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Outreach or inreach?

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American-Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has thrown down the gauntlet on intermarriage, and the debate he has sparked is required reading for anyone who cares about communal resources and priorities.

Writing in the new on-line magazine Mosaic, Wertheimer asserts that efforts to welcome intermarried families have been a failure. While non-Orthodox institutions have removed all sorts of “taboos” — allowing rabbis to perform interfaith weddings, allowing non-Jewish spouses to become congregational leaders, declining to assert the importance of inmarriage — the statistics do not show meaningful increases among the offspring of intermarriages who identify themselves as Jews. “In brief,” he asserts, “Jewish communal leaders bet heavily on a formula that they believed would help tip the scales in a different and better direction, and lost.”

Instead, Wertheimer urges Jewish institutions to assert that inmarriage is a Jewish ideal and to invest heavily in “intensive forms of Jewish education” that help Jewish singles meet each other. Institutions should focus far fewer resources on “courting already intermarried families,” he writes, than on “encouraging as many single Jews as possible to marry within the community.”

In response, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, asserts that a “just say no” approach will do nothing to lower rates of intermarriage — a product of America’s openness, after all — while shutting doors on interfaith families and alienating their Jewish loved ones. “This is a strategy of despair that will neither inspire nor impress,” Yoffie writes.

Where Yoffie does agree with Wertheimer is in the need to “declare, without apology or equivocation, that Judaism is about Torah, mitzvot, and creating a life of holiness.” The rabbi joins the professor in strongly encouraging conversion and urging couples to raise their children as Jews. Without turning their backs on intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses, institutions must call for “committed, engaged Jewish living.”

The debate may seem academic, but it is about the way communities commit their resources and the face they present to fellow Jews. To make informed decisions on this vital issue, we all need to weigh in.

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