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Family Matters: Mixed Families, Jewish Choices

This article originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author. Visit www.hadassah.org.

Last December, Edmund Case strolled the aisles of an Israeli vendor fair in search of gifts for his wife and two children.

Like other patrons, he believed this was an ideal way to shop--supporting Israel's economy while simultaneously checking off a long holiday to-do list. The difference, however, was that this corporate lawyer turned Jewish-outreach guru wasn't preparing for Hanukka--he was shopping for Christmas.

"This year, all the Christmas gifts were made in Israel," he says with a chuckle. "As a joke I signed the card to my 20-year-old son 'Santa' but I wrote it phonetically in Hebrew letters. Some people would be aghast at that and say this is syncretism, it's a melding of religions and that this is an ominous development for Jewish identity. Mind you, this is something I wouldn't do before I thought my children's Jewish identity was solidified. But my kids have no confusion about this. They are Jewish, we celebrate Hanukka in our home, but on Christmas, they exchange gifts at their grandparents' house. That's all it is. It doesn't have religious significance."

Welcome to the world of intermarriage in the American Jewish community. According to the United Jewish Communities' National Jewish Population Survey 2000 released last fall, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States compared to 5.5 million a decade ago. Though some researchers refute the NJPS findings, citing slightly higher population figures, the bottom line is clear: The American Jewish community is, at best, remaining stagnant. While factors such as Jewish women sacrificing childbearing years to pursue higher education and careers are in part to blame, a main source is intermarriage.

In 1990, the NJPS reported that 52 percent of American Jews intermarry. If the new population statistics are any indication, results of the 2000 intermarriage study, scheduled for release this spring, will likely be discouraging as well. If this is the direction the future is taking, a question arises as to how to keep Judaism alive in the children of interfaith marriages.

"From the perspective of America, intermarriage is a wonderful union," says Steve Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department for the American Jewish Committee. "It's a triumph of American tolerance and equality. Those are wonderful values but they contradict fundamental Jewish values to marry within the faith, build a Jewish family and raise Jewish children."

With half of Jews in the United States believing it is "racist" to promote marriage within the faith and only one-fifth of the Jewish population opposing mixed marriage, it's no surprise that interfaith unions are at an all-time high. So how, in an age of political correctness, can parents explain to their children that choosing to only date and marry a fellow Jew is not discrimination?

"It's racist only when you believe that gentiles are inferior to Jews," says Bayme. "It is not racist for Jews, a tiny minority, to want to preserve distinctiveness that is imperiled by mixed marriage."

Judaism has to be taught as something relevant so that kids can never imagine it sharing a level of importance with any other faith, say Orthodox leaders. With 98 percent of National Conference of Synagogue Youth graduates marrying Jews ("Only God is perfect," offers one rabbi), the Orthodox Union's emphasis on education and community seems to be working.

"Continuity and the threat of intermarriage has been on the priority list of every generation of traditional Jews since the day the Torah was given on Sinai," says Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, executive director of programs at the OU. "We strive to find a Torah way of life that is palatable, exciting and interesting to teenagers ...so that Judaism isn't some ancient tome on a shelf only for the great bearded rabbis."

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's United Synagogue Youth and the Reform movement's North American Federation of Temple Youth have similar philosophies. Both organizations run an array of teenage programming--everything from post-Shabbat dances to summer trips to Israel.

"The best methodology to prevent intermarriage is to provide the most solid types of all-around educational experiences that will motivate a person to live and identify Jewishly," says Jules Gutin, director of the Department of Youth Activities for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Unlike USY, which forbids high school-age officers to date non-Jews, leaders of NFTY and other arms of the Reform movement cringe at the thought of educational programming and policies promoting "prevention."

"The most repeated mitzva in the Torah is to welcome the stranger, to ...treat the stranger as the one born," argues Dru Greenwood, director of the Department of Outreach at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "That is a mitzva that is taken to heart by the Reform movement."

It is this welcoming approach that helped inspire Case to quit his legal practice for a career in Jewish communal service. In the late 1960's, when a beloved Conservative rabbi he had grown up with told Case and his then-fiancee, Wendy, that they would be "stabbing Ed's father in the back" if they wed, it caused a rift between him and the rabbi.

The couple were married by a judge, and though Wendy never converted, she agreed to raise their children as Jews (the Reform movement accepted patrilineal descent in 1983). They joined a Reform congregation in Newton, Massachusetts, where Ed Case not only served as president but cofounded an interfaith discussion group that continues to meet today. In 1997, he left his job at a top law firm in Boston to pursue Jewish outreach. He eventually became the publisher and president of InterfaithFamily.com, an Internet site and magazine dedicated to welcoming interfaith families to the Jewish community.

"The percentage of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews is not more than 30 percent," says Case. "To [increase that number], Jewish leaders have to change their attitudes because they get in the way of making families interested in affiliating feel welcome. We need to stop using off-putting language like goyim and shiksa...and [end] negative attitudes about the leadership and participation of non-Jews in synagogues.... I'm not saying intermarriage is a good thing, just that the Jewish community should be welcoming."

Rabbi Avis Miller, chairperson of the committee that in 1995 authored the official Conservative position on intermarriage, argues that rather than create a support system where couples can bond over the rejection of conversion or share Hanukka and Christmas decorating tips, an educational approach to outreach needs to be emphasized with thought-provoking programming and experiences rich in Jewish culture.

"What happens in support groups is that you are defined by your intermarried-ness," says Miller. "I've had people come to me for conversion and say, 'We've become friendly with these people, we have them over for dinner, and I just can't tell them that I have decided to convert. It will throw everything out of equilibrium.'"

Despite the schisms among the branches, most agree that creating a Jewish atmosphere in the home can be simple. Whether you play klezmer, light Shabbat candles, read Jewish books or hang Israeli art on your wall, little touches can go a long way.

Raising a J

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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. Yiddish for "gentiles," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. North American Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Reform movement in North America. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs. United Synagogue Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Conservative movement in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs.
Amy Blumenfeld

Amy Blumenfeld is a freelance writer and a former editor of George magazine. Her articles have appeared in various magazines, including People, Self and Fitness.

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