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Reprinted from The (New York) Jewish Week with permission of the author.
Sept. 15, 2006
A few weeks after Joe and I got engaged, when I was still unaccustomed to the sparkly ring on my finger, I began my career in journalism.
The editor of the Detroit Jewish News introduced me to my fellow reporters, and everyone immediately wanted to know if I was married--if not, they would happily set to work fixing me up.
"I'm engaged," I said shyly. As my new colleagues plied me for information about Joe and the wedding plans, I nervously answered, praying no one would ask point blank, "Is he Jewish?"
I was worried enough about my credentials for the job. Although I spoke Hebrew and had picked up assorted Jewish facts from religious friends, my formal Jewish education was limited to a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University. If people discovered I was about to intermarry, I'd surely be exposed as a Jewish fraud.
Eventually I "came out" at the office, although I worked at Jewish publications for almost seven years in a semi-closeted state: I was evasive when the subject of my husband arose and kept quiet when I heard intermarriage blamed for all that ails American Jewry.
I use the terms "came out" and "closeted," because in many ways the situation of intermarrieds in the organized Jewish community is similar to that of gays and lesbians in society at large. Just as many Americans view homosexuality as immoral and question whether gays and lesbians are appropriate parents and teachers, many Jews continue to regard intermarriage as taboo and believe that intermarried Jews are poor role models.
All the movements bar intermarried Jews from entering rabbinical school, and the Conservative movement also bars its institutions from hiring intermarried Jews to teach or serve in leadership positions, although this policy is not always obeyed. Traditionally, people have assumed that marrying out signifies the ultimate abandonment of the Jewish people--so how could an intermarried Jew lead?
Nonetheless, with intermarriage more pervasive and less stigmatized, at least among the rank and file, growing numbers of intermarried folks are remaining involved in Jewish life, raising Jewish children and in some cases choosing Jewish careers. On a listserv discussion this summer for Jewish professionals, several people--from federations, campus Hillels, JCCs and Reform temples across the country--said they are married to gentiles. Almost all were women, which I think says less about intermarriage than about the largely female Jewish communal workforce.
Some, like Susan Detwiler, the executive director of the University of Delaware Hillel, were married for decades before entering Jewish communal service. Raised "ethnically Jewish" in New York, Detwiler married in her early 20s and told me she did not think much about Judaism until she and her husband moved to a small town in Indiana where their son was one of only four Jewish children in the whole school system.
The family joined a temple an hour away, and Detwiler gradually became more involved--first joining the choir, then studying Hebrew, then teaching Hebrew school and celebrating an adult bat mitzvah. After going through the Reform movement's "para-rabbinic" program, Detwiler, who had been in market research, wanted to work for the Jewish community.
"If you limit Jewish professionals to those who married within the faith, then you are discarding all those Jews who didn't know how important Judaism was until they were adults," she wrote on the listserv discussion, which was under the auspices of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
Running a Hillel on a campus with 1,600 Jewish students, Detwiler says her marital status seems less relevant than her fundraising and management abilities. "It's not the first thing I tell people," she told me. "It's not a cause, not like wearing a rainbow flag if I was gay. But if it comes up in conversation I'm very open about it."
Other intermarried Jewish professionals are more secretive, however, and some say their marriage has been an impediment. Linda Braun, of Tuscon, Ariz., reported that 17 years ago she was turned down for a teaching job at a Conservative synagogue's nursery school once the director learned her husband was not Jewish.
"I was told I was ineligible for hire as I would make a bad role model for the children and their families," she wrote on the listserv.
One woman who runs workshops in the Midwest for Jewish educators wrote that every time she presents about intermarriage, she is approached by teachers who "confide in me (sometimes with tears)" that they are in an interfaith relationship or marriage.
"It makes me sad and angry that people need to hide this information," she wrote.
Detwiler--and many others who spoke up on the listserv--argues that at times being intermarried actually helps them do a better job.
"It does make it easier I think to counsel students who are in or contemplating serious interfaith relationships," she told me. "I can speak from experience what the difficulties are they're going to be encountering."
One of the reasons I closeted myself for so long was out of fear that people would accuse me of lacking objectivity when reporting on intermarriage. But after awhile, I wondered why I would be any more biased than a Jew married to a Jew--particularly since virtually every non-Orthodox American Jewish family is personally affected by intermarriage? And I began to think that it was important for intermarried Jews to be written about in the Jewish press, not just as demographic threats, but as real people.
Braun, who went on to become education director for six years at a Reform temple, wrote that at times the fact that she was intermarried "felt like a blessing to the families that I worked with."
"Our synagogue was comprised of at least 50 percent interfaith families, and they knew I understood where they were coming from," she explained.
Special to The Jewish Week.