A Call For 'Audacious Hospitality'

'Being against intermarriage is like being against gravity,' says Reform leader, but jury is out on trend's long-term impact.

Wed, 01/15/2014
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

There was a time when American Jewish families sat shiva when a child married out of the faith. Even two or three decades ago the prevailing attitude was one of disappointment, embarrassment and regret, coupled with a parental commitment to make the best of it and hope the grandchildren would be raised as Jews.

Times have changed. With the increase in intermarriage has come greater communal acceptance, to the degree that for some Jewish religious leaders it is no longer standard to publicly endorse endogamy, or Jewish in-marriage. For them intermarriage is viewed as an opportunity to be embraced. And those who express deep concern about the American Jewish future based on the dramatic increase in interfaith weddings are perceived as sociological and theological Neanderthals, fighting a losing battle — indeed the wrong one — against a trend that represents an opportunity to assure the Jewish future.

Consider this excerpt from the major address given by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, at last month’s biennial of the Reform movement in San Diego.

“Incredibly enough … I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease,” he told some 5,000 constituents. “It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans (researchers say) are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get high intermarriage rates — the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth generation of other ethnic groups as well.

“In North America today, being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity; you can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life. And what would you prefer? More anti-Semitism? That people did not feel as comfortable with us?

“In any event, we practice outreach because it is good for the Jewish people. Interfaith couples can raise phenomenally committed Jewish families, especially when they do it in the Jewish community that is offered uniquely by the Reform movement.”

It’s true, as Rabbi Jacobs suggests, that interfaith couples can raise deeply committed Jews. I admire him and his work, and I hope his movement is successful in its ambitious plans to make that happen. But the jury is definitely out, with demographic experts debating whether the glass is half full or half empty, based on the findings of the recent Pew Research Center study on Jewish identity. The optimists acknowledge that while it is far more likely that children of intermarriage say they have no religion, 59 percent of that cohort who are adults under 30 say they are Jewish, a significant increase in recent years. “In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans,” write Pew researchers Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman.

Others say that only a small percentage of adult children of intermarriage marry Jews, and that based on projections of current data, less than 10 percent of them will in turn raise their children as Jews. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen cites the remark of the late American Jewish Committee sociologist Milton Himmelfarb when asked what to call the grandchildren of intermarried Jews. “Christian,” he said. (Cohen adds: “He was approximately 92 percent correct.)

Commenting on Rabbi Jacobs’ biennial remarks, Cohen said he thought it “irresponsible” for the Reform leader not to promote Jews marrying Jews. “Isn’t it an inherent obligation” for him to do so? he asked. And just because it may be going against the popular grain, “does that mean rabbis shouldn’t encourage Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, etc.?”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue and a leading voice in the Conservative movement, shares that concern. “There is a difference between the descriptive condition of American Jewry and the role of Jewish leadership. It’s not an either/or proposition,” he said, adding that his community “will continue to unapologetically preach the value of endogamy — marrying within the Jewish faith — and we will unrepentantly work to facilitate the journey of would-be Jews into our family. I am, we are, in the business of creating Jewish homes.”

So is the Reform community, Rabbi Jacobs says. He told me he agrees that “the issue is not endogamy vs. outreach, but how do we use the power, beauty and inspiration of Judaism to bring more [interfaith] families into the fold by practicing our leadership differently.”

He described “the birth of outreach” as Rabbi Alexander Schindler’s decision, as head of the Reform movement in the late 1970s, to endorse patrilineal descent. Rabbi Jacobs said “the finger-wagging of inreach is yesterday,” and a turnoff for intermarried Jews who may be searching for ways “to make Jewish choices and live a Jewish life of purpose and depth.”

His job, our job, is to be there for them, he said. He cited the benefits of what he calls “audacious hospitality,” noting the number of dedicated people, including rabbis, he knows who have come to Judaism through its warmth. “That’s the strategy for the Jewish future,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “We have to engage the next generation with on-ramps” (to Jewish life) because “the majority of them will be the children of intermarriages, and potentially our leaders.”

Potentially. Or they may disappear from the Jewish ranks.

While I don’t think of intermarriage as “a disease,” to cite Rabbi Jacobs’ phrase, I do believe its becoming the norm poses a threat to the sustainability of American Jewish life.

I am not alone in this assessment. Last week about two dozen like-minded concerned Jews — including rabbis, sociologists, lay leaders and journalists (myself included) — came together for a five-hour meeting in Midtown. The purpose was to offer reflections on the data of the Pew study and, perhaps more importantly, discuss whether and how to call for a kind of communal intervention. In other words, to force leadership to recognize the trends that would seem to portend a sharp decrease in the number of Jewishly engaged non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. over the next few decades due to increasing intermarriage, late marriage and low fertility rates.

In a paper called “Can We Have Continuity Without Jewish Content?” Steven Bayme, national director of the department of contemporary Jewish life at AJC, and Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, described to the group the current attitude of communal leaders as “a conspiracy of silence” in dealing with these issues. And they wrote that “a cascade of ever-lower expectations” is resulting in a “culture of consensus” appealing “only to the lowest common denominator” of Jewish identity and engagement.

One example of this “silence” is what appears to me to be a growing reluctance among rabbis and families to encourage the non-Jewish partner to convert before marriage. The thinking is not to pressure the fiancé (or more often, fiancée), and hope an interest in becoming Jewish will increase during the marriage. Or if that doesn’t happen, that the non-Jewish partner will, at least, agree to raise the children as Jewish.

I plan to report more fully next week on the group’s discussions, and the resulting proposals and implications. For now, I leave you  with the approach of Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston; his community is seen as a leader in successfully reaching out to interfaith families.

“The important question is not how many Jews there are or will be,” he wrote recently, “but rather what kind of Jewish life we want for our children and grandchildren and communities. What is ‘a Jewish life’ and how do we build it?”

What all sides – at least among the activists in this discussion – seem to agree on is the need for a strong communal response to the current drift, whether it’s in the form of “audacious hospitality” or raising the bar of obligation and responsibility. For now, though, the quiet but perfect storm continues — increasing intermarriage, fewer children, less affiliation, and costly or insufficient Jewish educational opportunities. If our religious and communal leaders have neither the strategy, willingness nor fortitude to stem or reverse the tide, the battle is lost. But first we have to recognize that we are in crisis and agree on what we are fighting for.

Email: Gary@jewishweek.org

Next week: Convincing the community we are losing the continuity battle, and what to do about it.

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Is anyone in the Orthodox world concerned that Ruth the Moabite did not have a proper conversion when she decided to follow Naomi and then to marry Boaz and that marriage eventually led to King David and ultimately to the Meshiach. Does this mean that the Meshiach will not be Jewish? Does it mean that the standards for conversion have become so much more onerous than the Halacha originally intended that Moshe Rabeinu (who married, well, let's not go there) would not recognize them? Just wondering...

You make the mistake of being a Fundamentalist - reading the literal words as being the whole of the story. Just writing here the story would take up many times the number of words. Suffice it to say that there is much more to the story than what appears in the text. For one thing, she definite went to the Mikve. Secondly, the circumstances were absolutely not comparable in terms of the condition of Jewish society and what their concerns were. Whether she went to Beit Din is just unknown. Certainly, when she says "Your God is my God and your people are my People are my People" this was essential and as there was only one kind of Judaism, she accepted Halachic Judaism.

Has anyone considered the following idea?

How about a new plan: No Jew left behind!

It is easy. We must think outside the box.

In the U.S.A. there is a traditional Jewish group called the Karaites. They are not rabbinic Jews. They only accept the written Tanach ie. not the Oral Law.

However, I would describe them as a "frum alternative" to Orthodox Judaism.
Why? Because they actually believe that in (written) Torah mi'Sinai.
As most of us know, a huge majority of Reform Jews and a large majority of Conservative Jews do not believe in Torah mi'Sinai.
Although, admittedly in Judaism belief is often considered not as important as practice, still if a person does not believe in even written Torah mi'Sinai, the likelihood of them seriously practicing Judaism is a lot less.
Basically beliefs can sometimes shape/ influence the observance of mitzvoth.

Let us isolate the problem. The problem is not so much with Jewish women who intermarry, since Rabbinic law dictates that their children are Jewish.

However, even though Reform has adopted patrilineal descent, the 90% or more of Reform Jews who are not either from Reform rabbinical families or connected to Reform rabbinical families/ inner circle of regular Shabbat attendees in Reform synagogues are unfortunately not even "frum Reform" people.

Therefore the adoption of patrilineal descent by U.S. Reform (it has not been adopted by Reform in Europe/Canada/ Israel) has not made much difference, unfortunately.

Also part of the problem with Jewish men intermarrying is that they feel rejected. Or their fiancées feel rejected. The reason is that since the broad mainstream of Judaism has not adopted patrilineal descent, there is still reluctance to accept intermarried couples specifically when the female partner is not Jewish.

Solution: we bankroll Karaite Judaism, a tiny movement (only about 5,000 in the U.S. and 50,000 total worldwide). Why? Because they are seriously frum, ADMITTEDLY in a non-Rabbinic way. Furthermore since they insist on patrilineal descent and NOT matrilineal descent, they are potentially a much more welcoming group than even Reform. Karaite Jews do observe kashrut, Shabbat, and many other mitzvoth which most Reform and most Conservative Jews have given up on. Yes, Karaites do not observe halacha in the Orthodox way, BUT they have their own halacha which largely parallels Orthodox halacha.

Please please please consider my idea carefully.

Don't you see why this is a solution? If a Jewish woman is intermarrying, the couple's potential kids are automatically accepted as Jewish even by the Orthodox.
If a Jewish man is intermarrying, the couple's potential kids are automatically accepted as Jewish by the Karaites, a non-Rabbinic but frum Jewish group.

Intermarriage (unfortunately) seems to be here to stay. But so is multi-drug resistant gonorrhea. That doesn't mean we should say 'oh well, let's say it's not a serious problem.' It is, & we need to find a solution.

This article was an eye opener and very well written.

I am a Puerto Rican woman (raised Catholic, but do not practice as I am now spiritual) who married a Russian-Jewish man in 2011. I am not Jewish. His parents did not approve and it was very difficult planning the wedding. Heck, it was difficult dealing with the fact that I was being judged for who I was and they judged their son for falling in love with me. It has been an uphill battle, which I pretty much washed my hands of when I decided to detach from the in-laws. What is the point of being around people who do not want to be around me? The only person I feel horrible for is my husband who wishes we could all get along, but he also understands that there is no reason to force myself into feeling alienated. I wasn't even allowed in their apartment for the first three years of our relationship. I just wish people would put religion aside and just realize that we're all human and we can't help who we love when it comes to consenting adults.

A more appropriate question seems to be "Where will this stop?" Rabbi Jacobs and the URJ have moved past interfaith marriages and are now endorsing same sex marriages. What next? Whether the URJ outreach to "non-traditional groups" is an honest effort to expand Judaism or just an effort to increase cash flow, the end result is the same...Reform Judaism is becoming less of a faith, and more of a social club for social and political liberals. At least that is the way I see it, so last year I terminated my affiliation with the only synagogue in the city in which I live. Apparently, the future of Judaism, for those like me, is online, as part of a virtual congregation.

Dear Gary Rosenblatt:

I read your essay ("A Call For 'Audacious Hospitality," 1/15/14) with great interest and will be curious to see your follow-up essay next week with its recommendations.

I have mixed feelings about your group's approach. If 70 percent of all non-Orthodox Jews who married in the last decade married people who are not Jewish, then I think promoting inmarriages may not the best strategy for dealing with Jewish disaffiliation and population declines.

I hope your group will address this question: If the majority of non-Orthodox American Jews will be adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage in 20 to 30 years -- or sooner -- shouldn't the Jewish community begin formal, ongoing outreach to them?

At the present time the mainstream Jewish community does not have any organized, ongoing outreach entirely focused on half-Jewish people. The only groups reaching out to them are volunteer groups composed of other half-Jewish people, like my group, the Half-Jewish Network.

Programs for interfaith couples with young children have no impact on adult children of intermarriage, many of whom are raised by intermarried parents who are frozen out of the Jewish community before their children are born.

Young adult children of intermarriage whose intermarried parents did place them in "raising Jewish children" outreach programs often find as adults that they are trying to live in Jewish communities that do not always welcome them.

Wouldn't it be better to prepare for the future majority by creating programs to welcome and integrate them?

It would make the difference between a Jewish community composed of the adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage living as they do today, most of whom are pushed to the fringes of the Jewish community or entirely outside of it -- even though they are about 50 percent of all Jewish Millenials --

or a Jewish community composed of half-Jewish people who are deeply interested and involved in Judaism and reading this newspaper.

Adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage would like the same level of outreach that interfaith couples have received, targeted to their own specific needs.

Half-Jewish people would like to see welcoming pamphlets, speeches, policy papers, films, DVDs, lists of friendly rabbis and shuls, and films dealing with the perspective of adult children of intermarriage -- resources that are routinely made available to interfaith couples.

Cordially,
Robin Margolis
Coordinator
Half-Jewish Network

"Sociologist Steven M. Cohen cites the remark of the late American Jewish Committee sociologist Milton Himmelfarb when asked what to call the grandchildren of intermarried Jews. “Christian,” he said. "

Exactly. Is this what we want?y

Dear Sirs,

Are you acquainted with the concept of religious freedom? Do you value a person's right to make choices based on their own conscience? What about simple hospitality towards any human being regardless of their beliefs? What about the word 'love'?

There are assumptions in the article that need to be confronted and answered, one way or another. Then sides chosen. Regardless, the all or nothing approach has left me choosing the nothing. I suggest all who find themselves in similar circumstances do the same.

There are far more welcoming communities everywhere in the United States. How many respectable groups in the United States reject their own because they are not to their own liking? (suggested terms for the rejected: halfbreed, intermarrier, Kipah-srugah apikores, Mets fan). I do not feel the need to kowtow to narrow minded bigots. Having the conversation itself is offensive; should we reject or accept that wanna-be member? Really, is that the question? Some things are not worthy of continuity.

Lech Lecha young sirs, because the world is full of people with open and accepting arms, with nothing but love; no notarized birth certificates or DNA approval applications required.

May the force be with you!

I applaud Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ comments at the URJ Biennial and to Gary Rosenblatt (“A Call For ‘Audacious Hospitality’,” Jan. 15). Rabbi Jacobs is right that “finger-wagging” is a turnoff for intermarried Jews and their partners who might otherwise make Jewish choices. Mr. Rosenblatt professes not to think of intermarriage as a “disease,” but that is the message that he and Messrs. Cohen, Bayme and Wertheimer convey. The communal intervention they seek to encourage in-marriage would be a roadblock to the “on-ramps to Jewish life” that Rabbi Jacobs rightly wants to build for the majority of the next generation who will be the children of intermarriages.

Edmund C. Case
Founder and CEO, InterfaithFamily

What you fail to even mention once in the article are both the concern of the intermarried person's offspring actually being Jewish at all and additionally the grave sin of marrying a non-Jew.
If a Jewish man were to marry a non-Jewish woman their offspring are in fact not Jewish, regardless of how committed and devoted they are to Judaism. Besides for which, the man has committed a grave sin which has very tragic ramifications. If a Jewish woman were to marry a non-Jewish man their offspring would be Jewish but without any Torah recognized lineage and obviously, considering the circumstances, very unlikely to lead a Halachically committed life. And, like the Jewish man, the Jewish woman who marries a non-Jew has also committed a very grave sin with tragic ramifications.
These should be the main focus of any conversation with regards to intermarriage- to educate people of the seriousness of their actions. And obviously once the subject is properly understood one would see that any sort of hospitality for such couples and families, without the intention to convert the non-Jewish spouse, is improper.

The notion that Judaism can only be properly preserved if it is protected from invasion of "outsiders" like an exclusive "club" by arbitrary rules of exclusion based on man-made notions of who is/is not subject to the rules of exclusion is a large part of the reason the entire debate over intermarriage is even necessary. I would suggest to anyone who feels their own sense of identification as a Jew is threatened by the notion of outreach to and intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews--even when the non-Jews have shown an acceptance of Judaism to the extent of conversion and raising the children as Jews--needs to look inward rather than outward.

If we are talking about a case of conversion, then we are not discussing an intermarriage. If we are not, then I am willing to stand by the arbitrary, man-made, notional, exclusionary rule that our club will only accept members who want to join. Or we could put outsiders in scare-quotes and accept the ruling of Galatians 3:28, if not the reason for it.

"Any sort of hospitality... is improper"?

Well, that is a sure fire way to be mekarev them and to get them to even remotely consider the possibility of living a remotely Jewish life and of considering raising their children as Jewish. Nothing like being a terrific role model of menchlekeit to get these folks to see the grave sin that they have committed.

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