Vitality or Decline?

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Today’s Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesn’t say about interfaith families.

Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the “answer” to the intermarriage “problem,” and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.

The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will not identify as Jewish when they grow up “owing to intermarriage,” even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though “owing to” sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.

The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.

Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says “we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion” and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.

If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldn’t do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that they’re welcome if they convert but not as they are.

This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, it’s OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs – but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.

Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. I’m thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative “to encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.”

I’m thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.

It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders can’t overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, we’re going to see not vitality, but decline.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.


3 thoughts on “Vitality or Decline?”

  • Dear Ed Case:

    I agree 300 percent with your essay. I was horrified by the “Statement on Jewish Vitality.” It sounded like the anti-intermarriage “Jewish continuity” documents I read in the mid-1990s. Glad you spoke up against it!

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    Coordinator
    Half-Jewish Network

  • I agree with George. The “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” while thoughtfully written, is without the perspective of those who are not involved and would like to be. Judaism is “three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax” which all of its members treasure in their own way. Yet, when I speak with individuals who are not actively participating in Jewish communal life, they frequently talk about feeling “not Jewish enough.” They talk about not knowing the prayers, or the melodies, and if they do they then worry about not being fluent enough, or scholarly enough. When we have the conversation about keeping Judaism vital and then start discounting some due to their intermarriage, we are sending a message to those that are on the fence that they might not have enough to be counted, either. It is a slow process, but if we start with making sure we are inclusive, and that we ensure every child of a Jewish parent have a positive experience with Judaism, one in which he or she feels capable and welcome, then Judaism will grow. If we only talk to the people who are already participating, we’ll miss learning why others do not.

  • Ed,
    We at Honeymoon Israel support your statement. As the only organization dedicated to welcoming young couples with at least one Jewish member Honeymoon Israel believes we must change the discussion into one of welcoming young couples regardless of make up of the couple. As a fellow partner with Michael Douglas and the Genesis Foundation we are committed to helping every young couple navigate and engaging in creating Jewish families whatever that means to the couple. The Jewish community must focus on welcoming all and realize the discussions about inmarriage only or conversion is not helpful and realistic in today’s world. Our communities must focus on engaging every young couple with at least one Jewish member and we will be far more successful.

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