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Let’s face it, central Maine is not the center of Jewish religious life in America. True, there has been a Jewish community here for many years (the year 1889 is carved on the gate of the cemetery here). But it’s also true that the community has been shrinking, as young people leave for bigger cities and jobs elsewhere. That’s not just the Jewish community in Maine, though--that’s Maine!
For those of us privileged to serve Jewish communities in relatively out-of-the-way places, the reality of a nearly 50 percent intermarriage rate among American Jews really hits home. It’s something we considered three years ago when our congregation, Temple Shalom Synagogue-Center in Auburn, Maine, chose to drop its affiliation with the Conservative Movement. In part, we just could no longer observe some of the movement’s rules. For instance, we could not sustain our community if we followed the rule that intermarried Jews should not serve as synagogue officers, board members, committee chairs or Hebrew School teachers. The feeling in this community was that those who make such rules, sitting in mid-town Manhattan surrounded by three million Jews, didn’t understand the reality we were living in, trying to maintain a Jewish community out here in the woods.
As spiritual leader of the community, I told the board that we were at a crossroads: We had decided what we were not; now we needed to define what we were. One of the first issues we discussed was whether I, as the spiritual leader, should officiate at interfaith weddings, something I’d been forbidden from doing when I was hired.
As it happened, just before we discussed the issue at an open membership meeting, I received some wisdom from my wife. We were sitting in our living room one evening when she looked up from her knitting. “The common wisdom is all wrong,” she said. “The leaders of the American Jewish community say that intermarriage leads to assimilation. That’s backwards: it’s assimilation that leads to intermarriage.”
I thought about it, and realized that she was right. Most American Jews live in communities where they are already largely assimilated. Their children attend public schools, and later colleges, where they meet a few Jews, but also plenty of other folks. When they go looking for a mate, they meet mostly non-Jews. That’s especially true in rural areas such as Central Maine.
I mentioned my wife’s comment at the membership meeting. The members agreed with her. Many of the older members of the congregation, who had raised children here, now had non-Jewish in-laws, and often halachically non-Jewish grandchildren. In the past, some of those interfaith families had felt unwelcome in our Jewish community. The result was that we not only lost the Jewish child; we also gave up any hope that the grandchildren might be raised Jewish.
We decided that nothing we or the leaders of American Judaism could say was going to change the interfaith marriage statistics: many Jews are going to marry non-Jews, because that’s who they meet. That’s what American Judaism looks like in the early 21st century, especially in rural areas and small towns.
Maybe, we thought, we ought to look for a way to turn this reality to our advantage. As a congregation we opted to allow our spiritual leader to officiate at interfaith weddings when at least one member of the couple was connected to our community. We don’t yet know yet how successful this approach will be; the change is too new. But we are all hoping to have the chance to test it out a few more times. Indeed, we hope and expect that if the couple is welcomed by the community at the important life-cycle event of entering into the covenant of marriage, then there is at least a possibility that the Jewish partner will remain a little Jewishly involved, and that their children will be raised Jewish.
In this way, we hope to turn an almost guaranteed net loss to the Jewish People into a possible net gain.
In the meanwhile, our outreach to already-intermarried families has improved hugely. The non-Jewish spouses are welcomed into the community, and their children, who are being raised Jewish, are a delight to the entire membership. Only time will tell how well this philosophy regarding interfaith marriages works. But from my perspective, as the rabbi of a small-town Jewish community that now welcomes interfaith families--it has already succeeded.