Why the Jewish Community Needs to Change Its Approach to Interfaith Marriage

By Charlotte Honigman-Smith


I believe that the American Jewish community needs to start thinking about interfaith marraige, and the families that interfaith marriage creates, in new ways. I believe that we must be willing to reexamine common assumptions, and come up with new ideas about what constitutes a Jewish family. We are going to have to articulate, more clearly than we’ve been willing to in the past, what the responsibilities of a Jewish parent are, and what the responsibilities of a congregation or a community are to a Jewish parent.

It’s time to examine what we believe and why. Stopping interfaith marriage has been a preoccupation of the American Jewish community for forty years now. The opposition to it has generally been discussed in terms of losing people–the couples in interfaith marriages and their children.

I can’t dismiss the fear of losing Jews. But two things seem obvious to me. First, despite all the fear and fervor that goes into opposing interfaith marriage, it has not declined. Second, Jews who are in interfaith marriages, and their partners, are often willing to go to great lengths to raise their children as Jews. If we’re so worried about losing Jews, what are we doing to make things easier for interfaith couples who want to bring up Jewish children? Don’t we have a responsibility to challenge Jews, no matter who they marry, to raise Jewish children?

That’s a challenge that has not been made in any positive way. There is a common assumption that a Jew who marries out is already “unaffiliated.” Sometimes this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, often not. What programs there are for interfaith parents assume, universally, a very low level of Jewish knowledge and practice on everyone’s part. This is true of some, and not true of others.

Any interfaith couple who raises a Jewish child is already doing so against a din of popular belief that they can’t raise a child Jewishly. Often, they’re up against condescension and obnoxious behavior from people who should know better. When I, a child of interfaith parents who was raised Jewishly, began religious school, my parents were grilled about their wretched Christmas tree–did they have one or not? I somehow doubt that all-Jewish families were being quizzed about their home practices. This was at such an old-fashioned Reform temple that my parents were offered the option of not having me learn any Hebrew if they preferred.

Despite the condescension and unwelcoming attitudes, interfaith couples have, in surprisingly large numbers, gone ahead and raised Jewish kids because that is what they wanted to do. Our synagogues are now seeing a remarkable number of Jewish children with gentile family members who are becoming part of their Jewish communities. Yet all too frequently, Jews speak derogatorily of those who marry out right in front of these interfaith families.

I wonder, does it not occur to the rabbi who delivers a sermon about preventing your children from marrying out that there are Jews married to partners of another faith in that room? Jews whose children are married to partners of another faith? Jews with a parent of another fatih?

At a meeting of the Jewish nonprofit board I sit on, for an organization that does advocacy and community support for Jews in the former Soviet Union, I complain that the local Federation has cut our funding for yet another year. A fellow board member chides, “We have to think about the children. Continuity, with all the interfaith marriage and everything that’s happening today. ”

I know that she knows. I put my hands flat on the table in front of me and practice deep breathing. If my presence, in my twenties, a synagogue member, an employee of a Jewish agency, on the board of this organization, does not interfere with her fantasy of what interfaith marriage produces, probably nothing will.

I intend to raise my children in a Jewish home, and give them a Jewish education. I plan to bring up proud, conscious, educated Jews. But it outrages me to think that anyone would say my children have more to prove than other Jewish children.

I consider this a feminist issue, as well as a Jewish one. Am I valuable to my people only as the wife of a Jewish man? Is my worth to my community solely defined by whom I marry and whose children I give birth to? I don’t believe so. Let’s find a better way to adapt to the realities of interfaith marriage without resorting to creating a group of probationary Jews.

I now belong to a Reform synagogue, but I define myself as a non-denominational Jew. I am quasi-halachic, feminist, and deeply committed to Jewish culture, both secular and spiritual. I am a package deal with my family. I live and work in the Jewish community that I was raised in as the Irish-Ashkenazi activist, writer, and loudmouth that I am. I can’t be made ashamed of any of that.



About Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.