How Can We Solidify Families’ with Interfaith Marriages Commitment to Israel?

By Sarah Tauber


In 2002, what does it mean for a Diaspora Jew to express commitment to Israel? How are we to define and demonstrate this commitment? These are fundamental questions that our Jewish leadership, both lay and religious, as well as our individual communities, need to regularly consider in order to assure a relationship between future Jewish generations and Israel. The impact of interfaith marriage on this commitment is therefore one facet of a much larger issue.

In two key areas we have the potential to influence support for Israel positively among couples in an an interfaith marriage and their children. The failure to do so, in fact, may have negative consequences. These areas are:
1) Support for adult education programs that welcome and encourage couples in an interfaith marriages to learn about the Jewish past and understand its connection to the Jewish present–particularly how the Jewish past connects with the origin and evolution of the State of Israel.
2) Support for the active involvement of households with interfaith marriages in local Jewish community life.

Support for Israel, a modern nation state where Jews create, shape and direct their society in all its varied aspects, depends in part on feeling familiar with and connected to how Jews have successfully constructed and maintained Jewish civilization over thousands of years. Studying Jewish history is one way that we can develop this link, especially among families where one of the parents has no emotional or generational ties to Jewish history.

Learning about the Jewish past helps us realize that Jewish life is only as vibrant as the individuals and communities who participate in shaping its present. In particular, becoming knowledgeable about the dilemmas of modern Jewish history, which range from questions about assimilation to Zionism, helps place the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life in a more nuanced historical framework. Concern for the State of Israel, responsiveness to its achievements and successes, trials and tribulations, may find more fertile ground as a result of this educational exposure.

Yet studying Jewish history is not enough to assure active commitment to Israel, such as wanting to visit the country, to learn about its evolving culture, and to support it through philanthropy. This is particularly the case for households with interfaith marriage who may have fewer family connections with Israelis. Such demonstrable support for Israel comes to a great extent from feeling part of the drama of the world-wide “community of Jews”–in Hebrew, Klal Yisrael.

If families with interfaith marriages belong to welcoming local Jewish communities, where their participation is encouraged and appreciated, where they feel that they have both a place and a stake in perpetuating their community, then such grass-roots identification will probably transfer to a more global connection–and specifically, to the State of Israel.

If families with interfaith marriages are allowed to develop an engagement with the Jewish people through their communal activities, then they will also be more inclined to articulate this link through support of Israel. However, if they are made to feel alienated or estranged from their local Jewish community, how can we hope that they and their children will forge a solid commitment to a Jewish world that is much more distant and unfamiliar?

As a Jew living in Europe, I believe that the hostility here towards Israel’s policies has awakened slumbering anti-Semitic feelings. The political leadership and the press have helped create an environment where the distinction between legitimate political criticism of Israel and generalized anti-Jewish sentiment becomes blurred. In Geneva, the city where I live, all of the synagogues and Jewish community buildings have security guards. At the Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah) commemoration ceremony there was a metal detector that everyone needed to walk through before being admitted into the auditorium. On a personal level, I feel a heightened sense of solidarity and vulnerability as a member of a minority group. I have also asked myself, “Where do our spouses who are not Jewish fit into this picture? Will there be an increase in Jewish suspicion towards non-Jews by our communities? Will we develop an ‘us against them’ mentality?”

It seems to me that in an environment where anti-Semitism is on the rise, our spouses who are not Jewish but who choose to be part of a Jewish family and raise Jewish children need to be appreciated for willingly identifying with a minority group. The large number of such individuals is a new phenomenon in Jewish history, and our Jewish communities must include them in the discussions concerning the current crisis. They, as well as their families of origin, are new sources of potential support for Jewry from the world outside of Judaism and, as a consequence, for Israel.

About Sarah Tauber

Sarah Tauber is a free lance writer and the director of youth programs and the religious school at Congregation Beit Gil, a liberal Jewish synagogue in Geneva,Switzerland.