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Reverse Course on Intermarriage?

There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

I should note in passing that I come to this issue with some history of my own. More than 18 years ago, when I was serving as editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger newspaper, I stumbled into a major controversy when I wrote a column explaining the policies of that paper regarding the announcement of intermarriages. My decision to reaffirm the existing policy of the paper not to include such events in the paper’s free page commemorating notable events in the community and to place it in the context of the broader debate about the community provoked a spirited–and at times, angry–discussion that soon spread to the mainstream press. It culminated in a New York Times article about the issue that generated a deluge of hate mail and death threats aimed at the paper, as well as vocal support.

In retrospect, the whole controversy seems almost quaint not only because the focus of the dispute seems so unimportant in the great scheme of events but also because it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone outside the Orthodox world taking a similar stance today. Most of us now understand that intermarriage is just a symptom of a broader trend involving assimilation and the decline of a sense of Jewish peoplehood. While few would dispute my arguments about the implications of intermarriage, the boat had probably already sailed on the issue at the time and that is even truer today.

Looking back on the experience and the subsequent year or two during which I was a frequent guest speaker at intermarriage outreach group events (those invitations were probably extended in the expectation that I would be the moral equivalent of the guy in the dunking booth at fairs, but most of the encounters were actually quite thoughtful), I learned a few things about the way the issue could place pressure on Jewish institutions. As an independent journalist, I didn’t have much to lose in asking people to draw a distinction between their personal inclinations and what was necessary to preserve the Jewish future. But others were not so fortunate. Moreover, even though virtually everyone—including intermarried couples—agreed that some lines should be drawn (we just disagreed on where they should be), the dynamic of the debate was such that any action that could be depicted as hurting the feelings of those who had made such a choice or saying no to them was impossible for non-Orthodox institutions.

As I wrote back then and Wertheimer noted in his Mosaic piece, intermarriage is the product of American freedom and the wide acceptance of Jews into American society. For most of those Jews who are not religious, that means adhering to endogamy requires a conscious decision to swim against a cultural tide that not only breaks down most distinctions between people but also wrongly regards any insistence on sticking to your own group as illegitimate if not racist. No one disputes that intermarried families interested in being part of the community should be welcomed. But with intermarriages now estimated to constitute more than half of those unions involving Jews, the trend has a built-in constituency that sees anything but complete acceptance of them as a litmus test of affiliation. While some optimists have claimed that the large number of families with feet in both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities is an opportunity for Jews to increase their numbers, as Wertheimer reports, the statistics point in the opposite direction. Yet even though a generation of emphasis on outreach has produced little but evidence of good intentions, Jewish groups aren’t likely to take Wertheimer’s advice and stand up for principle.

However, the primary obstacle to such a decision isn’t only the potential hurt feelings of the intermarried and their relatives and the way they have abandoned institutions—like the Conservative movement of Judaism—that refused to acquiesce to all of their demands. Just as important in understanding the failure of Jewish groups to face facts is the way the cult of inclusion has become enshrined in Jewish life. As those involved in debates about Israel and the BDS movement that aims to destroy it know all too well, asking communal institutions to draw a line in the sand about anti-Zionism is sometimes even more controversial than opposing intermarriage. With increasing numbers of communal professionals having grown up in an atmosphere in which increasing the size of the big tent is the primary value they’ve been taught to respect, asking them to look inward rather than outward is tantamount to suggesting that this overwhelmingly liberal population embrace pro-life stands rather than support abortion rights. It isn’t going to happen.

Wertheimer is right that those who form the core of the Jewish community already agree with him. Since it this group—which is statistically more likely to have had a serious Jewish education, gone to a Jewish camp and/or visited Israel among other factors—which will make up an increasingly larger percentage of the community in the years to come as the children of the intermarried drift away, perhaps Wertheimer’s views will eventually be heeded. But while I applaud his stand and hope his article marks the beginning of a reassessment of acceptance of intermarriage, I think we are still many years away from that point. Until then, any such initiative is almost certainly doomed.


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