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Why the Jewish Community Needs to Change Its Approach to Intermarriage

I believe that the American Jewish community needs to start thinking about intermarriage, and the families that intermarriage creates, in new ways. I believe that we must be willing to reexamine common assumptions, and come up with new ideas about what constitutes a Jewish family. We are going to have to articulate, more clearly than we've been willing to in the past, what the responsibilities of a Jewish parent are, and what the responsibilities of a congregation or a community are to a Jewish parent.

It's time to examine what we believe and why. Stopping intermarriage has been a preoccupation of the American Jewish community for forty years now. Tthe opposition to it has generally been discussed in terms of losing people--the intermarried and their children.

I can't dismiss the fear of losing Jews. But two things seem obvious to me. First, despite all the fear and fervor that goes into opposing intermarriage, it has not declined. Second, Jews who intermarry, and their partners, are often willing to go to great lengths to raise their children as Jews. If we're so worried about losing Jews, what are we doing to make things easier for interfaith couples who want to bring up Jewish children? Don't we have a responsibility to challenge Jews, no matter who they marry, to raise Jewish children?

That's a challenge that has not been made in any positive way. There is a common assumption that a Jew who marries out is already "unaffiliated." Sometimes this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, often not. What programs there are for interfaith parents assume, universally, a very low level of Jewish knowledge and practice on everyone's part. This is true of some, and not true of others.

Any interfaith couple who raises a Jewish child is already doing so against a din of popular belief that they can't raise a child Jewishly. Often, they're up against condescension and obnoxious behavior from people who should know better. When I, a child of interfaith parents who was raised Jewishly, began religious school, my parents were grilled about their wretched Christmas tree--did they have one or not? I somehow doubt that all-Jewish families were being quizzed about their home practices. This was at such an old-fashioned Reform temple that my parents were offered the option of not having me learn any Hebrew if they preferred.

Despite the condescension and unwelcoming attitudes, interfaith couples have, in surprisingly large numbers, gone ahead and raised Jewish kids because that is what they wanted to do. Our synagogues are now seeing a remarkable number of Jewish children with gentile family members who are becoming part of their Jewish communities. Yet all too frequently, Jews speak derogatorily of those who marry out right in front of these interfaith families.

I wonder, does it not occur to the rabbi who delivers a sermon about preventing your children from marrying out that there are Jews married to gentiles in that room? Jews whose children are married to gentiles? Jews with a gentile parent?

At a meeting of the Jewish nonprofit board I sit on, for an organization that does advocacy and community support for Jews in the former Soviet Union, I complain that the local Federation has cut our funding for yet another year. A fellow board member chides, "We have to think about the children. Continuity, with all the intermarriage and everything that's happening today. "

I know that she knows. I put my hands flat on the table in front of me and practice deep breathing. If my presence, in my twenties, a synagogue member, an employee of a Jewish agency, on the board of this organization, does not interfere with her fantasy of what intermarriage produces, probably nothing will.

I intend to raise my children in a Jewish home, and give them a Jewish education. I plan to bring up proud, conscious, educated Jews. But it outrages me to think that anyone would say my children have more to prove than other Jewish children.

I consider this a feminist issue, as well as a Jewish one. Am I valuable to my people only as the wife of a Jewish man? Is my worth to my community solely defined by whom I marry and whose children I give birth to? I don't believe so. Let's find a better way to adapt to the realities of intermarriage without resorting to creating a group of probationary Jews.

I now belong to a Reform synagogue, but I define myself as a non-denominational Jew. I am quasi-halachic, feminist, and deeply committed to Jewish culture, both secular and spiritual. I am a package deal with my family. I live and work in the Jewish community that I was raised in as the Irish-Ashkenazi activist, writer, and loudmouth that I am. I can't be made ashamed of any of that.

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.

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