Interfaith families are people, not numbers
The Oct. 10 NJJN cover illustrating the findings of the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews featured a graphic of a glass at once half full — with the news that there are 6.8 million Jews in America — and at the same time half empty, indicating an intermarriage rate of 58 percent.
This graphic distillation of the 2013 Pew study debate could be seen as offensive to those in our Jewish community in relationships with people from other faith traditions. It wrongly suggests that intermarriage is the source of all challenges to the Jewish community and that those who are intermarried alone should bear the blame and responsibility.
Falling back on simplistic messages and images such as this, we as a Jewish community risk alienating 58 percent of our people.
While I do not seek to minimize either the realities or the impact of intermarriage and assimilation, these issues are not the sole focus of our challenges. Many other sociological forces have an impact on Jewish engagement, including increased secularism across American society, multiculturalism, and a general public that resists joining any group and prefers, as author Robert Putnam puts it, “bowling alone.”
In a country where we are free to fall in love with whomever we want, a high intermarriage rate is hardly a shock. This 58 percent number is a result of our acceptance as full citizens in our free nation. However, if we continue to alienate 58 percent of our community, placing the blame for our communal fears and problems squarely on their shoulders, we all lose. In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler cautioned us to “remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts.” He understood that individual leaders may oppose intermarriage but cautioned that we not reject our own people.
Decades ago, this kind of marginalization was painfully commonplace. Those who “married out” were made to feel as if they had betrayed Judaism and that their marriage was a net loss. However, we now understand that couples of all varieties have the freedom and ability to make Jewish choices. Unpacking the affiliation numbers in the Pew study, you will find that 14 percent of Jews married to a non-Jewish spouse say they belong to a synagogue. Parents from other faith traditions raise Jewish children with their partners. They send their children to our preschools, synagogue religious schools, and our day schools, and even appear in the pictures and articles of this very paper. The scholars can enlighten us about the variations in the affiliation numbers for the endogamous vs. the exogamous, but people in our community are not numbers; they are individuals, and they are here. We cannot afford to lose them.
In the wake of the Pew study, we should stop wasting time wringing our hands and celebrate those in our midst, both Jewish and those from other faith traditions, who are making Jewish choices. Our federation and other organizations have taken steps, with some success, in turning this challenge into an array of opportunities. We need more entry points helping all seekers find open pathways, information, resources, and, most importantly, welcoming faces and open arms.
Leaders within our community need to move beyond the fears of the past and deal with the reality of the present. Let’s abandon the half full/half empty imagery to create a community driven by inclusive rather than exclusive values. Those who are intermarried should not be made to feel that they are the source of all our communal woes. Rather we should work to create open pathways of connection, affirming that all members of our Jewish community are created in the image of God, worthy of being welcomed and valued.