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The challenge of open arms
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The challenge of open arms

Last Friday, I led a discussion at the JCC in West Orange on Three Faiths, One Land, a new film about an interfaith mission to Israel I took part in last year. Filmmaker E. James Smith captures the bonding that took place during the trip among its Jewish, Christian, and Muslim participants.

After the screening, a woman took me aside. “You see how beautiful it is when religions come together,” she said. “So why can’t the Jewish community be more accepting of intermarriage?”

For rabbis and other Jewish professionals, few questions are more fraught and painful. I can only imagine the sting of parents and grandparents who feel themselves or their offspring rejected by institutions they may have been a part of their whole lives. I’d hate to be the rabbi who tells a long-time member that no, I won’t perform the marriage of your child.

Ostensibly, the landscape is changing. Nearly all Reform synagogues and a growing number of Conservative synagogues have opened their arms to intermarried families, out of genuine compassion and openness and because they want to be a home for families who will raise and educate their children Jewishly. Turn your backs on these families, argue proponents of outreach, and you’ve severed a branch on the Jewish family tree.

And yet, intermarriage is still treated by most Jewish professionals as a “challenge,” which is what Jewish professionals say when they mean “problem.” According to a new study by Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, adult children of intermarriage say they are interested in Jewish activities, but not Jewish institutions, where they still feel a cold shoulder. “These children of intermarriage want to ‘do Jewish,’” says JOI program officer for evaluation Zohar Rotem. However, they often feel excluded from the community. As Rabbi Michelle Pearlman writes, “We need more entry points helping all seekers find open pathways, information, resources, and, most importantly, welcoming faces and open arms.”

Pearlman was disappointed with our cover image of a few weeks back, which illustrated the recent Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews. Using the glass half-empty/half-full cliche, it depicted the unexpectedly high number of Jews (6.8 million) as good news, and the 58 percent intermarriage rate as — ahem — a challenge. I don’t think we meant to ridicule interfaith families, but did intend to capture the mixed communal reaction to Pew, especially by Jewish professionals. Nonetheless, I understand why Pearlman thought we were engaged in “handwringing.”

But I also understand those who see the high intermarriage rate as a troubling sign of the waning vitality of American Judaism. If you believe that Judaism and Jewish tradition are worth saving and transmitting — and I do — you have to worry when a majority of Jews are marrying non-Jews. While I agree with Rabbi Pearlman that these folks are people, not numbers, there is a numbers game here. According to Pew, intermarried Jews are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith — 20 percent compared to the 96 percent of Jews who have a Jewish spouse. Roughly one-third (37 percent) of intermarried Jews with kids say they are not raising those children Jewish at all. Among the children of intermarriage, 83 percent are married to a non-Jewish spouse.

At this point it is customary to say something about Jewish communal resources and argue that the money and time spent on “outreach” may be better spent on programs for in-married families who are more likely to identify with Judaism. But I believe we are a community that can do both — create “pathways” for the intermarried while strengthening our “core” institutions.

What I think I am arguing for is the right to be disappointed — disappointed that so many people don’t value their Jewish tradition enough to make it integral to their marriage and family life. I don’t “blame” folks for marrying out — and if you resent the blessing that makes us the freest and most accepted Jewish community in history, you ought to remember the alternative. But because I care about the present vitality of Judaism, and hope for its robust future, I get sad when others don’t share my enthusiasm. And whether this is the fault of institutions that lack the creativity or flexibility to hold onto their members, or of a society that has thrown open its arms to us — that’s another discussion. I am asking for the right to appreciate the distinctiveness of Judaism, and not be accused of bigotry or insensitivity for promoting that distinctiveness.

In my role as a Jewish professional, I try to not let this (what would you call it: ahavat Yisrael? boosterism? chauvinism?) cloud my responsibility to make this institution embrace — and to urge other institutions to embrace — all Jews. Most engaged Jews I know revel in the warm relations among faiths and the demise of anti-Semitism. They know the joy that comes in finding a soul mate, and wish every couple only happiness. They know intermarried folk who are stalwarts in their organizations, or doing their utmost to raise Jewish kids or grandkids.

But allow them this: As advocates for all things Jewish, don’t expect them to celebrate when others don’t share their passion for the things they love.

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