The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
"We do not advocate for intermarriage. We advocate for the intermarried." That's a phrase we at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) have found ourselves repeating many times in our work within the organized Jewish community. But it's a defensive expression: we use it to counter an unfortunate myth perpetrated by some of our so-called communal leaders, who claim that outreach to intermarried families actually encourages single Jews to go out and intermarry. To us, their argument reads a lot like when the Catholic Church claims that teaching safe sex actually promotes sexual promiscuity! We know it simply isn't true.
Still, our work at JOI mostly begins when a couple has already decided to intermarry, so therefore we have rarely dealt with the difficult issues surrounding interdating. This edition of InterfaithFamily.com provides a good opportunity to finally tackle some of those issues.
The same folks who argue that the community should stop addressing the needs of intermarried families because it "encourages intermarriage" also argue that it is important to discourage interfaith dating because it inevitably leads to interfaith marriage. Some go as far as to suggest that to prevent intermarriage, all parents need to do is to continually speak out against it to their children! It's odd how their prescription for the community blatantly ignores our own history.
For the generations who grew up in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, everyone knew that intermarriage meant "marrying out" of the Jewish community. Everyone knew that intermarrying would devastate their parents, who might even sit shiva (mourn them as if they had died). The stigmatization of intermarriage was in full force. And what happened? Those children intermarried in droves! Not so much out of rebellion (although it was a rebellious time) but more because they were simply products of a new era. Society had opened up to Jews, who were no longer restricted in education and the workplace as earlier generations had been. Jewish young people embraced the free and open society that, in many ways, they had worked so hard to help bring about. So it was natural that they would meet and fall in love with their fellow co-workers and classmates among the dominant, non-Jewish population.
In those days, when there was such a stigma against intermarriage in the Jewish community, children who did interdate and intermarry went though terribly difficult times with their disapproving parents. Today, that is happening to a much lesser degree, as many in the Jewish community have come to realize that nobody is to "blame" for intermarriage. Most of us understand that we need to replace the guilt, shame, and rejection that used to exist around interdating and intermarriage with a new understanding and a willingness to roll up our sleeves to deal with the challenges ahead.
Which is not to say that we encourage interdating! We simply recognize it as a fact of American life, something that we need to deal with constructively and positively, without insulting the choices people make or pushing them away. That is why it is so sad to hear those in the community who can offer no better answers than "we must speak out against intermarriage, we must tell our young people not to intermarry." Reinstituting a stigma against intermarriage that failed the first time around is definitely NOT the answer for Jewish parents who struggle with the issues surrounding their children's interdating.
So what is the answer? As with most family issues, the best approach is to speak openly and honestly. Of course, this is not always the easiest approach. In many families, the easiest approach is not speaking at all! At other times, an honest approach can quickly fall prey to judgmental or accusatory attitudes. Perhaps before entering into a conversation, we need to be honest with ourselves.
The first question to ask ourselves is: Have we built a solid Jewish base for our interdating children? If an interdating Jew is actively involved in Jewish life . . . loves aspects of the culture and heritage . . . feels a connection to Judaism, then it will be much easier to speak openly with him or her about the challenges of interdating. Odds are that this person will be much more interested in incorporating Jewish life into any potential family that might result from the relationship.
In this case, we want to simply tell the interdating Jew that we hope he/she will chose to create a Jewish home if the dating leads to something more serious. We can help him/her explore beforehand some of the difficult issues he/she may face as an intermarried couple, if we can do so in a constructive atmosphere. And while we don't need to hide or deny the fact that, historically, it has been much more likely that in-married Jews will create Jewish families than intermarried Jews, today there are resources (like this website, and like JOI) available to help intermarried families create those same kinds of strong Jewish identities.
Depending on the seriousness of the relationship, we can try to involve the non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend in low-threshold Jewish events, like a Shabbat dinner or Passover seder, so that this person can learn how important Judaism is in your life. "Low threshold" is a key concept to understand when reaching out to newcomers. Such programs or events do not require previous knowledge, and, therefore, will not make people who don't have that knowledge feel awkward. Jewish film festivals or museums, for example, are great ways to introduce people to Jewish themes and issues.
Of course, a distinction must be made between dating at an older age, which could lead to marriage, and dating among younger people, such as high-school students. In the case of younger people, the lines between "dating" and "hanging out" are blurred, and peer groups take on much more significance. As a matter of fact, most kids today don't date the same way they once did. They go out in mixed groups of various sizes. In many cases, these groups include Jews and non-Jews and remain as groups before pairing off into dating couples. We can't choose our children's peer groups, and even if we could, religious affiliation probably wouldn't be the first (or second or third) characteristics we'd be most worried about in their friends, although Jewish youth groups are powerful peer group formers. But if we do find that our children are lacking any connection to Judaism in their social lives, it may be possible that there is something going on in your community that might interest them enough to participate in it.
If however, the answer to the first question is "no," and we have not provided a rich Jewish background for our interdating children, then suddenly getting upset if they bring home a non-Jewish date may induce in them a feeling akin to emotional whiplash! "How did Judaism all of a sudden become so important?" they might ask. "You don't really care about being Jewish, you're just xenophobic."
If you are a non-participating Jewish family but still find yourself feeling riled by your child interdating, the hard questions are for you and not for your child. In this case, your only option is to begin leading by example. Find out what it is that still connects you to Judaism after all these years. Because unless you have a love for something Jewish, it will be impossible to share that love for Judaism with your children, and they will be lost to the community regardless of whom they date or marry.