews and non-Jews found by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, or the somewhat lower number argued by some demographers.
But Bayme and company say that while intermarriage may be inevitable, the Jewish community does not have to accept it as normative.
"We're not deluding ourselves into thinking that intermarriage will go away, but we're not powerless when it comes to affecting the climate in which the Jewish community perceives it," said Bayme.
Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who teaches at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a speaker at the meeting.
Afterward, he said, "beyond our concern with behavior, we are concerned with publicly articulated norms and attitudes. It's not only what Jews do that matters, it's also important what Jews think, and what their leaders and organized agencies state officially.
"To say that intermarriage is indeed an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of life as a minority in an open, democratic and pluralist society is not to say that we must endorse the acceptance of intermarriage.
"We cannot abandon one of the most critical and fundamental norms of Jewish life, one which is the lynchpin of so much else that we hold dear and value about being Jewish," Cohen said.
Bayme organized the meeting after being shocked by the findings of a survey sponsored by his own organization that revealed that a majority of American Jews regard marriage between a Jew and a gentile as neutral, or even positive, rather than as something negative - a radical break from the traditional Jewish point of view.
A majority of respondents to the survey - 56 percent - said they would not be pained if their child married a gentile, and 50 percent said that they view Jewish opposition to intermarriage as racist.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents even said that rabbis should co-officiate with Christian clergy at interfaith weddings.
The study also found that support for the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism has collapsed. Only one-quarter of American Jews agree that the best response to mixed marriage is to encourage the gentile partner's conversion to Judaism.
One of the new group's goals is to make conversion a positive aim in interfaith marriages.
The complicated and emotionally charged issues around the needs of interfaith families are felt particularly acutely in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues, where intermarried congregants and their children feel excluded if the subject of interfaith marriage is even broached, say rabbis.
"We call it 'the I word change,' " said Rabbi Avis Miller, half-jokingly. Miller, who spoke at the AJCommittee meeting, is rabbi of Conservative congregation Adas Israel, in Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Miller said it is hard to maintain boundaries by defining legitimate roles in synagogue for non-Jewish spouses without having them perceived as barriers. And, she confessed, "We do lose people in the act of defining who we are."
Reform rabbis face particularly acute challenges because, unlike their Conservative colleagues, they can choose to officiate at interfaith marriages.
Their willingness to do so has been a litmus test for many Reform rabbis being interviewed for jobs at congregations.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of TheCommunity Synagogue, in Port Washington, L.I., who spoke at the meeting, does not officiate at intermarriages but says that the pressure on his colleagues to do so "can be very intense."
Rabbi Salkin, one of three Reform pulpit rabbis to participate in this new working group, said that he hopes "we will come up with a way of communicating to the Jewish public that in-marriage is the way to go, that we can teach our young people to focus their romantic choices on Jewish partners."
Though officiation at intermarriages is a contentious issue within the Reform rabbinate, Rabbi Salkin said he didn't think his involvement in this new group would be controversial because a growing number of those entering the Reform rabbinate now seem inclined to take the traditional position.
Rabbi Salkin said he is involved with the new group because he wants the Jewish community to better articulate the message that "there's only one reason for Jews to marry Jews: because we want Judaism to continue.
"There has to be a 'what for' in the message that we give people to marry Jews," Rabbi Salkin said. "The 'what for' is that Judaism is worth struggling for."