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Jewish Light Editorial

Through the years, discussing new approaches to intermarried members of the Jewish community was considered the “third rail” of community discourse. With the Jewish community already comprising less than 3 percent of the total American population, and with intermarriage rates skyrocketing, how could Jews even consider any kind of “outreach” to intermarried Jews on the part of official Jewish communal organizations and synagogues?

But just as attitudes towards same-sex marriages have evolved dramatically away from majorities favoring bans to majorities registering a new acceptance, so have attitudes toward active outreach and engagement with intermarried Jewish families changed in recent years. 

A few decades ago, many American Jewish newspapers refused to publish engagement and wedding announcements for intermarrying couples. Many rabbis, including some within the liberal-minded Reform Jewish movement, refused to officiate at interfaith weddings. Some Jewish movements forbade Jews who were married to non-Jews from being hired to professional staffs.

These attempts to discourage intermarriage by officially shunning intermarried couples had an overall negative impact on Jewish communities. If these couples are harshly told that they are not welcome in synagogues and Jewish organizations, they are far less likely to want to become fully engaged in Jewish activities, even if the non-Jewish spouse becomes a Jew by choice.

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The numbers present a stark reality which demands a new approach. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews released last tyear, 58 percent of American Jews who married since 2005 have non-Jewish spouses, a proportion that rises to 72 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. 

tA JTA article from February pointed out that the Pew survey renewed debate on how to deal with intermarriage. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave a speech at the group’s biennial advocating that Jewish leaders accept high intermarriage rates as the inevitable result of life in an open society. Jacobs’ views were harshly criticized by the editors of two leading American Jewish newspapers.

The article notes that advocates for in-marriage (Jews marrying other Jews) point to survey findings that children of intermarried couples are less likely to identify as Jewish or engage in Jewish activities. There are also survey findings that if a child has one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, he or she in many instances is raised as Jewish with the support of the non-Jewish parent, and that the parents in those cases are likely to enroll that child in a Jewish religious school or a Jewish summer camp. An increasing number of Jews, according to the JTA article, say the prevalence of intermarriage means that the communal focus needs to be on engagement rather than on what they see as a futile effort to turn back the tide.

There is a range of opinion among Jews on the subject of intermarriage. On one end of the spectrum are Jews who opposed intermarriage under any circumstances. At the other end are Jews who wholeheartedly support intermarriage as an asset to the community. A sensible middle ground, which deserves full support, is to accept and welcome intermarried couples into Jewish life.

Indeed, in his speech, Jacobs called for an “audacious hospitality” to welcome the intermarried and others into the Jewish community. There are indications that the concept has caught on:

• The Jewish Federation of St. Louis sponsored a special trip to Israel for intermarried couples in March and was by all accounts a smashing success. Jewish partners had their connections to Israel renewed, and non-Jewish participants gained a new appreciation of the importance of a secure Jewish State (for information on the 2015 trip, visit http://bit.ly/interfaith-mission).

• Hillel directors nationally report that nearly 50 percent of the self-identified Jewish students involved in their programs have a non-Jewish parent. Such students have been welcomed into Hillel activities with open arms.

• Jewish cemeteries, most of which denied burial rights to non-Jewish spouses (with the exception of Reform Jewish cemeteries) have in some cases modified those rules. Even some Orthodox Jewish cemeteries have created special sections for the graves of intermarried couples.

Contrast this with some horror stories of past years. William Cohen, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of Defense, had been born Jewish and was preparing to become a bar mitzvah at his Conservative synagogue. He was told that his mother’s conversion to Judaism did not conform to Jewish traditional standards, and that both he and his mother would have to undergo conversions. At that point, Cohen removed the mezuzah from around his neck and never returned to the synagogue.

Jacobs said even now some Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage “as if it were a disease. It is not. It is the result of the open society that no one here wants to close.” Jacobs is right. Our Jewish community is strengthened if intermarried couples feel welcome rather than shunned. There are countless instances locally, nationally and globally of intermarried individuals who have been among the strongest and most committed Jewish leaders and volunteers.

Jewish thinking on intermarriage is “evolving” just as thinking in the total American community towards same-sex marriage is evolving. If intermarried couples are barred at the door from active participation in Jewish communal life both they and the Jewish community lose out. On the other hand, if they are received with “audacious hospitality,” they and their children and grandchildren are much more likely to positively contribute to the overall health and dynamism of the Jewish community.