I recently had the privilege of participating in a two-day retreat organized by The Jewish Week and sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, on the subject of being Jewish in New York. It was an extraordinary experience, on many levels. The organizers brought together a very diverse group of very smart, knowledgeable people and, in 48 hours, shaped them into a “community” deeply appreciative of that diversity. In one space we had Modern Orthodox together with denomination-shoppers; committed synagogue members and minyan devotees; young and old; gay and straight; Ashkenazic and Sephardic; Russian, Iranian and Israeli; rabbis and theater directors; psychiatrists and songwriters.
Throughout the conference we heard one recurring theme: to be Jewish in New York today is to be in a kaleidoscope of diversity at a watershed moment. At this moment, the shifting array of Jewish “communities” faces challenges as transformative as those at the time of the Second Temple, or the invention of the printing press, or the emancipation of the Jews in Europe.
This moment of change is special to New York, where so many of the different Jewish “communities” exist cheek-by-jowl with one another. Each of these communities — disparate as they are — is also being shaped by the broader forces of globalization. With multiple ways to process information and experience, and with competing time pressures, people increasingly incorporate multiple identities; they feel the tensions between a hunger for community and a resistance to nurturing it. Throughout, the pace of change grows relentlessly faster, and recent assumptions quickly become passé.
One insightful conference participant offered the idea of music as a metaphor for our times; while not long ago he would buy an album of favorite music, he now has an ever-changing “playlist.” Several other participants commented perceptively on the changes affecting religion, noting the general erosion of authority, along with eclecticism and a sense of entitlement among practitioners.
Amid these forces, religion is receding as a value. Judaism is hardly the only mainstream faith that is having difficulty keeping adherents; similar changes are occurring in mainstream Christianity and in other faith traditions. In this context, conference participants asked, “How can Judaism and Jewish identity remain compelling and sustainable?”
In all of this discussion about being Jewish in New York, I was powerfully struck by the relative absence of attention to interfaith families. The increase in interfaith marriage — in large part a product of the swirl of societal changes — is viewed as a major challenge to sustainability. Yet it seemed that the reality of these families was missing from our conversation. I was the only one who raised the topic — and my comments seemed to gain little traction.
Was I the only one of the 50 participants who had non-Jews in my family? In the course of the conference, I gradually discovered that many of the participants did in fact have interfaith stories of their own. Some were themselves the children of a mixed marriage; others had siblings who were intermarried, or themselves had a non-Jewish spouse.
Whether or not they are always acknowledged, interfaith families are a growing piece of the bigger picture. And they are alive, well and interested in things Jewish. Interfaith families can, and should, be part of the Jewish future.
Today’s interfaith families, unlike those of 20 or even 10 years ago, are typically comfortable in their identity, and proud of their non-Jewish spouses and extended family.
In my own work in the interfaith community, I have seen and been part of these changes. Today, the Jewish-Christian couples who attend my organization’s educational and pre-marital counseling programs assume, overwhelmingly, that there will be a rabbi at their wedding. They want a chupah, and they expect to break the glass. They choose to keep Judaism in their lives.At the same time, as citizens of today’s culture, they feel entitled to choose their religious affiliation and they place a high value on fairness. Thus, they often want both Christian and Jewish clergy in the ceremony, and they want to include aspects of both traditions in their new family life. And they bridle when their non-Jewish spouse or extended family is marginalized or disrespected.
But they do not disconnect themselves from Judaism.
Many participants in the conference bemoaned, appropriately, the contemporary sense of entitlement and “pick-and-choose” style of many Jews. But intermarried Jews are not necessarily less connected to Jewish tradition than are many Jews in wholly Jewish marriages.
We cannot control the future, but we can be confident that if the intermarried are not acknowledged in the conversation, today’s intermarried couples and their children will be less likely to retain a lasting sense of connection with Judaism.
It goes without saying that there are many reasons for the Jewish community to welcome interfaith families — from the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger, to our commitment to Jewish peoplehood, to the importance of Jewish continuity.
What may not be recognized is that interfaith relationships offer a unique perspective on being Jewish today. This perspective can be a source of insight and strength for the Jewish community. Perhaps most powerfully, many Jews in interfaith marriages rediscover the richness of their heritage precisely because they are intermarried.
It is through the lens of the interfaith experience that many of us decipher what are the most enlivening elements of Judaism today. There is no more powerful way to learn about and experience one’s own religion than to do so in the presence of the other. The Jewish community will benefit if interfaith families are part of the continuing conversation.
Sheila Gordon is president of Interfaith Community, Inc.
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