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Intermarriage Conference: Expert Calls Intermarriage Key Issue for U.S. Jews

This article is reprinted from the New Jersey Jewish News with permission of the author. Visit www.njjewishnews.com.

The publisher of a Web site for interfaith families told a conference of Christians and Jews in Whippany Oct. 26 that encouraging intermarried families to decide to raise their families as Jews "is the most important issue in the American Jewish community because half of Jews are intermarrying."

Speaking at a daylong gathering sponsored by Pathways, an outreach program for the intermarried sponsored by the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, Ed Case said "right now only a third of them are raising their children as Jews. The Jewish community is going to be diminished if more of them do not. And it is enriched if more of them do."

[The National Jewish Population Survey issued in September shows that 47 percent of the 4.1 million Jewish adults in America are currently married to people who are not Jewish, and only one of every three interfaith couples is raising their children to be Jewish.]

In a keynote address before some 80 attendees at the daylong meeting in the Bleiwise Conference Center, Case, the publisher of www.interfaithfamily.com, urged the organized Jewish community to "do a lot of marketing" to encourage intermarried couples to raise their children as Jews.

"The fact that some branches of Judaism do not recognize the children of Jewish fathers as Jews is a major problem, a major obstacle, to the involvement of interfaith families in Jewish life," he said.

Declaring that "the prevalent Orthodox Jewish view" is to "write off" intermarried families, Case told NJ Jewish News his fellow members of the Conservative movement should "have a more positive attitude toward intermarriage." He complained that a policy statement enunciated in 1995 by the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism--which declares "the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community" is "not a very positive response."

The council advocates a "three-tiered approach to intermarriage: beginning with attempts at prevention, then the promotion of conversion, and finally, when prevention and conversion fail to occur, keruv (a caring outreach) to the mixed family."

"The Conservative community has declined between 1990 and 2000, and a lot of people say that's because of the Conservative response to intermarriage," Case complained. "It's really short-sighted."

A resident of Newton, Mass, he described himself as a "recovering corporate lawyer" married to a woman "who says she lives Jewishly but is not Jewish."

In his view, many intermarried families have "one religious identity and two cultural identities," permitting them to observe Christmas "as a way of caring for the non-Jewish partner or parent." "Our job is to make our family's Jewish identity so natural and so much a part of us that it is not threatened by the Christmas tree in our living room for one month out of the year."

Challenging Christmas

Such a view was strongly challenged by Allyson Gall, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's New Jersey division. A Catholic by birth who had planned to become "a left wing radical nun in South America or Africa," Gall converted to Judaism in 1970 after marrying "a nice Jewish boy from New York" and being shunned by his parents for two years. Gall told a workshop that her pre-conversion mikva "was not a happy day for me." She had "made a conscious decision to reject Jesus" that "seemed like a slap in the face to my parents, but I knew it was the right thing to do."

She insisted that it is "disturbing" for a Jewish family to celebrate Christmas or decorate their home with a Christmas tree. "We visit my family at Christmas and we are guests. Do we send them Christmas presents? Absolutely. They send us Hanukkah cards, Passover cards. Our house is Jewish. That doesn't mean we don't go to visit my parents. Of course we do. They go off to midnight Mass and we don't go with them."

Gall said "for a family to be completely Jewish, both parents need to be Jewish." But, she added, "If the parent does not want to convert, and you have children, pick one religion, Jewish or Christian, and do it right."

As she sat as part of a circle in a discussion group, Lisa Ferrigno of Middletown insisted she would neither convert from Judaism nor ask her husband, Tom, to abandon his Catholicism. "I do not want him to convert because his religion is part of what he is, and I don't want to change him," she said.

The Ferrignos' premarital "game plan" was to raise their children as Jews.

"It is difficult. We're trying to determine although they're being raised Jewish, how do we expose them to my husband's religion without confusing them?"

Their answer is to celebrate two sets of holidays.

"Our kids are in a Jewish pre-school and they only go to church on Easter and Christmas. We do a Christmas tree and Christmas at home."

Considering Conversion

After 21 years of marriage to a Jewish woman named Jane, Mark Young has yet to become a Jew, even though he is an active participant at Congregation Beth Haverim in Mahwah.

"I have not converted because I am finding a very rich spiritual involvement in my temple without having converted yet, but I am open to the possibility."

A Presbyterian by birth, Young said he is "grappling with" the idea that "if you choose one particular path you might lose the value that exists in other paths."

His wife supports that view.

"I want him to convert only if that's what he wishes to do. I never broached the subject. It wasn't something that I felt was appropriate."

Although her father asked if she "couldn't find a nice Jewish boy," Jane said her mother is "so proud of my husband and his involvement in the temple. But my dad was very very concerned that no matter what we did that our son Harry was bar mitzvaed. Harry was bar mitzvaed and confirmed long ago. He is 20 now. He sings in the choir on High Holy Days and is an important part of the congregation like we both are."

For Rene Rodriguez, a Peruvian Catholic who now lives in Union with his Jewish wife Marci, "it is too soon" to know whether he will convert to Judaism The couple, who sat holding hands while others spoke about child raising, were married three months ago by a rabbi and a priest.

Rodriguez said neither set of in-laws had problems with their intermarriage.

"My parents are very happy about me with her. They don't care about the religions. That's very important to me."

What is "very important" to Marci is that their children be raised Jewish, but we're going to teach them both religions. My husband supported that."

Charles Lopez of Edison has not yet married his Jewish girlfriend, Lauren Yablonsky. But he told others at his workshop the pair had already discussed the religious upbringing of any children they may have.

"To raise kids you need to put the on a straight path. You can't throw them curve balls every day. You either raise them Christian or raise them Jewish."

But he still struggles with the issue.

"For me to decide to raise the kids Jewish was difficult and who knows how I'm going to feel when our kids are born?" he asked rhetorically.

"That's where we're going to go. But what's best for the parents may not be best for the child, and that's what I've had to come to grips with."

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 spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. 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.

Robert Wiener is a staff writer for New Jersey Jewish News. He can be reached at rwiener@njjewishnews.com.

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