On America Online, there is a popular feature called Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit? People anonymously send in email letters to the author of the feature, Gil Mann and he selects one letter for a public response in his Jewish E-Mail column. This column is now syndicated in Jewish papers across the US & Canada.
I read in my local Jewish paper (Florida) a front page article about intermarriage, featuring a picture from the movie Meet the Parents. The title of the article in big red letters said: "NO BIG DEAL -- Objections to intermarriage have clearly collapsed. Now what?"
After reading this article I became alarmed. This article indicated that "The National Jewish Population Survey reported that 52% of American Jews who had married between 1985 and 1990 had wed non-Jews." The article asked if intermarriage is "a tragedy or a symbol of our success as Americans?" What bothers me about this findings is that we (the Jews) have accepted this intermarriage issue in such a normal way that funny movies are made about it like Meet the Parents.
Doesn't anyone care about our heritage anymore, except the Orthodox? It seems to me that we (the Jews) are doing a better job at destroying ourselves than evil monsters like Hitler, Stalin, the Greeks and the Romans had in mind. What did our fathers, grandfathers and forefathers die for?
We survived mostly because G-d wanted us to, and mainly because the Orthodox wouldn't give up on our religion like the 52% have. Most Conservative and Reform Jews think that it's OK since so many have been doing it, and people are walking around being proud of their success at fitting in. I am sending this question out there into the universe through you, hoping that that someone else would stop and think about this issue. I wanted to know what you think about this subject.
You are definitely not alone in your worrying. Many people (not just Orthodox Jews) care deeply about this subject...including me. While expressing your concern, you could have included a second hit movie Keeping the Faith that also touches on intermarriage humorously. While I found both movies to be funny I also found them to be disturbing.
Disturbing because we face a great challenge: when non-Jews hated us, maintaining our identity was easy. But what do we do when our non-Jewish neighbors love us and want to marry us? We love them back and marry them...but what becomes of Judaism?
I must say here that intermarriage does not necessarily mean the loss of a Jew or the children of that marriage. I regularly hear from Jews and non-Jews involved in an intermarriage who are interested in Judaism and are serious about giving their children a Jewish upbringing. Plus I have personally seen the success of outreach efforts to these couples.
Having said that, the same population study that you cited showing a 52% intermarriage rate presented a second troubling statistic: ONLY 28% of the children in these homes are being raised as Jews! The study's findings have been criticized and a new one is in the works, but if the results are correct, Jews face a demographic time bomb!
How has this happened? In 2 words: acceptance and assimilation. After giving a lecture once about Jewish identity issues, an 80 year old gentleman raised his hand and said "when I was growing up, these issues were not issues -- don't you think that in a way anti-Semitism was a blessing?" I was taken aback and said "blessing" is the last word I would use to describe anti-Semitism. I would not care to trade places with any of my grandparents who lived persecuted in ghettos in Europe. But part of breaking out of the ghetto and living in an accepting society has been intermarriage.
What to do about it? I believe two things. First we must raise Jews with warm, positive and rewarding Jewish experiences and educations. Their Jewish memories must be so rich that abandoning Judaism would leave an unfillable void in their lives. Most of the Jews I have encountered who have opted out or away from Judaism do not feel they are missing anything; or worse, are happy to abandon bad memories of their Judaism.
The second thing we need to do is recognize the reality of our society today and of intermarriage and reach out in every way possible to show these couples that Judaism is a loving, thoughtful and compassionate way of life. Sadly, I have heard many times from people who have intermarried who have told me, they were shunned by Jewish family and community. This attitude is counterproductive. Could anyone be surprised, if as a result of such treatment these couples decide that they do not want any part of Judaism in their homes or for their children?
I am encouraged by the many innovative programs now underway that address both of these suggestions. There is also a recognition that when children arrive, intermarried couples often reexamine religion. These programs are sponsored by many organizations and individuals definitely including the Reform and Conservative Movements. I could cite many examples of creative initiatives of outreach and inreach, but don't have the space here. I support all of these efforts and will list just one here for others to check: The Jewish Outreach Institute (website: www.joi.org.)
What will be of Judaism? Will these many efforts encourage Jews to embrace their Judaism? Can we stem the demographic tide? Only if our institutions change to show Jews a Judaism that is relevant to their modern lives. A Judaism that is compelling and not merely a fight against anti-Semitism or tradition for tradition sake. THESE CHANGES ARE NEEDED FOR ALL JEWS, NOT JUST FOR THE INTERMARRIED! I believe we can do this. Is enough being done? Definitely not. Will we be successful?
I'll answer with a quote I heard from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. He said that in the 1970s, Look Magazine wrote of impending doom for Judaism because of negative demographic trends. Well, we are still here but Look Magazine is dead. I believe we will survive....but not without worry, learning, work, pain and change. For over 2000 years this has been the Jewish recipe for survival.
Thank you for sending your question out "into the universe." I am sure it will prompt discussions around many dinner tables and classrooms.