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How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating: For Those Married to Jews or in Interfaith Marriages

February, 2000

There's a book written by a leading Conservative Rabbi, Alan Silverstein, titled It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Intermarriage. The goal of the book, as I understood it, is to promote an approach to preventing intermarriage. I don't think that intermarriage can be prevented, and I think that trying to do so can be very counter-productive. If the message communicated is that intermarriage is wrong, you shouldn't intermarry, though if you do we'll welcome you — then the last part of the message is likely not to be heard.

If intermarriage can't be prevented, then being totally inclusive and welcoming of intermarrieds from the outset is a much wiser approach for the Jewish community, in my opinion. But there certainly is an element of truth to the book's title, because it — intermarriage — does all begin with a date. So how do we talk to kids about interdating?

In theory, I don't believe that it should be all that complicated. At least, that should be the case if the parents have raised their children as Jews and conveyed to them through their own actions the value that they place on living Jewishly. Because the message then seems pretty clear to me, and it goes like this:

  • We, your parents, would like to see you live a Jewish life because we have found it to be a source of meaning and purpose in our own lives, although we recognize that you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to live Jewishly.
  • If you want to have a Jewish family and a Jewish life, we want you to know that your chances of doing so are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish. You may know and see intermarried parents who are living Jewishly and think that that could happen to you, too, if you intermarry, but the statistics clearly show, for example, that a relatively small percentage of intermarried parents raise their children as Jews, and if you ask intermarried parents about it, they'll tell you that although it is possible, it isn't so easy to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage.
  • If you want to marry someone who is Jewish, your chances of doing so are far greater if you date Jews. You may think that dating is only dating, but we don't think you can control who you fall in love with, and if you think about it, your first experience with the person you end up marrying is highly likely to be — a date.
     

In practice, I've tried this approach with my own children. My daughter, who's now twenty-one, has had three serious boyfriends. She met the first one on a bicycle trip on the West Coast, and he happened to be Jewish; the second was a classmate in high school, the third a classmate in college, and neither was Jewish. Right now she's not involved with anyone in particular. My son, who's seventeen, is involved right now with a Jewish girl he met on a trip to Israel. To be honest, I haven't talked about this with my daughter recently. I suspect that her primary value would be finding someone to love, and whether he was Jewish or not would be of only secondary concern.

When I look at the approach I've outlined, it occurs to me that although I would very much like my children to marry Jews, for the reasons stated above, it's not my primary value either — it's more important to me that they find a good mate than that they find a Jewish mate. After all, while it may be difficult and statistically unlikely to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage, it's still possible. I'm intermarried myself, and my children know that they were raised with strong Jewish identities in an intermarriage.

But I don't think the way to talk about interfaith dating should be that much different if the parents are both Jewish, or if they are intermarried. The approach I've outlined could be used equally by either type of parents. If the parents are intermarried, the statement that it isn't easy for intermarried parents to raise Jewish children will probably be more credible, although the children may also be more likely to think that if their parents did it, they could, too.

I suppose one difference between intermarried parents and two Jewish parents is that it would be pretty hypocritical for intermarried parents to tell their children that it would be wrong for them to intermarry. But I don't think it's effective to tell teenagers and young adults that interfaith dating is wrong — that message won't take hold in the vast majority of young American Jews who are living in a very open society, are mixing constantly with others who are not Jewish, and are likely to find the message exclusive or discriminatory. I also don't think it's effective to tell teenagers and young adults that they should do something because it's important to you as their parents — I think they have to make their own decisions.

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.
Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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