Intermarriage In The Motor Suburbs
06/30/2010 - 11:59

 For two years in the late 1990s, Detroit’s northwest suburbs — where most of its Jews live — were my stomping (or, more accurately, driving) grounds. Although I lived in the college town Ann Arbor with my lapsed Catholic fiancé/hubby, five days a week I made my personal contribution to global warming by traveling 40 minutes each way to the Detroit Jewish News, which at the time was housed in a relatively charmless low-rise office park at the junction of three major highways.

From my base in the then-booming Motor Suburbs (our employee-of-the-month prize was the parking spot closest to the door), I drove to all the major synagogues and day schools of Southfield, Oak Park, West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills, getting an education in Jewish communal life while mostly keeping my interfaith relationship a closely guarded secret.

So of course I was intrigued to see that the Detroit Free Press had a big article this weekend on Jewish intermarriage, which, according to the article, is less prevalent in Detroit than elsewhere but is on the rise. The piece contained no major surprises to those of us who closely follow all-things-intermarriage — quotes from a handful of interfaith couples (surprisingly few of them young ones, even though intermarriage is most prevalent among those 35 and younger), along with rabbis and scholars pro and con. It even contained the usual quote from sociologist Steven M. Cohen about how intermarriage “does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.”

More interesting was the open-to-the-public Web chat yesterday with reporter Niraj Warikoo, Rabbi Jason Miller (who writes The Jewish Week’s “Jewish Techs” blog), Ed Case of and a Catholic-Jewish couple featured in the article: Mary Gilhuly and Steve Klaper (Can you guess which one is Catholic and which one is Jewish?).

In it Rabbi Miller said he’s heard rumors about Conservative rabbis doing “interfaith weddings under the radar” and predicts that “it’s only a matter of time” before the Conservative movement “says yes to patrilineal and then ultimately yes to interfaith.”

Noting that he himself gets several requests each year from former students who want him to officiate at their interfaith weddings, Rabbi Miller said:

The biggest problem facing the Conservative movement is that we think we can tell our young people to go find a Reform rabbi to do your interfaith wedding and then expect them to come back to the synagogue they grew up in for membership and nursery school. It's trying to have it both ways without compromising on principles. It's flawed logic!!

Other chat highlights: Since it hadn’t been mentioned in the article, I was surprised to learn that Gilhuly and Klaper had taken the rather unusual approach of divvying up their two children, raising one Catholic and one Jewish. To me this seems like a recipe for psychological conflict and confusion — and hardly representative of most interfaith couples, who opt either to raise the whole brood both, nothing, Jewish or Christian — but I applaud their creativity and, to their credit, they (the parents – I have no idea how the kids feel) seem quite happy.

Among the chatters-in was a Conservative Jew who asked how to explain to his three teens, whom he wants to date only Jews, “that some of their Reform ‘Jewish’ friends, whose moms are not Jewish, are not Jewish enough to date.”

That phrase “not Jewish enough to date” brought back memories of when I was reporting on the establishment of a community Jewish high school in Detroit. The school, now known as the Frankel Jewish Academy, angered many local Reform rabbis by accepting only kids with Jewish mothers. Among the rationales for the policy (I don’t know if it’s still in place) was that parents wouldn’t want their kids dating kids who weren’t halachically Jewish.

Granted, I am not a traditional Jew, but it’s hard for me to understand how a parent could be upset at the prospect of their child marrying a kid who obviously identifies as Jewish and is engaged enough in Jewish life to seek a rigorous Judaic education. Particularly when a) there are so few Jews in the world and b) so many “Jewish enough” people have absolutely no interest in Judaism. Not to mention that, as Ed Case pointed out on the Web chat, for a Jewishly educated person, the technical/legal “problem” of official status can easily be solved, should marriage become a real possibility, with a quick conversion.

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Has anyone ever considered that some religions operate by building a poor self image among its rank and file so that its leaders can be accepted as the reviver of that deteriorated image . One should really ask if they want to raise children in such a punative environment or in a more positive life communicating environment. One needs to also consider the death orientation vs the life orientation in different religions.
Jason, Do you know what the current policy is at Frankel, by the way? Do they now recognize patrilineal descent?
Julie, Good coverage of what was an interesting chat following an interesting article in the Freep. A couple comments: I get asked to perform many interfaith weddings and I decline or refer to a rabbi who might. These inquiries come from former students (as you write in this post), childhood friends, family friends, and random people who find me on the Web. I even get requests to perform weddings for two non-Jews sometimes. These are very difficult to turn down because so many people (especially young people) just don't get the rationale for a rabbi not officiating at interfaith weddings. It basically boils down to the fact that Judaism is really about being part of a membership club and deciding who can join and who can't and who's on the rules committee and which rules we accept, etc. In fact, you could even say that within Judaism there are several exclusive clubs with different rules and different levels of exclusivity. As I said in the chat, "In 21st century Judaism, it basically comes to down to 1)Women, 2) Gays/Lesbians; 3) Interfaith. The only question is when on the spectrum these changes occur and how long it takes to get there." At one point no one thought Reform rabbis would become Zionists, but they did. No one thought Reform rabbis would officiate at interfaith weddings, but they did. No one thought Conservative rabbis would officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies, but not so many do. And no one thought there would be Orthodox women rabbis, but we're beginning to see that change as well. We'll see what the future brings.