Arts & Culture

Love and Numbers

Here are two stories about intermarriage from my own family: One of my nephews became engaged to a non-Jew. He was born a Jew but knew little about Judaism. When his fiancée decided to convert, he decided to join her … Read More

By / March 11, 2009

Here are two stories about intermarriage from my own family:

One of my nephews became engaged to a non-Jew. He was born a Jew but knew little about Judaism. When his fiancée decided to convert, he decided to join her in study. Before their marriage there was one uneducated Jew; now there are two who are knowledgeable.

My son Adam, who works alongside me in furthering the Jewish renaissance at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, married "out" some twenty years ago. Cindy, his wonderful wife, was born Catholic. While she did not convert at the time of their marriage, they decided together to raise their children in a Jewish home. They observe Shabbat every week and have given their four children a strong foundation of Jewish knowledge. After years of active participation in a welcoming Jewish community, Cindy chose to convert to Judaism in 2006. It was a choice she made from the heart, when she was ready. Now they are a family of six engaged Jews.

The Jewish communal fear attached to intermarriage is all about the numbers. The first wave of alarm was set off by the report, in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, that over half of Jews were marrying non-Jews, and that in only a third of these cases would the children be raised as Jews. I well remember my own shock at these figures, which suggested that the American Jewish population could be loved out of existence.

But as I began to work in Jewish education at Hillel and elsewhere, I came to see the situation differently. In an open society, people from diverse backgrounds will fall in love. The real numbers problem is not that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism.

In the two stories I began with, the numbers work. There is also a common denominator, and that is education. In my book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, I argue that trying to prevent intermarriage will only alienate young Jews. If we increase the quantity and depth of Jewish education, we will see an increase in the numbers and commitment of Jews, no matter whom they marry.

One might argue that statistics are more convincing than stories, and that while there are exceptions to the rule, the basic math still applies. My response is that I don’t want to see statistics about intermarried families until I see Jewish communities that welcome them with open hearts and without conditions. If these communities offer a Jewish life that is rich in substance and full of joy, both disengaged Jews and their non-Jewish family members will see the value in making Judaism part of their lives.