view counter
Missing From The Jewish Conversation: Intermarrieds
Mon, 07/04/2011 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

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.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


If course you warm souls who work with the intermarried support these issues- you don't want to lose your high paying job. You probably don't have the education to do much else.

Say all what you want, but the proof is in the pudding. Intermarriage horribly hurts family unity. Maybe if intermarriage was far and few between it would be considered so abhorrent. You really think reform and conservative so called rabbis are goi g to be against it ? Their $300,000 a year pay heck is at stake.

The proof is inthe pudding. Within generations their decendents will be non-jews.

Your ignorance and cruelty are unwarranted and unwelcome. Ms. Gordon is an intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated leader in a very small nonprofit that she founded and from which she received little remuneration. Perhaps you should clear the log from your own eye before you attack the splinter in your neighbor's.

I commend Sheila for her thoughtful commentary. She sagely highlights an important facet of modern day Jewish life and identity that is not given enough attention. Like my anonymous counterpart, I received full time hebrew school education through age 13. I learned hebrew, Torah, Jewish law and spent a semester at Tel Aviv University during college. Ultimately, I fell in love with a non-Jew and we married and have a beautiful daughter.

I have no patience or frankly, any respect for my close minded brothers and sisters like nun shin, who in my view, are being self destructive. To me, there are many modern day orthodox Jews - as oxymoronic as the last four words seem - who treat Jewishness like it's a legal precident being analyzed in court. Why are friends of mine who are Jewish by birth, happened to marry Jewish and have Jewish Children as per these strict definitions, somehow more Jewish than me? These friends of mine have no Jewish education, don't know any hebrew other than "Shalom" and think Jewish identity peaks with bagels and lox, going to temple once a year (in a good year) and maybe having a 15 minute passover seder where they sing a few verses of Dayenu without knowing what it even means. There is so much hypocrisy among the orthodox, with their kosher for passover cereal and pasta and cake, their Shabbat elevators, light switch and oven timers and all the other modern day conveniences they have adopted to make being technically Jewish easier.

If I instill in my daughter a sense of Jewish identity, teach her about the true spirit of the Jewish festivals, teach her at least some hebrew, give her an understanding of Jewish history and the struggle Jews have faced to maintain their identity through the millenia, then she is more of a Jew than these "technical" Jews, who eat bacon wrapped shrimp with a milk shake and yet are somehow more Jewish in the eyes of some of those in this thread than me and mine.

By banishing the children of intermarriage (and their parents) from the Jewish commuity you simply shrink an already precipitously shrinking community, instead of welcoming potential new memembers who might have decided to identify more with their Jewish heritage than with whatever other ethnicity they might possess. Someone who adopts a faith or an identity by choice is a much more fervent and powerful member of the community than someone who just earned it by birth. Open arms will always find a better reception than a closed mind or clenched fist and frankly, it is precisely the sort of close mindedness of some in this thread that has driven Jews from the community.

Hello, I realize it has been a while since your postiings, but I just read this article and the subsequent comments and felt compelled to respond. I am a Jewish woman in her 30s who had 12 years of religious education (from ages 3 to 15). I am steadfast in my identity as a Jew and fervent in my faith in God. I happen to fall in love with a non-Jew and married him after many years of dating. I have the two most beautiful sons (I'm biased!) and know in my heart how God has blessed me and my marriage by giving me such an amazing family. In addition, since my marriage, I actually have become more committed -- those of us in interfatih marriages will attest to wanting to ensure our faith is not diluted so naturally become more observant and faithful.
I am offended by those on this website who do not feel I am of the Jewish faith because of my choices. It is specifically those opinions who will fracture the Jewish faith; those of us who fully wish to participate in the faith will not feel they have a place. This replicates the feeling I get when I hear of the ultra-Orthodox view that those who grew up in the Reform part of the fatih are not "really" Jewish. This close-mindedness is not Godly and not representative of the moral compass I was taught Jews exemplify. Please consider a more compassionate response.

Hi Anonymous,

I have a habit of dominating conversations so I wanted to give it some time before for other people to step in before replying to your thoughtful response. I am still engaged in this conversation and will give you my response later today. If you ever want to take this conversation offline, feel free to email me at

Talk to you soon.

Many Voices,

This is the Anonymous that you responded to above. I am sorry that it took so long for me to respond, and I hope that you have not given up on this discussion. (I guess I'll know whether you have or haven't if you respond to this.)

Responding to your main objection to what I last wrote (about separating people from faith), I want to say that I both agree and disagree with your stance. I'll admit upfront (as I did before) that one's genuine Jewishness is not determined by whether or not one believes in the religion and/or observes the laws. If your mother is Jewish, you're Jewish, period. Based on that, it makes no difference if you're Daniel Radcliffe (the actor who plays Harry Potter, who is "only" Jewish on his mother's side and is an atheist) or Moshe Rabeinu; both are equally as much a member of the Jewish People. However, that does not mean that I can grant both of them an equal role in ensuring the continuity of Judaism. You can be a fully valid member of Klal Yisrael, but if you are not faithful to the beliefs and/or laws that our religion consists of, you simply cannot be entrusted with our future.

To illustrate my point, I will mention some (hopefully familiar) names of (mostly) contemporary individuals who are a member of my "people" but not of my "faith": Baruch Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Heinrich Marx, Mordecai Kaplan and Sherwin Wine. All of them were (I believe) fully Jewish under halacha, and yet each one of them made unacceptable deviations from Judaism. That they are Jewish, I can acknowledge. That they observe Judaism, I cannot.

That, in a nutshell, is what I believe differentiates the Jewish People and religion. I'd love to see your thoughts in regard to what I have just written here.


Your analogy to baseball is intriguing. You seem to be saying if you want to be a part of the "game" of Judaism, you have to play by the rules. I have two challenges to this analogy. First, within the "rules of Judaism" It seems to me that the concept of intermarriage is allowed since you only need your mother to be Jewish. That means that someone with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is just as Jewish as someone born with two Jewish parents. If Judaism wanted to completely exclude intermarriage, the rabbis would have mandated that both parents need to be Jewish for their children to be Jewish. However, they did not and I think that's an important point to remember.

My second challenge is that the analogy you're offering has severe limitations in regard to this discussion. In baseball, the interpreters and enforcers of the rules are umpires who each have the same rulebook; an umpire in Seattle will call the game with the same rules as an umpire calls the game in Miami. While as Jews we share common rule books, our "umpires" or rabbis are very different. The principle of having a ma'ar de'atra, a local rabbi who adjudicates halakha for his/her constituents, is necessary given the fact that rabbis have different opinions on law. Unlike umpires, rabbis in Seattle and Miami (let alone different communities within those cities) may call their games differently. This flexibility for rabbis to argue and have different opinions on matters of law has existed since the beginning of the rabbinic period. Hillel and Shammai disagreed on everything - the Judaism celebrated by their followers must have looked very different from each other. Now should be no different then back then.

Your final claim is an astute and important one; it may not be possible for two faiths to work together in the same household. I believe that all parties involved in this issue should keep this point in mind, no matter our disposition. However, just because there is that chance doesn't mean it is impossible nor does it mean that it isn't worthwhile to explore it. Like all versions of Judaism before it from -- Hillel/Shammai to the denominations of 19th Century Germany -- we have experimented with making Judaism meaningful in the current age. Now is no different. Intermarriage is a reality in the world and whether or not you regard it is a travesty or as a fulfillment of the Jewish project in America, our responsibility as Jews is to approach the issue with as much love and integrity for our fellow Jews as possible.


Thank you for responding to my comment as I appreciate the dialogue we've entered into on these important topics. Yes, the seder I'm referring to is the Passover seder, and I think your challenges are important to discuss. As a Jewish community I think we need to have an open and frank conversation on the impact of competing ideas on the sources for mitzvot. Personally, I believe modern scholarship plays a role in that conversation though having a particular view of modern scholarship shouldn't pre-determine the outcome of that conversation.

However, the source of the Passover seder is not the comment I want to address. Instead, I want to talk about your comment in which you separate "people" from "faith." If I understand you correctly (and please tell me if I'm wrong), halakha teaches us that there is a genetic composition to being Jewish (I.e. Jewishness is passed on by your mother) irrespective of one's personal beliefs. However that doesn't translate to being a member of the Jewish "faith" which is contingent on your belief. Thus, you may be a member of the Jewish people but unless you have correct beliefs you are not a member of the Jewish faith. I want to challenge you on that separation because why would it benefit the kadosh baruch hu, in His infinite wisdom, to make such a differentiation? How is separating "people" from "faith" a good thing, which it must be bcause that is how you are arguing the ribono shell olam created us? I would contend that separating "people" from "faith" is an incorrect reading of God's creation. As the prophets demonstrate time after time, God never gives up on His people no matter how often they are unfaithful. God hopes and implores us to find faith but as God makes clear in Deuteronomy, that in the end is our choice to make. Being a member of God's people is our reality, being faithful to God is our aspiration.

At this point though I think it is important to take a step back and have the humility to realize that even with the richness of our Jewish tradition, we still can't know exactly what God wants from us. That is part of what makes us human. What one person may consider to be heresy is what another person may consider to be precisely what God is commanding us to do. Our humility should teach us to not throw out any ideas simply because we are fearful of them or think they are wrong. Rather we should discuss all of them together and through that engaging act of sharing perhaps we WILL get closer to knowing what God wants from us.

Oh please listen to Rabbi Rosenberg- Some of us manage to intermarry-stay Jewish with spouses that convert to REFORM Judiasm and stay happy for 30 plus years and manage to consider themselves good Jews. Please don't be so self righteous that you loose what is left of us with the writings I see here.

Ms. Gordon, along with others that promote interfaith marriage, makes a number of errors in her thinking, but I'll highlight a few.

She states that interfaith families "should be part of the Jewish future". She fails to understand what makes a Jew who he/she is. There are certain rules that we were given, and those rules dictate that a Jew has obligations which are revealed in the Bible. If you choose a Judaism that doesn't accept those obligations then you can't call it Judaism. If you want to play baseball, you have to round the bases from 1st base, to 2nd, to 3rd to home plate. If you choose to go from 3rd to home, it's meaningless. In effect that's the Judaism that interfaith couples are choosing - a form that has no relationship to the actual Judaism she wants to be a part of. They made up their own rules.

Secondly, let's look at someone who is in a marriage where one person is Jewish and one is Christian. Judaism says that the laws decreed to us by G-d are eternal, while Christianity proclaims that those laws are null and void and are superseded by a new set of laws. They are not compatible. If a child of intermarried parents really examines each religion, how do they come to terms with the Judaism of one parent, while the Christian parent's belief is that Judaism is passe? You would have to have a watered down Judaism and a watered down Christianity that only focus on the ideals of each religion but that goes against a Jew's obligations to ALSO follow the obligations dictated by the Bible. Interfaith coupes are in a Catch-22. It can't work.

Many Voices,

I don't know which "seder" you're referring to when you mention that our Sages created it based on Greek symposiums of their day, but if you mean the Passover Seder, you're dead wrong. The Pesach Seder is not an "invention" of our Sages; the basis for it goes all the way back to Sinai. It was orally transmitted from generation to generation throught the ages and finally codified in the Talmud, specifically Masechta Pesachim. The various practices observed on the Seder night are laden with mystical significance based on profound hidden secrets of our Holy Torah. It was never about being a "meaningful" way of commemorating the Exodus that would express itself in ways remeniscent of the local, non-Jewish culture of the time.

Of course, if you hold by the "modern scholarship" perspective, what I said above won't sway you. However, if you, G-d forbid, do indeed believe in such heresy, then there is no way to reconcile our differences. While I do recognize that, if they are halachically Jewish, they are members of my PEOPLE, I simply cannot accept them as members of my FAITH. The moment we start including them in discussions about our future is the moment we decide to destroy authentic Judaism.


Thank you for your reply, but I would appreciate it if you don't use name calling in expressing your feelings. Calling a comment insane is not helpful to the conversation, it only polarizes it.

I recognize that there are many potential difficulties in accepting families into the Jewish community that do not exhibit strict fidelity to the Jewish faith. However, I'm wondering if you could explain more of what you mean by your term "gentilized." I'm hearing a fear that by introducing non-Jewish elements into the Jewish community, we would irrevocably change Judaism into something that is not wholly Jewish. However, a quick glance in our history shows us that Judaism has always been influenced by other cultures. My favorite example is the quintessential Jewish home ritual -- the seder. The seder as we have it does not come literally from the Torah but rather was a creation of the rabbis based off of the Greek symposiums of their day. For me, that's an amazing thing to consider -- that the rabbis of the Talmud were so affected by the popular non-Jewish culture that they used it for inspiration to create a special, meaningful and vital Jewish ritual that continues today.

As for your other comment about passionate Jews not intermarrying, I think it's a myth that can be debunked by any intermarried couple who is serious about faith. As an example, take a look at this blog:

I'm looking forward to hearing your response and continuing this discussion!

Of course passionate Jews intermarry. Orthodox Jews can claim that non-Orthodox Jews are not "really" Jewish, but that won't change the fact that the majority of Jews in the US are not Orthodox, the intermarriage rate is high, and many committed Jews come from interfaith families.

Many Voices,
Your comment is inane. You're basically saying that the Jewish community should become more "gentilized" to become more "vital." This is ridicoulous! Btw real "passionate Jews" wouldn't intermarry in the first place!

"If we tighten our grip, more will slip through our fingers."

Already in this short conversation I've heard talk about orthodoxy being the only way to be Jewish. That is only the reality if you choose to look through a very narrow lens, but with a broader lens you'll see that there are many different kinds of Jews out there, especially intelligent, thoughtful and passionate non-Orthodox Jews. It seems to me that Sheila is saying that that was part of the point of this gathering, to display the variety and diversity of our people. Thankfully we are a diverse people with many different ways to be Jewish. But if we want to champion our diversity then we also need to be accepting of another group of passionate Jews who choose to build a family with more than one religious identity. This group would bring another distinctive, passionate and vital voice to the Jewish scene and if we are open enough I dare say that intermarried families can become a strong asset to the Jewish people.

Thank you, Sheila!
Intermarriage starts as a love story, just like any other marriage, and if we continue to tell our young Jewish people that their love doesn't count, isn't good enough, we are going to lose them in even larger numbers than we do now.

It is far more likely that the children of an interfaith family will be raised to love, respect and be part of their Jewish heritage if the Jewish community welcomes and respects the parents of those children.

My impression is that the majority of interfaith marriages, involve a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish male. Their children are not Jewish. Encouraging a non-Jew to observe some Jewish rituals, is not part of Judaism and accomplishes nothing. Whether, the interfath family feels connected to Judaism or not, the non-Jewish children are lost to the Jewish people forever, unless they convert in a Halachically acceptable way. Since their Jewish parent is not Orthodox, the chances of a proper conversion are very small.The only solution is to prevent intermarriage, by giving every Jewish child at least 14 years of a solid Jewish education.

Yes, 14 years of solid Jewish education is great, if one can afford it and has the conviction to do so. For the record all my children are products of yeshivot and thank G-d married observant Jews. However, are we to throw away 50-70% of Jews who intermarry? I say no. Who knows if through love and undersatnding the children of such a intermarriage might not be drawn back to Judaism with proper conversions. ? It is easy to give up on such families as long as it does not effect you personally, then the ball game changes.Making the conversion process so impossible that few can achieve such high levels of religion is also not the answer. Conversion has become a political and not a halachic game. This is a game the Jewish people as a whole will loose. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

It is entirely unsurprising to read remarks like these from those who have failed. Yes, failed in their mission of inspiring Jews to remain Jews, to marry Jews, and to raise their children as Jews. Very much like the "brilliant" solution 30 years ago of Rabbi Alexander Schindler (the then head of the reform "Jewish" church): to unilaterally declare that the maternal descent rule can be expanded to include paternal descent. This is part of how one can understand that, as the historian J. Sarna has documented, in many American reform "Jewish" churches today as many as 30% of the members are not Jewish by ANY definition. (Actually, Sarna's book is already several years old: the situation is probably worse today.) How brilliant: the defeatists simply "defined away" the utter failure of the reform "Jewish" church. Sorry, but we want to remain real Jews, as were our ancestors, and are not content to follow the pathetic utterances of those who are abject failures in their life's work.

Wake UP RABBIS, JEWISH LEADERS, FEDERATION OFFICIALS AND JEWS IN GENERAL. Intermarriade is real and is here to stay. We cannot sit shiva or disown the intermarried. We need to do everything in our power and use the financial and intellectual resources at our disposal to bring love and caring to such families with the hope we can encourage them to be part of our families. WE DARE NOT ABANDON THEM. IF WE DO WE JEWS ARE CREATING OUR OWN HOLOCAUST. There exists a 50-70% INTERMAARIAGE situation in America alone. Let us get our heads out of the sand. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

The non Jews are not a part of the Jewish comunity even if Jews mingle with them. Jews come from a Jewish mother or convert in an ORTHODOX manner.

You cant change that. No matter how much you lie o yourself you know it is still a lie.

Judaism means Jews. The non Jews are and will always be on the outside looking in.

How sad and limited.