IMAGINE this, though you may not want to. Your son or daughter comes home one day with a non-Jewish boyfriend/girlfriend. Sometime later, they announce they are getting married. It happened to the parents of Marc Mezvinsky, who married Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea, by the way, has no intention of converting. What would you do?
Earlier this year, in an address to the Knesset on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put the issue of assimilation on display, front and centre: “Even at a very slow rate of natural increase of the population, there should have been almost 30 million Jews in the world, but in fact, there are only 13.5 million … This did not happen by physical loss; it happened because of assimilation and the loss of identity.” The inclusion of assimilation in a speech about the Holocaust was an interesting choice.
And in November last year, Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said at a Knesset session on assimilation, “We have 15 years to intervene and bring back people on the verge of assimilation into the fold of Judaism.”
It’s a fact: more and more Australian Jews are marrying out. This global trend has led scholar Jonathan Sarna to assert, “We are an endangered religion, and just as there are different rules for endangered species that we want to keep alive, there are different rules for endangered religions.” Similarly, sociologist Steven Wertheimer claims intermarriage is the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity.
Yet in Australia, the problem of Jewish disaffiliation and decline has gone under the radar – when was the last time you heard a discussion of this subject or concrete policies to tackle it? This new frontier is given little priority.
I believe most Jews who marry out are not doing it out of spite or rebellion, but are simply choosing to share their lives with a partner they love.
Late last year, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach claimed that, “Judaism has failed. Despite billions of dollars spent over the past 40 years to bring Jews closer to their tradition, we have barely moved the needle on the 50 per cent assimilation and intermarriage rate.” And, “The real failure is Jewish insularity and isolation. Judaism for Jews is too narrow, too particular to really inspire. The vast majority of the world’s Jews want to live mainstream and fully integrated lives.”
There are no any easy answers. Is it inclusion? It is widening the tent? Can outreach win over the hearts and minds of the intermarried and bring them closer to Jewish life?
I have heard intermarried couples say they feel alienated. Many feel that doors were closing every step of the way in a community they perceived to be judgemental, insular and out of touch with their needs. Most viewed the pressure by their family to drive their non-Jewish partner away as counterproductive and lacking compassion.
A recent American study has shown that support and outreach to interfaith couples is paying dividends. The study found that about 60 per cent of children raised in intermarried households are being raised as Jewish. For many, the figures are proof of what happens when a community acknowledges intermarriage and marshals its resources to that effort.
One non-Jewish woman, who decided to raise her daughter as Jewish, told me she found no systematic support or resources from the community to help her. I told her that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, calls women like her “heroes”.
Usually, it’s the mother who takes responsibility for the religious upbringing of their children. Perhaps what is called for is a group such as the North American Mother Circle, which teaches women about the multiple dimensions of our faith.
I learnt that during a Yom Kippur service a few years ago, an American rabbi offered a special blessing to non-Jewish members of the congregation, saying that, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual belief and passing your own religious tradition down to your kids.” Sociologist Ann Swidler contends that if non-Jewish spouses do not convert immediately, they will at least raise their children in a Jewish way.
Some argue that welcoming the intermarried will be perceived as an endorsement of intermarriage and that those who have decided to leave the community don’t deserve our attention. Yet, intermarriage is a commonplace reality that we can’t just ignore.
It’s unlikely that intermarried families will enter the community if they hear their marriage demeaned and disparaged. Collectively, we need to reach out to those in mixed marriages with an inviting and friendly attitude, eliminate barriers that would deter them from becoming involved, and offer them a variety of portals to do so.
As Dr Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, says to intermarried couples, “I can’t marry you. But the day after you are married I want to see you in my congregation. We want you to convert. We want you to be part of a life of Torah.”
If we create welcoming opportunities, the intermarried will naturally want to do more. If we imbue them with a sense of belonging, that would improve the odds of Jewish continuity.
In particular, our community should not give up on children of the intermarried. They should not be considered as lost. Igniting the passion for Judaism in their parents may mean that they will be interested and appreciate Judaism. Kids follow their parents. The children of the intermarried will then see the community as a warm, secure place where they can easily affirm their Jewish identity.
Isn’t that what we all want?
Dvir Abramovich. the Jan Randa lecturer in Jewish Studies, is the director of the Centre for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Melbourne.