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In-Marriage: A New Discussion
A statement from a modern-day prophet is important and hard to hear.
Tue, 09/10/2013 - 20:00
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

"A Portrait of American Jews,” a major study due out soon from The Pew Research Center, is said to show that more than 60 percent of the children of intermarriage are raised as Jews.

It also notes that only 22 percent are given a Jewish education.

What, then, does it mean to be raised Jewish if it doesn’t include a Jewish education?

That’s just one question certain to be brought up in a renewed discussion, prompted by the report, over the nature, sustainability and future of American Jewish life in the 21st century. Already in recent days a lively debate has emerged about whether intermarriage is the inevitable sociological result of a more open society and is offering new opportunities to enrich the Jewish community, or if it is a grave danger to Jewish continuity that should be countered more aggressively.

The latter view is articulated forcefully in a new article in Mosaic, an online Jewish magazine, headlined “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?” It was written by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and frequent contributor to Jewish publications, who has in recent years taken on the mantle of a modern-day prophet.

He doesn’t preach to or rant at his fellow Jews as we imagine Jeremiah, Isaiah and their biblical colleagues did. But in some circles he is viewed as old-school, and is about as unpopular as they were, predicting great tragedies fated for the Jewish people unless they recognize and change their wrongful ways.

Wertheimer’s prose may not be as stirring as Jeremiah’s “words of fire,” like “a hammer that shatters rock.” Rather, supporters say his forthright essays are anchored in academic research, statistical surveys and compelling logic, often confronting American Jewish society with hard truths they’d prefer to ignore or interpret more positively.

Though Wertheimer is a professional in the Conservative movement, his writings on Jewish education and ritual observance have frequently cast a critical light on liberal Judaism, underscored the strength of the Orthodox and stirred discussion and discomfort.

His latest piece is sure to hit a raw nerve in much of the community. Wertheimer asserts that the religious wars over intermarriage have not so much been lost as forfeited by rabbis, congregations and Jewish organizations too timid to buck the trend of accommodation. The result, he claims, threatens the future of American Jewish life.

This “embrace of the status quo,” argues Wertheimer, has Jewish leaders not only eschewing their traditional role of encouraging in-marriage, but either remaining silent as the barriers of tradition crumble, or openly accepting the belief that intermarriage will strengthen, not weaken, Judaism and the Jewish people.

He harnesses a number of surveys and anecdotal information to show otherwise, asserting that “intermarried families have considerably lower chances of raising committed Jews.” Further, he says that congregations and the community in general have adopted a “defeatist” attitude and become so accepting of non-Jews in our families that we make little or no effort to ask them to convert.

If the goal is to avoid alienating intermarried families, so as not to turn them away or appear ungracious, why should these families take upon themselves the burdens and responsibilities of living serious Jewish lives?

‘Intermarriage Is The Third Rail’

Outreach efforts have largely failed, Wertheimer says, “but the bad news does not appear to have resulted in any rethinking of the formula.” Instead, some advocates of outreach blame the low numbers of Jewishly engaged intermarrieds on congregations being unwelcome to them or on insufficient efforts to attract them. But according to Wertheimer, synagogues and rabbis have gone out of their way to be accepting, partly for fear of being described as unfriendly, which could lead to loss of membership of intermarrieds and financial support from Jewish parents.

“Many rabbis feel constrained in what they can say or do,” Wertheimer told me this week. “Intermarriage is a ‘third rail’ issue for them.” But he said that privately, many of those engaged in American Jewish life are “deeply concerned about this drift. They see the data of the consequences.”

Proponents of outreach disagree with both his statistics and approach. They view intermarriage as an opportunity rather than a challenge or problem, and believe that Wertheimer is applying outdated solutions to a modern-day reality.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), which promotes Jewish continuity to interfaith couples, families and their children, initially was reluctant to respond to Wertheimer’s essay, saying readers could make up their own minds about “the lack of wisdom contained in some people’s words.”

He added that the stop-intermarriage argument is not new, and that he himself would not “succumb” to letting Wertheimer set the communal agenda. “I refuse to respond in terms of ‘war,’” Rabbi Olitzky said. “The real question is ‘why be Jewish?’ and the response is about the benefits [of being Jewish], not war cries.

“I’d rather continue [JOI’s] work,” which, now in its 25th year, he described as more successful than ever, “and let the public decide.”

But he went on to note that whereas five years ago, the big issue in the community was intermarriage, “today it’s about engagement.” He cited as an example of JOI’s success its Mothers Circle program for non-Jewish moms raising Jewish children in an intermarried family.

Once seen as a “pariahs,” according to Rabbi Olitzky, these women “are tasked with the biggest challenge [of raising Jewish children Jewishly], and 97 percent of them are doing so,” he said.

“We are moving the conversation from who you are marrying to how you are raising your children.”

Jewish Community’s ‘Defeatist’ Attitude

Wertheimer says his article is intended to shift the conversation in a different direction — from “the already intermarried to the not-yet intermarried, and their families” who don’t want them to marry out.

He says there are large numbers of people seeking support from their religious and communal leaders. “So why do we undermine them by saying it’s too late,” that the effort to counter the increasing intermarriage rate is over? “To what extent are we helping families interested in endogamy and its values?”

He faults mainstream Jewish organizations for not enforcing traditional boundaries, declaring that theirs is “a decidedly abnormal if not a preposterous response” at odds with, if not “subversive of the view held by the more engaged sectors of the American Jewish community today.”

Wertheimer’s practical suggestions are focused on prevention and helping young Jews find Jewish mates. In his article and in conversation he calls for deeper Jewish education and more creative programming and social media for Jews in their high school, college and post-college years, increasing their engagement in Jewish life and providing reasons and opportunities for them to find each other.

Rabbi Olitzky, though, says programs sponsored to foster Jewish dating have “a hidden agenda” and that singles should be reached to engage them as individuals, not in “participating in a meet market, pun intended.” He also points out that Jews are marrying 10 to 15 years later than they did a generation ago, and that Jewish organizations need “to understand the difference and drastically change their approach.”

Weighing in on the discussion, Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor of Jewish and contemporary life, says the bigger problem facing American Jewish continuity is not intermarriage as much as it is marriage — that is to say, Jews, like other Americans, are marrying later, and the later they marry, the more likely they will marry non-Jews. And have fewer children.

As a result, she writes in “The Larger Battle,” also published in this month’s Mosaic, parents of today’s young American Jews, desiring grandchildren, “understandably come to view intermarriage as a lesser evil, and will more readily pressure their rabbis and the community to accept their (finally) marrying children with open arms.”

She concludes: “The word ‘intermarriage’, after all, contains the word ‘marriage,’ and that is enough for them.”

Fishman agrees with Wertheimer’s assertion that intermarried families are raising fewer Jews, and says he “rightly demands that we focus on policy implications.” But her attention to the sociological pull of postponed marriage, and its own implications, suggest an awareness that yesterday’s programming won’t resolve today’s problems.

Part of what this ongoing debate underscores is the divide between the affiliated, highly identified American Jewish population and the rest of the Jewish community. And then there is the very rationale for Jewish continuity. For those to whom Judaism is primarily a religion with its own set of obligations, the positive command to “teach your children” and raise them in the faith, and transmit it in turn, is sufficient cause to promote in-marriage. For others, the sense of whether — and how — our long history of insuring that Jewish life goes on remains an open question. 

In the meantime, Wertheimer’s challenge to the community deserves a thoughtful, robust and public airing. The stakes could not be higher.

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They are asking the wrong question. The question should be, "Why be Jewish?"

The first step in all this is to stop blaming the goyim. If Judaism doesn't have a compelling offering that inspires and engages the next generation, we lose them whether there's a shiksa in waiting or not. Even is Israel, the majority of Jews are secular and go bicycling on Yom Kippur because the streets are clear. They' don't go to shul. If they only marry other Jews, it's because that's who they meet, not because the Judaism holds meaning for them.

Excellent article! My own response article to Jack Wertheimer's essay will appear on Mosaic next week.

Harold Berman
Co-Author, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope

Terrific! Wertheimer must be heard!

I tell my daughter, "marry rich," while secretly hoping she marries a musician.

It is difficult to express how ridiculous I find this argument. Does anyone seriously believe that a serious, committed Jew loses his or her commitment to Judaism because he or she intermarries? If you believe that, I would like to know what you think "serious, committed" means.

What is happening is the opposite of what people like Wertheimer is saying: people don't intermarry and then lose their commitment to Judaism; they lose their commitment and then have no reason not to intermarry.

The effort to prevent intermarriage has to be stood on its head: we need to find ways to convince our youngsters to be serious Jews. Intermarriage will then take care of itself.

Obviously we are failing at this. For one thing, we often continue to act as if we believe that "serious, committed" means Orthodox. It is clear from the data that such an argument doesn't work. Yes, I know about Orthodox triumphalism. I also know the data: the 2000/2001 NJPS shows that there are 57,000 ba'alei teshuvah, ie those who were not born Orthodox but who became Orthodox later. I know the Orthodox love to talk about this group of people.

However, I have not heard them talk about this other statistic from the same section of the NJPS: as of the date of the study, there were 297,000 Orthodox above the age of 18 in America. However, there were also 347,000 who were born and raised Orthodox who are no longer Orthodox! The Orthodox lost more than they had as of that date!

So Orthodoxy is no solution to our problem. I think the solution lies in facing the reality of contemporary America: our young have the choice of being or not being Jews. That's what freedom means. We need to compete for their loyalty and it's clear that their loyalty can only be won in the context of the reast of their lives, ie as Americans.

The article says that what Professor Wertheimer says is hard to hear. Actually it is easy compared to the truth: Judaism as it is today can't comepte with being American. Solving this problem requires honesty and courage, not a self-righteous assumption of the "superiority" of Jewish life.

I do not know where David Mollen gets his statistics from. There are approximately 600,000 to
700,000 Orthodox Jews in United States according to most statistics ( depending on how you
define Orthodox- 11 to 14 % of the total) While it is true that there are more people who have left Orthodoxy than
those who come in, many of those who left did so decades ago when Orthodox Judaism was
viewed as part of the past not the present or future. Indeed, with the higher birth rates of
both Modern Orthodox Jews and Haredi Orthodox Jews, in areas like NYC and its suburbs
it may become the largest movement of Judaism. While triumphalism in the Orthodoxy is
incorrect, so is the secular triumphalism of Mr. Mullen.
As far as the article is concerned, Dr. Wertheimer is correct. The goal of our community
should be to create core commitment. With such commitment, intermarriage becomes less of
a problem. One can look to the Orthodox community which maintains a lower rate of intermarriage
even with those who leave and join one of the other movements.