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Continued Confusion About Intermarriage

I’ve spent the past decade advocating that the Jewish community find more ways to engage and embrace intermarried families.  And like many advocates, I have a personal stake in the issue, as I myself intermarried five years ago.  While I’m pleased that the Jewish community today is clearly better at welcoming intermarried families than it was in 2000, and exponentially more so than in 1990, the way a recent news story was written got me wondering how much progress we’ve really made at all.

The article was about a new study, purportedly on how to get more Midwest kids into Jewish summer camp, which claimed an "interesting finding" that intermarried families are sufficiently welcomed into the Jewish community?they just don’t participate because of a "competency barrier" that leaves them feeling uncomfortable about things like Hebrew-heavy prayer services?and therefore the work of outreach organizations to welcome the intermarried is "misguided."

I found a number of things wrong with the piece.  The reporter did not ask any other sociologist to verify the methodology, even though the "finding" about how welcomed the intermarried feel was based on just one hypothetical question out of a lengthy survey ostensibly about camps.

The article also stated that the work of interfaith outreach was "a fairly simply strategy" to "be more welcoming," and that outreach organizations operate on an "assumption that all that’s needed is open arms."  A quick investigation would have uncovered that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of outreach programs are educational in nature, not focused simply on welcoming (for example, the Reform movement’s "Intro to Judaism" and Jewish Outreach Institute’s "Mothers Circle" are months-long courses).  Addressing the "competency barrier" has been a primary outreach activity for decades.

But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the article is that it tries to identify the motivation as to why outreach advocates would disagree with this finding, while there was no question of motivation put to the author of the report himself.   Dr. Steven M. Cohen has spent the past two decades as one of the most vocal opponents of communal resources being allocated to interfaith outreach, and just a few years back was a board member of something called the "Jewish In-Marriage Initiative."  In fact, none of his past writings on intermarriage were even mentioned.  Instead, another of the handful of vocal outreach opponents offered her own theory, that "Many of the people leading these [outreach] efforts are intermarried themselves…and had to overcome the uncomfortable stares of an earlier era. ‘But this was decades ago and no longer relevant.’"

My wife is 32 and though we have yet to begin a family, we hope to.  I’m not sure what "earlier era" I belong to, that I’m unqualified to determine whether or not I’m being welcomed into a community.  To me, that quote is like a heterosexual person declaring the Jewish community sufficiently welcoming to GLBT Jews and then, when GLBT advocates point out how that hasn’t been their experience, replying, "Well, they’re from an older generation of gays and today it’s not an issue, and I know because I’ve spoken to dozens of gay people who feel totally welcomed."

As an advocate, I have to be upfront about my agenda.  Just because someone hides behind the veneer of academia doesn’t mean she shouldn’t also declare her own agenda.  While there’s a "science" to sociology, sociology is hardly a "science" like chemistry; it’s totally susceptible to agenda.  (Ever wonder why the Jewish community only hires Jews to study itself?  If we really wanted unbiased answers, let’s hire some social scientists without a horse in the race.)

Nevertheless, I was ready to give the reporter the benefit of the doubt.  After all, journalism is a demanding job and I simply assumed he didn’t have the time before deadline to be more thorough.  Then I listened to a 25-minute podcast that accompanied the article in which he not only elaborated on all the above mistakes but offered a position on welcoming the intermarried the likes of which even Dr. Cohen hasn’t suggested aloud in years:

"The problem is that if you want to take what [Dr. Cohen] discovered and be prescriptive about [helping intermarried families overcome the competency barrier], it’s kind of dismal what you end up with because you basically would have to strip – as far as I’m concerned – you’d have to strip all Jewish religious life of anything that might alienate somebody who’s not particularly familiar with it…. I mean, [more education is] one thing that you could do, but ultimately…you basically have to…wipe away anything that would have an ethnic or religious particularism to it if you want to bring in people that don’t know what’s going on."

There you have it: the dilution of Jewish ethnicity by welcoming newcomers.  The big fear.  This same quote can also be used as an argument against accepting converts.  Yet the most fervently-Orthodox Jews-by-choice somehow found ways to first access the Jewish community as adults (and now the rest of us look like we’re diluting Judaism for them).  They weren’t born knowing Hebrew and?guess what??none of us were.  Despite the fears, outreach has always been about building ramps up to the Jewish community, not forcing all the rest of us to dumb it down.  We just need to build many more ramps, which is the focus of outreach.

The reason we haven’t heard this "dilution" argument in public much lately may be because by all observers’ accounts, the Reform movement in general has deepened its Jewish ritual practices, even as it absorbs large numbers of interfaith families.  On the podcast, the reporter admits to not having known before covering the story that at least 30% of households affiliated with Reform synagogues are intermarried.  But there’s a bigger lesson to be learned: Jewish identity as an "ethnicity" is untenable.

The cavalcade of punditry about Chelsea Clinton’s recent intermarriage has opened anew the entire spectrum of opinions on the issue?including all the standard excuses for an exclusionary approach (as if welcoming the intermarried was a done deal!)?but Rabbi Irwin Kula recognizes perhaps more than most where we’re headed: "The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a perfect expression of the emerging American religious and social landscape in which one’s inherited group identity bears little or no significance on one’s marriage….The silos between groups are rapidly becoming permeable, and this shift in notions of group loyalty and exclusivity, especially as individuals form their most intimate relationships independent of any restrictive creedal or tribal inheritances, marks an uncharted world."

If the only way, or preferred way, to receive the ethics and values of the Jewish tradition is to be born into it, then Judaism will remain relevant to a decreasing small minority of people?those who choose only one identity while the rest of us take on many.  If, however, we believe there is relevancy and value in our traditions, we must find better ways to share it, and intermarried families represent the best place to start because most are already interested and in some ways connected.  But it will require demonstrating the same enthusiasm for every individual who comes and says, "I want to learn," regardless of who his or her parents were.  And it will require getting past the notion of inherent Jewish ethnicity?especially by those who are charged with telling our story.

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