Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews?A Moment Symposium
In January of 1939 The Atlantic caused a stir when it published “I Married a Jew,” an unprecedented first-person chronicle of the experiences of an intermarried non-Jewish woman. In it, the anonymous author describes the severe ostracism she and her husband faced from their families and communities because of their marriage. The piece was written at a time when there were relatively few intermarriages in the United States, and it was still common for Jewish parents to sever all ties with and literally sit shiva for a child who married a non-Jew. Since the second half of the 20th century—mainly as a result of greater secularization, assimilation and increased social mobility—American Jewish society has undergone a series of radical transformations. Simultaneously, there has been a steep increase in intermarriage rates, particularly since the 1970s. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project found that 44 percent of married Jews in the United States have a non-Jewish spouse. This number is higher in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements and somewhat lower in the Conservative movement. Intermarriage rarely if ever occurs in the Orthodox community, and when it does happen, people leave for other denominations.
The very meaning of intermarriage has shifted with these demographic changes. In earlier periods, intermarriage was generally seen as a rejection of Jewish identity and a form of rebellion against the community. These days, intermarriage doesn’t necessarily spell the end of an active Jewish life or of Jewish lineage. Especially among younger Jews, intermarriage is often seen as unremarkable and fully compatible with being Jewish. Much of the current debate on the topic is taking place among religious leaders, for whom intermarriage is not just a matter of demographic survival but also theology and halacha (Jewish law). There are sharp divisions among the movements. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements officially leave the decision about participating in intermarriages to individual rabbis, many of whom will officiate at intermarriages. The Orthodox and Conservative rabbinates interpret the law as forbidding intermarriage. Orthodox rabbis do not attend or officiate at intermarriages and, since the 1970s, Conservative rabbis have also been barred from officiating at or attending weddings between Jews and non-Jews. Last summer, the debate was reignited when a small number of prominent Conservative rabbis at independent synagogues publicly broke with the movement and began performing intermarriages.
Despite its prevalence, intermarriage remains highly contentious and echoes American Jewish fears about assimilation and irrelevance. And since the Orthodox movement remains 100 percent opposed to intermarriage, the issue also contributes to the ever-widening gap between liberal American Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, both in the U.S. and Israel.
Moment asks a group of prominent rabbis, community leaders and scholars to weigh in on the debate. Although there are a wide range of strongly held views in this symposium, almost everyone we spoke with agreed on two points: Intermarriage is here to stay, and it is imperative to reach out to and integrate interfaith families into the Jewish community. Ultimately, the debate over intermarriage determines who American Jews are and will be in the 21st century and beyond.
Michael Satlow is a professor of Judaic studies and religious studies at Brown University. He is the author of Six books, most recently How the Bible Became Holy.
Marriage used to be seen as a contractual relationship between a man and a woman rather than as something sanctified and sacred—that idea of marriage came about more as a result of Christianity. Similarly, the definition of intermarriage has changed dramatically over time, and concern about it has fluctuated. The early texts don’t have any of the modern demographic concerns about intermarriage. They don’t discuss matters like the survival of the Jewish people or the health of the community. Those were non-issues. When seen in the giant scope of the Talmud, rabbinic literature says relatively little at all about intermarriage. Early Jewish texts generally condemn intermarriage. The reasons for this are not always clear, and there’s an interesting dynamic in classic Jewish texts where they have a problem defining what intermarriage actually means. It may mean a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, but it very often refers to marriages between two Jews. For example, there are some passages in the Babylonian Talmud where intermarriage is between a Babylonian Jew and a Palestinian Jew. There are other texts that define intermarriage as between a priest, a Kohain, and someone from a non-Kohainite line, but who is also a Jew. So although there is a clear condemnation of exogamy or “out-marriage,” there is also a very blurry line as to what constitutes “out-marriage.”
Historically, part of the reason for this condemnation is a notion that Jews are pure, and there is a desire to preserve the Jewish race. Because of this concern with purity, early texts might discuss intermarriage during time periods when there is not a significant threat of it happening. In other cases, there is a fear that the non-Jewish partner will lead the Jewish partner into foreign worship and start them down a slippery slope to idolatry. The Bible has numerous cases of Israelite men marrying foreign women: Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of the Midian priest Jethro. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphera. And Judah marries Shua the Canaanite.
Many of these foreign women are presented as temptresses, and the texts reflect an understanding that for a Jewish man to marry a non-Jewish woman is a sign of a lack of control.
Edmund Case is the founder and former director of Interfaith Family and the co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook.
There are many strong arguments for why intermarriage is good for Jews. Many Jewish partners find that their interest and engagement in Jewish life increases because they are in an interfaith relationship. They report that they cannot take their Jewish involvement for granted; they really have to think about it. I think that is a good thing because when you have to think about Judaism, it becomes a great source of meaning and value. Non-Jewish partners often become very engaged in and bring new insights and energy to the Jewish community. Intermarriage increases tolerance and respect for Jews and could potentially even increase positive feelings about Israel—although that can be challenging. Some people also say that intermarriage improves the genetic pool.
It’s very counterproductive to say that intermarriage is bad. That was the response of the organized Jewish community for a very long time, and it was damaging. It pushed intermarried couples away from Jewish life. Many surveys show that intermarried couples are not nearly as engaged in the Jewish community as non-intermarried couples. But we can’t know what these survey results would have been if these intermarried couples had been genuinely embraced and welcomed by the Jewish community starting 25 years ago, instead of being considered a problem. The solution is to engage intermarried couples. The affiliation of children of intermarried couples who are themselves active in the Jewish community is statistically comparable to the children of non-intermarried couples.
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff and his wife Marylynn were married in a traditional Conservative Jewish ceremony in 1966.
Asher Lopatin is an American Orthodox rabbi and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
In general, intermarriage is very problematic. It’s against Jewish law as stated in the Talmud and Torah, and it poses a great danger for our people. Most statistical data and anecdotal information show that in the majority of cases when a Jew marries a non-Jew and raises a family, their children have much less of a connection to Israel, are less likely to raise their children Jewish and, in general, they are less connected to the Jewish community. There’s evidence of successful ways to modify that. For instance, the relationship of the Jewish grandparents to the grandchildren of intermarriage is very important. We need to be more welcoming to non-Jewish spouses, and conversion needs to be a much more workable system and opportunity. We also need to show intermarried couples all of the wonderful things that make Judaism such a great religion and, in particular, connect them to Israel in more effective ways.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I say that if a Jew falls in love with a non-Jew, the non-Jewish partner should be encouraged to convert to Judaism. I also have to say that, when a Jew is dating, they should date someone who affirms who they are as a human being and as a Jew. When you are dating seriously, you should ask: Is this person going to help me raise a Jewish family? So I would say date Jews who are committed to Judaism! But if a person is seriously dating a non-Jew, then it is important to be sure that the person you’re dating will commit to converting if you get married. Converts are good for the Jewish people. They bring in good genes, new perspectives and great vitality. Diversity is great, but people who come in from the outside need to make a commitment to being Jewish. That’s why I have been eager to facilitate conversions whenever I possibly can.
I hope in the future that the Jewish community, especially the Orthodox movement, will take more initiative regarding conversion, and I hope the Orthodox community will take the lead in welcoming converts. Orthodox rabbis, however, cannot perform intermarriages.The question is: How can we sincerely show that we want people to be part of our community while upholding our laws, our traditions and our opposition to intermarriage?
Barney Frank served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts from 1981 to 2013.
As a Jew who married a non-Jewish man, I believe the most important consideration should be whether intermarriage is good for the individual. I think intermarriage is good for the individual Jew getting married to a non-Jew. People should marry the person with whom they are in love, regardless of religion, gender or any other criteria. The rights and needs of the individual are absolutely determinative. Similarly, the extent to which an intermarried couple fits into, and is active in, the Jewish community should be solely determined by whether the Jewish partner actually wants to be an active part of the community and, even more so, whether the non-Jewish spouse also wants this. It’s up to the individuals, not the community, whether or not this is important and something they want. This will vary enormously. I know many intermarried couples that happily participate fully in the Jewish community and many others who don’t. There is something unique about the Jewish experience and community, both in the world and in America. I would be sad to see that disappear, and certainly intermarriage has the potential to diminish that. However, for me, the larger community is not the main concern.
There is too much focus on intermarriage and whether it “weakens” the Jewish community. We should be more focused on what’s going on in Israel and with the Israeli rabbinate and their negativity to other Jews. I would argue that really weakens the Jewish community. Furthermore, people who are concerned about intermarriage weakening Jewish identity should be expressing a lot more concern about rabbis who still refuse to perform same-sex marriages. It’s a real problem that there are rabbis who won’t marry one Jew to another Jew, even though these couples very much want to be Jewish and have a Jewish marriage.
Sarina Roffé is a journalist and scholar who specializes in the history and genealogy of Syrian Jews.
In my opinion, intermarriage is not good for Jews. The demographics of the Jewish people aren’t growing, at least not by a very significant margin. So we shouldn’t have intermarriage; it’s a matter of survival of the Jewish people. We are less than 1 percent of the world’s population. Every time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone. Furthermore, across the board—not just with Jews—I don’t believe in interreligious marriage or interracial marriage, period. Unless they are both Jewish, I do not believe Caucasians and African Americans should intermarry. Marriage is hard enough; a remarkable number end in divorce. When you have a different culture involved, that raises the bar further, and when you add a different religion, when beliefs differ or conflict, that makes it even harder.
The Syrian Jewish community, of which I am a member, completely rejects intermarriage and conversion of any kind. So if there is intermarriage or marriage to a convert, even an Orthodox convert, it is 100 percent rejected. If a person chooses to go down that path, then their children wouldn’t be allowed to attend community yeshivot, the men in the family would not be permitted to take aliyahs or join the synagogue, they’re denied burial rights and they would face complete social rejection. Nobody will play with their children. They would not get invited to holiday events or weddings, and people would not speak to them. They are totally isolated from the community. Personally, I am more polite than most people. I have to behave respectfully because intermarriage has occurred in my family. I still talk to and socialize with them. It becomes a matter of practicality, but then I would socialize with non-Jews anyway. That doesn’t mean I like it.
Bob Davis is a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal in Washington, DC. He is currently a visiting professor of journalism at Princeton University.
I’ve read the gloom-and-doom studies about intermarriage and how it’s going to destroy the Jewish people. I’m a lot more optimistic about the Jewish future than those studies are. I think the general acceptance of intermarriage says something good about America; it shows the openness and tolerance of the United States. We should be proud that this is a place where you can marry who you want and live a good life.
Given one’s druthers, I think that if you identify as a Jew you would prefer to marry a Jew—but life doesn’t always work out that way; you fall in love with whom you fall in love with. It’s a matter of what you make of it. I am a Reform Jew who married a Catholic woman, and I was lucky that she enthusiastically wanted to preserve the Jewish traditions. It was important to me to raise my children Jewish and she understood that. As an intermarried couple, we chose to give our children a Jewish identity, which as adults they are now free to accept or reject.
The overwhelming influence of Christian culture in America can be challenging when you’re in an intermarriage. For instance, the competition between Christmas and Hanukkah is a serious thing and is difficult when one parent is Christian and the other is Jewish. At first we didn’t have a Christmas tree because I didn’t want one, but one year my wife brought one home and I didn’t want to be like Scrooge—after all, it’s just a tree—so we kept it. There also are benefits to intermarriage: It can create a more tolerant outlook, and you are exposed to different religions and traditions.
Geraldine Brooks is the author of eight books, including March, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel is The Secret Chord.
I don’t have opinions on the wider topic of intermarriage, but speaking for myself, my decision to convert when I married a Jew was more about history than faith. In particular, it was my own small, personal gesture to the terrible losses of the 20th century. Since Judaism is passed through the female line—a tradition I’ve always appreciated for its feminist implications as well as its hard-headed pragmatism—there was no way I was going to be the end of the line for a family that had made it through diaspora, pogrom and Shoah.
I’m not a deist, but I appreciate Jewish prayer for its emphasis on gratitude for the small good things of nature—the dew on the grass, the new moon, the turning of the seasons. I am also glad to engage in the long struggle for human understanding that Torah study represents. I am fortunate to be part of a heterogeneous and open shul, and to be able to offer this kind of Jewish learning to my two sons. What they decide to do with it is entirely up to them.
Sylvia Barack Fishman
Sylvia Barack Fishman is the co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the author of eight books, including Double or Nothing?: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.
For most of Jewish history, Jews have lived in environments where they were small minorities. When a Jew married a person of another religion, they converted to that religion. Very occasionally, non-Jews converted to Judaism, but often Jews lived in societies where that was considered an offense against the official religion of that society. There are historical records of whole villages of Jews being killed because a Christian girl who was working in a Jewish home converted to Judaism.
The idea that intermarriage has always been a concern is entirely incorrect. When ancient and classic Jewish texts refer with concern to Jews marrying non-Jews, it is not because they were prohibited from doing it; they were not. It’s because historically, when a Jew married a non-Jew, they were lost to the Jewish people. They became part of the other culture.
It’s important to remember that until the modern age, there was no such thing as intermarriage as we understand it because there was no neutral ground for people of two religions to live together. Historically, when a person married someone from another religion, they joined only one of the two original religions. The modern notion of intermarriage is premised on living in a society where there is a lot of neutral space and where people can choose to be what they want.
Today, there is great variety in how non-Jewish partners relate to Judaism. One very common one is that both the Jewish and non-Jewish partner simply retreat from religion. Another is that both partners continue with their original religions, and the household has two religions. A third is that some non-Jews agree to raise their children as Jewish and become involved in the Jewish community. In a small number of cases, the non-Jewish partner may eventually convert to Judaism.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is an Israeli Orthodox-born conservative rabbi, educator and performing artist. He founded the Lab/Shul of NYC and is the creator of “Storahtelling.”
Increasingly, many American Jews choose love over tribal loyalty. Love is a good thing. Love is cherished and beautiful and complicated. So is love good for the Jews? Yes. Is intermarriage therefore good for the Jews who choose it? Yes. Is it good for Judaism, and is it good for the continuity of the Jewish narrative? That’s a very different question.
Intermarriage is a very serious challenge to the continuity of Judaism as we know it, but it is not a deal-breaker, nor is it the end of the line. It is a serious invitation to be very thoughtful about what it means to be evolving as a people and an invitation to be sensitive to the realities on the ground, to examine our priorities and the complexities of continuity and discontinuity.
As a Conservative rabbi at an independent shul, I have decided to perform intermarriages, but I do not propose or support a blanket yes to all intermarriages but rather to ones between Jews and people from another heritage who are involved, engaged and deeply invested in the Jewish community. That is a nuanced but important distinction. The current position of the Conservative movement is that there is not much room for this kind of nuance. That feels inappropriate to me.
This is a unique moment. For the past century or so, there’s been a gradual decline in Jewish literacy and engagement with what Judaism has to offer. This has created stress and anxieties about the continuity of Judaism. These are legitimate and valid concerns. I have confidence that many of us still possess a deep love for what Judaism and Jewish values have to offer. I want people to choose Judaism from a place of love and trust, rather than from anxiety and fear that this is the end of the line. We should embrace the complex evolution of our current Jewish reality. If we don’t do this, the Conservative Jewish movement might just collapse.
Elliot N. Dorff
Elliot N. Dorff is a Conservative rabbi and professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University in California. Dorff is the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
I think it is a mixed bag. Only 20 to 30 percent of interfaith couples raise their children as Jews. Jews are already in a demographic crisis, and this makes it worse. On the other hand, when interfaith couples raise their children as Jews or when the non-Jewish partner later converts, intermarriages can actually enhance the Jewish people. When people come into the tradition from other backgrounds and decide to convert, they often bring a real commitment to the tradition that those born Jewish don’t have. There are many couples where the Jew-by-choice is actually much more active in the community than the Jew-by-birth.
As a Conservative rabbi, I strongly disagree with the small number of Conservative rabbis who have decided to start performing intermarriages. I do not believe that officiating at intermarriages ultimately helps the Jewish people. Reform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish. Jews are supposed to marry Jews. That goes back to the Bible: Abraham sent Eliezer back to Paddan-Aram to get a wife for Isaac from the extended family. When Esau took a wife from outside the Jewish clan and his parents were unhappy, he took a second wife from within the clan. Later Ezra required all men who had married non-Jewish wives to divorce them before they were allowed to come back from Babylonia to Israel. So the value and idea of endogamy is very strongly rooted in our tradition. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a Jew-by-choice or a Jew-by-birth, as a rabbi I must only marry one Jew to another Jew. I’m not within and honoring the Jewish tradition if I marry a Jew to a non-Jew.
I just co-chaired the blue ribbon commission of the Rabbinic Assembly of the Conservative movement to clarify our stance about this issue. We have reaffirmed that a Conservative rabbi may not officiate at the wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew. There are some questions about activities that are ancillary to the wedding itself. It remains uncertain if a rabbi, for example, can toast an intermarried couple at the reception after a wedding or if, after the wedding, the rabbi can have a ceremonious welcome of the interfaith couple to a synagogue. However, the wedding itself is only Jewish if it’s between two Jews.
A.J. Jacobs is the author of five best-selling books, including It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.
The more intermarriage we have, the more we’ll have to accept that Judaism itself isn’t something just encoded in the genes. It’s a way of looking at life. It’s a series of rituals and stories. It’s a community of people hoping to heal the world. It’s salty and fatty and sometimes gross food. If you cling to the notion of Judaism as DNA, Judaism will disappear. Since the rates of intermarriage are only going to increase and adopted kids can be Jewish, children of mixed marriages can be Jewish. The idea that you’re only Jewish if your mom is Jewish—that seems outdated.
Here’s an analogy that might or might not work. When the Second Temple was destroyed and we had the diaspora, Jews had to realize that our religion isn’t about the Temple. As one rabbi told me, you have to take the Temple with you in your heart. Maybe there’s a parallel. As our DNA scatters, we have to realize that Judaism isn’t just tied to genetics. It is about a way of life, a culture.
Plus, there are advantages to intermarriage. It might reduce anti-Semitism. I once interviewed Bennett Greenspan, founder of Family Tree DNA. He told me, “I really do think that if someone finds out they have a little Jewish DNA, they’ll be less inclined to stay quiet when someone tells an anti-Semitic joke.”
Felix Posen is the founder and president of the Posen Foundation. The foundation is compiling a ten-volume anthology documenting 3,000 years of Jewish literature, artwork and artifacts.
I think it is too soon to come to any conclusions on how intermarriage affects Jewish culture. Jewish culture, like Jewish religion, is a way of life. If the married couple decides to carry on the marriage within Jewish culture, then it can work as well as the marriage of Jewish men and women who believe in Judaism as a religion. What is obviously important is the knowledge that each partner has and develops an understanding of the meaning and depth of Judaism as a culture. This is a relatively new field, and there have been no in-depth studies to provide an answer to the question of the impact of intermarriage on Jewish culture.
Danny Nevins is the Pearl Resnick Dean of the Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It’s not a binary. Intermarriage has been part of the American Jewish experience since colonial times. It has brought forth blessings and challenges. It is less certain that the children of interfaith couples will identify as Jewish. On the positive side, many wonderful, active and knowledgeable Jews come from an interfaith background and have chosen to exclusively identify with and practice Judaism. In fact, at JTS we have students training to be rabbis and cantors who come from interfaith families which have nurtured their spiritual and Jewish development. We celebrate this fact, without ignoring its rarity.
Judaism is based in the home with many of our most important rituals occurring at the dining table. The Torah speaks about teaching Jewish belief diligently to your children. If parents have different religious affiliations, it becomes more challenging to hand Jewish knowledge, beliefs and practices down to the next generation.
I do not believe Conservative rabbis should perform interfaith marriages. The Jewish wedding ritual is deeply imbued with distinctive Jewish beliefs and practices. However, there is much that we can do to help interfaith couples enrich their spiritual life through engagement with Jewish wisdom. And for those whose exploration leads them to consider making Judaism their family faith, we welcome all who wish to become Jewish with an open heart.
Elisha Wiesel is the son of Elie and Marion Wiesel.
There are two questions to answer: Is it good for the individuals themselves? And then, is it good for the existence of the Jewish people as a whole? The two answers are more interrelated than people may realize. I believe that individual Jews receive a legacy of a rich culture and tradition with important values that give a sense of purpose. If individual Jews cut themselves off from that by intermarrying, a step that effectively distances them from their people, they are giving up something important. It’s ultimately for the individual to decide if what they’re gaining in their spouse is worth that. However, if we apply Kant-like logic of going to extremes and ask, “What would happen if every Jew made that choice?” it’s very simple. If every Jew married out, there would be no more Jewish people. So in the extremis, intermarriage can’t be good for the Jewish people.
I promised my father Elie Wiesel that I would marry another Jew. It was understood that this included anyone who converted to Judaism in a meaningful process. I understand now that if I had not married within the faith, experiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing. For instance, the connection that I had to my father was not just that of a father and son, it happened in a very Jewish context. When I said Kaddish for him for 11 months, I was not just connecting with him; I felt connected with his forebears as well. I had a real sense of history, going back thousands of years, of what it meant to be part of a lineage with certain traditions, rituals and values. For almost 2,000 years, when a parent has passed, the Jewish child has said Kaddish. There is something profound about that. As I prepare my own son for his bar mitzvah and watch my daughter learning Hebrew, despite this crazy modern life with all of its distractions, I have this same sense of history and continuity. I think about where I came from, where I am and where my Jewish children will go in the future. That’s deeply meaningful and very grounding.
Micah Greenland is an Orthodox rabbi and the international director of NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union.
Intermarriage is decidedly not good for the Jews. At the core, this is because of the importance of the Jewish home. Jewish life, values and practice revolve around the Jewish home. A Jewish home is the strongest way to ensure that Jewish values are lived and practiced. This has the highest likelihood of happening in a household where both partners are Jewish and share central Jewish values. It is my hope and aspiration for every Jew that they should be able to bring the beauty of Jewish life to their home as well as to their personal practice.
Youth movements like NCSY play an important role in restoring Jewish pride and the value of leading a Jewish life. A study by the Lilly Endowment demonstrated that 98 percent of NCSY alumni married other Jews; other youth movements have had similar positive results. By the time a person is choosing a marriage partner there are tens of thousands of life choices that they have already made that influence whom they are dating and whom they are likely to marry. Jewish youth movements help ensure that as many of those choices as possible are made through a Jewish lens.
Intermarriage is heartbreaking. We can’t hide our heads in the sand about that. However, I do not think we benefit as a community by putting a stamp of approval on it. We have to maintain the ideal that we should be raising Jews to have such a commitment to their Jewish values and Jewish practice that their highest aspiration for their Judaism involves building a Jewish home with a Jewish spouse.
Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and The New York Times and the author of ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America.
Interfaith marriage has been a great challenge for the Jews as a community and for Jewish continuity. That will continue to be the case. Intermarriage is much more complicated for families than it is for childless couples. In most cases, a husband and wife can go their separate ways when it comes to beliefs, traditions and rituals. That becomes much harder once children are in the picture.
Personally, as someone in an intermarriage raising Jewish children, I think many people don’t realize the day-to-day shifting and tensions that happen after you decide to raise the kids Jewish. Religion influences everyday questions from celebrating holidays to choosing schools, summer camp, how to spend money, which charities to support and what kind of community you want to live in. My children certainly have a somewhat broader perspective because they have family members who are not Jewish. Generally speaking, it would have been easier to be in a same-faith marriage. I knew that going in, and it’s still true.
Despite the challenges, for American Jews as a community, intermarriage has been a boon in certain ways. It has encouraged greater assimilation and tolerance in this country and allowed people of other faiths to know and understand Judaism more fully and more meaningfully. It has allowed Jews to also gain a broader understanding of what other religious communities are like. I think that mixing has produced a more understanding, less suspicious attitude toward others than if everyone was in their own camp. Having members of other faiths as members of your extended family has produced a kind of intimate tolerance and assimilation in many cases that in previous generations was not possible.
Julie Schonfeld is the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
As a consequence of the open society in which Jews fully participate, the number of Jews falling in love with and marrying people who are not Jewish has increased over the past few decades. In our synagogues and communities, we meet many Jews who came to join the Jewish people through this path. We also welcome many wonderful people who are not Jewish, but live as a part of a Jewish household. It is the view of Conservative Judaism that our tradition and our community are blessed with a wealth of wisdom, support and moral guidance to offer. We seek to welcome every person who might want to draw closer to our community, and do so at any stage or for any length of time that they wish to share with us the Jewish journey. Because we feel so blessed to be Jewish, and commit our lives to bringing Jewish households of any configuration closer to God, Torah and Israel, we strive to inspire others to join us fully on this path and to convert to Judaism. We know that the likelihood that children and grandchildren will know and participate in Jewish life is dramatically increased when all the adults in the household are Jewish and raise their children as Jewish by religion. Conservative Judaism and our robust Jewish education and conversion programs worldwide are estimated to be the largest conduits through which Jews by choice join the Jewish people. Because of our great sense of gratitude to be Jewish, we feel it is not only our honor and privilege, but also our sacred obligation to make conversion available and attractive to anyone who might wish to join us.
José Rolando Matalon
José Rolando Matalon is the Argentinian-born senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.
There are active members of our community who have a strong Jewish education and background who fall in love with, and want to marry, non-Jews. Our previous refusal to participate in their marriage ceremonies closed the door to any further involvement in their lives. They felt hurt and rejected and turned away from us. This led to their complete alienation from the Jewish community. We need to be part of their lives, their future and the lives of their kids. We want them in our community and our lives. Large numbers of these people want an attachment to the Jewish community and want a connection to Jewish tradition and ritual—they care enough about Judaism to ask for that.
America has been a welcoming, hospitable and open place for Jews, and we’ve come to a time and place where non-Jews fall in love with Jews, non-Jews want to marry Jews and vice versa. The social barriers that existed before have been lowered. I don’t know if intermarriage is good or if it’s bad, but we can’t avoid looking at and dealing with it. That is why my synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, decided last summer to officiate at intermarriages if the couple is engaged in Jewish life, commits to creating a Jewish home and to raising their kids Jewish. Those are our conditions. We will support them in creating their Jewish home and in raising their kids; we are not leaving them on their own to do this.
Jewish concerns about demography and whether our numbers will remain robust are real and valid, as are the concerns about whether intermarried couples will remain connected to our faith, culture and traditions. We should keep in mind, of course, that two Jews can marry and have absolutely no connection to Judaism and not raise their kids Jewish.
Keren McGinity is the director of interfaith families Jewish engagement at the Schoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. She is the author of Still Jewish: A History of Women & Intermarriage in America and Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood.
Intermarriage is neither inherently bad nor a panacea. People who think that intermarriage threatens Jewish survival base their beliefs on a pervasive and historic assumption that Jews who intermarry cease to identify as Jewish, don’t raise Jewish children, and have no commitment to participating in the Jewish community or Jewish life. The meaning and experience of intermarriage have changed dramatically from the early 20th century to the present. Thanks to a decline in anti-Semitism and Jews’ more secure social status, combined with the influences of ethnic consciousness and feminism, intermarried Jews are significantly more proactive about identifying as Jewish and raising Jewish children.
Quantitative research now shows that a significant proportion of millennial children of intermarriages identify as Jewish. Simultaneous to the rates of intermarriage increasing over time, the percentage of these children who identify as Jewish has also gone up. Qualitative research illustrates that intermarriage can actually heighten Jews’ awareness of being Jewish and inspire them to figure out what it means and how to transmit Jewishness to their children. Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried Jewish families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.
Gender is often missing from discussions about intermarriage; the gender of the Jew who intermarries is especially important. Both Jewish men and women who intermarry are likely to continue to identify as Jewish. However, their experiences differ. Men tend to switch from more traditional to more progressive denominations where their children will count as Jews. Intermarried Jewish women are more likely to raise their children Jewish than intermarried Jewish men. That doesn’t mean men can’t effectively raise Jewish children. They certainly can. There is, however, still a distinct disparity in which women generally have more responsibility than men for hands-on parenting. Placing greater emphasis on the value of Jewish fathering and creating programs for men to “do Jewish” with their children would help level the parenting field and better enable intermarried men to raise Jewish children.
Elliott Abrams served in foreign policy positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He is the author of five books, including Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in Christian America.
Intermarriage weakens Jewish culture because, obviously, one of the two people in the marriage brings no Jewish cultural background and will find it very difficult, therefore, to convey Jewish culture to the children. There are substitutes that can provide a certain sense of Jewish community and culture, including Jewish education, Jewish day school and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camps and visits to Israel. However, the central and most common way in which Jewish culture is conveyed is in the home, and that is much harder in an intermarriage situation.
There is clear evidence that with children raised in a home that practices multiple religions, the feeling of belonging to the Jewish community and of connection to Israel is a lot weaker. The notion that you pay more attention to a terrorist attack in Jerusalem than in Bombay, or that you are more concerned about anti-Semitism than the average American, is missing. Additionally, in most cases, there is almost no religious practice. The children have very little sense of belonging to a community that is doing something important on Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover. When an individual’s feeling of belonging to, and having a responsibility toward, the Jewish community is diminished, he or she is much less likely to give to Jewish charities or to Israel. All of the tell-tale signs of belonging to both a local and a global community are much weaker.
David Yarus is the founder of JSwipe, a Jewish dating app, and of mllnnl, a social media agency that works with Jewish organizations to engage Jewish millennials.
I have no absolute opinion about whether intermarriage is good or bad. I’m a true Gemini: I can understand both sides. It’s good that other faiths and communities are now more deeply tied into the Jewish world. Conversely, intermarriage without question presents challenges to ongoing and active engagement within the tradition.
Currently, 71 percent of non-Orthodox marriages, including those of my generation—Jewish millennials—are interfaith. Millennials in general, including Jewish millennials, are the least religious generation in history. For the most part, we are less observant, less affiliated, and shedding labels across our lives, including religious ones. I personally consider myself a “post-denominational” Jew mostly because I hate the idea of having to label myself one way or the other. Throughout our upbringing and our lives, we have been turned off by what I call “big Jewish infrastructure.” The system built by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations has yet to adapt to fully understand the millennial mindset. The idea of having to marry someone Jewish when we’ve grown up in a world where we are told repeatedly that everyone is equal seems conflicting to us, especially for the less religious and less affiliated. As the founder of JSwipe, a Jewish dating app, I speak to large numbers of young Jewish singles about what they want in a romantic partner. Despite varying levels of observance, there is a fairly universal desire, that they may not be able to rationally explain, to partner with someone Jewish. They will talk about shared values and shared upbringing. They definitely mention familial and communal pressures.
While I am definitely Jewish, I consider myself a universalist. Meaning, to me, everyone is right! We’re all humans—it’s all energy. People on an individual basis should explore, experience and then decide what’s right for them. JSwipe allows non-Jews to join our app, mostly to not be exclusionary or “othering,” which is something I find off-putting about most organized religion. That said, users can easily filter out non-Jews. They can also filter for kosher versus not kosher, level of observance and other parameters for finding their NJB/NJG (Nice Jewish Boy/Girl). We leave it up to the users to choose what it is they are looking for.
Intermarriage has spread Jewish culture through other communities. We are at other people’s dinner tables, other families’ holiday dinners, and they are joining ours. Conversations that might have previously happened without us are now being infused with a Jewish viewpoint. Over the past year, I’ve seen an explosion in the popularity of Shabbat dinners among non-Jewish attendees. My non-Jewish colleague and friend even started hosting an event called Shiksa Shabbat! One thing is certain, we’re experiencing a remarkable evolution of what it means to be Jewish and what being Jewish will look like over the next five, 10 and 20 years. The question is: How do we experience this through the lens of possibility and abundance rather than one of fear and scarcity?