A community’s blind spot on intermarriage
For liberals, there are no red lines. For Orthodox, there are only red lines.
Some of the most devoutly Orthodox and the most liberal Jews appear to agree on one thing: intermarriage isn’t really an issue. Let me explain.
In the recent flap about whether the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College should admit intermarried rabbinical students, Paul Golin advocated in this paper that intermarried rabbis are a no-brainer and that it will make him, as an intermarried Jew, “feel more included.” Andrew Silow-Carroll’s response in the same issue — that Golin’s call to ordain intermarried rabbis is “a bridge too far” — is on the mark. But it is a bridge that undoubtedly will be crossed.
For Golin and others who advocate passionately for liberal Jewish outreach to the intermarried, it is the best of times. We rarely hear from this group about the problems and challenges that can come with intermarriage. We almost never hear about the real-world heartache among some intermarried families who often walked into my office as a federation director. In certain quarters of liberal intermarried outreach, there are only opportunities for welcoming. “Raising children Jewish” is defined so that practically anyone can be included in the statistic, and we’re all one happy family sitting together in the open tent. Intermarriage simply isn’t a problem.
Nor is it a problem for many in the Orthodox world. I’ve lost count of the remarks I’ve heard from my Orthodox brethren that the intermarried are “lost forever” and only “we Orthodox” will be around in a few years. Sometimes it’s said with a sense of triumph, occasionally with a touch of sadness, but usually with a shrug of the shoulders
When my wife and I wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope describing our own journey from intermarried couple whose courtship began in a church choir to Orthodox Jewish family living in Israel, the Orthodox reaction was mixed. While many welcomed an account of Jewish transformation, other voices were decidedly less positive.
One Orthodox rebbitzin was hopping mad when she learned we were reaching out to intermarried families interested in exploring Orthodox Judaism. “We shouldn’t be rewarding them!” she shouted. The intermarried have severed their ties, and that’s that. Another reader wrote, “I think people should think before they choose a spouse, instead of changing their opinion afterwards. If they take a non-Jewish spouse, they should accept this fact once and for all.”
In other words, it is the best of times in the Orthodox world, our Jewish lives are insulated from intermarriage, and so the intermarried aren’t our challenge. Except that they are.
When I speak to groups, I often ask for a show of hands — first, those who have a close relative who is intermarried; second, any intermarried relative; and finally, those who have a friend, coworker or neighbor who is intermarried. At any Orthodox synagogue or yeshiva in which I’ve spoken, without exception, virtually every hand is raised by the end.
With about 600,000 intermarried families across the country, intermarriage is everyone’s issue. But despite some successes, the Jewish community has yet to put forth genuinely workable solutions. For some in the intermarried outreach field, there are no red lines. The Jewish people should somehow do what no people on earth has ever done — destroy all borders and expect that somehow a thriving community will emerge. For some in the Orthodox world, there are only red lines. If we make our borders strong enough, the intermarried will remain on the other side, never mind whether some could have become thriving Jewish families who would positively impact the greater community.
The time has come to boldly dream of new solutions. But first, those in the world of liberal intermarried outreach must recognize more fully the very real problems that have come with intermarriage, both for the Jewish community and for the intermarried themselves. And some in the Orthodox world must recognize that intermarriage is their issue too, and that their voice and vision, so often at odds with the liberal Jewish world, is sorely needed at the table.
We need to move beyond the liberal/Orthodox “dialogue of the deaf” where, from completely different perspectives, everyone holds the common ground of not seeing the intermarriage issue for what it is, to a real dialogue with a common recognition of the issues we collectively face. The proposed solutions across the Jewish spectrum will undoubtedly differ, and we will often disagree, but that we need to be exponentially more effective on this issue is also not in doubt.
Ultimately, the intermarried are ill-served by focusing obsessively on either inclusion or exclusion. Instead, we must begin to talk of transformation and create the kind of radically spiritual communities that will cause intermarried families to want to immerse themselves in Judaism.