Last month, a controversy erupted over a commercial on Israeli television promoting the Jewish Agency’s Masa program, which brings young Jews to Israel for sustained periods of work, study, and volunteering. The advertisement showed young Jews on “lost” posters with the statement that “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” It drew a firestorm of criticism on blogs and in news reports for its negative portrayal of the Diaspora. Facing mounting international controversy, the Jewish Agency quickly killed the ad.
What do Israelis need to know about intermarriage — and who is going to tell them?
By implicitly equating assimilation and intermarriage, the Masa ad expressed a misconception that appears frequently in the English-language Israeli press. All agree that assimilation — the loss of Jewish identity and connection — is terrible. But intermarriage does not necessarily result in loss of Jewish identity.
To the contrary, intermarriage is already enlarging American Jewish communities. The 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey found that 60 percent of interfaith families are raising their children as Jews. It concluded that “although intermarriage is generally presumed to have a negative impact on the size of the Jewish population, in Boston it appears to have increased [it].”
In addition, more than 25 percent of the member families in Reform synagogues are intermarried; the Reform movement has been growing in both numbers and market share.
Moreover, the influx of non-Jewish partners has the potential to qualitatively enrich Jewish life. At InterfaithFamily.com, we’ve attracted thousands of personal narratives. Many Jewish partners express a very strong commitment to Jewish life and have very supportive non-Jewish partners; one intermarried man wrote to his father about his young daughter, “Dad, you won’t believe this, but she speaks Hebrew. She goes to synagogue and observes Shabbat. She almost knows more about our people and our religion than I do, probably because she pays more attention in services than I ever did. She is a Jew, Dad. I want you to know that.”
Many people tell us that because they are in interfaith relationships, they work harder at their Jewish involvement. One inter-dating Jewish woman described her feelings as she brought her non-Jewish boyfriend to meet her Holocaust-survivor grandparents: “I desperately wanted my grandparents to know that dating Nathan had not made me any less Jewish and had, in many ways, strengthened my personal commitment to a faith that was easy to take for granted in a Jewish home, a Jewish grade school, and a largely Jewish community.”
Many intermarried parents recognize the importance of giving children a single religious identity, and there are particular aspects of Jewish life that appeal to them. One wrote, about Shabbat, “When we sit down together, there’s a peacefulness that comes over us. Something about it, about the ancient Jewish prayers, about being linked to a worldwide tradition, about sharing it together, all of us, has truly brought the beauty and bond of Judaism into our intermarried home.”
Another wrote, “I enjoyed the Jewish encouragement of asking and answering questions. I am still fascinated that through the guidance of texts, traditions and teachers, I have the freedom to question my religion and search for answers.”
Intermarriage also has the potential to increase support for Israel in America. The entire extended family of the non-Jewish partner becomes related to a Jew, and to that extent connected with the Jewish community. Many young adult children with one Jewish parent are interested enough to participate in growing numbers in Birthright Israel trips, returning to America with strengthened Jewish identity.
One non-Jewish wife on an Israel Encounter interfaith couples’ trip told us that when the tour director greeted the group by welcoming them “home,” she bristled, thinking, “I do not agree with the politics of this country and this is not my home.”
“But by the end of the trip, I felt as though I was leaving my extended family, leaving my home. I am carrying this momentum with me back to Atlanta. For the first time in I am embarrassed to admit how long we went to Shabbat services. It just seemed right after being in Jerusalem for our last Shabbat. I purchased a transliterated siddur so that I can follow along at services next Friday. I am also attempting to learn Hebrew. I am determined to read and speak some basic Hebrew when we return ‘home.’”
There are North American critics of the Boston survey and of the Reform movement. Rabbi Norman Lamm’s hateful comment that Reform has grown by “add[ing] goyim to Jews” suggests that he would write off the young woman who now thinks of Israel as “home.” It is important to hear perspectives of people who consider intermarriage not a threat, but an opportunity that cries out for a positive response.
The “Lost Jews” ad was interpreted in America as attacking mixed marriages, and that generated a very negative reaction. People will not be attracted to a community, a country, or a way of life if they do not feel welcomed. Helping Israelis to learn not to think and talk about intermarriage as the equivalent of assimilation will contribute to increased Jewish identity and connection among intermarried families — something that is of vital interest to the Jewish communities of both North America and Israel.
A version of this essay appeared in the Jerusalem Post.