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New Outreach To Intermarrieds Makes Wrong Assumptions
Mon, 12/12/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Jack Wertheimer
Jack Wertheimer

A newly released report by the Task Force on Welcoming Interfaith Families of the New York UJA-Federation has been hailed by some as a breakthrough (“UJA-Fed. Launches Outreach To Intermarrieds,” Dec. 9).

To the extent that it calls for additional funding for Jewish education directed at intermarried couples and new sensitivity training for outreach workers, the report represents a shift in resources. But in its assumptions about intermarriage, it encapsulates the conventional and unsubstantiated wisdom about how best to address intermarriage. 

The underlying premise of the report is that large numbers of intermarried families containing a Jewish-born partner remain aloof from Jewish life because they do not feel welcome. Yet nothing in the report provides evidence that this is the cause for the staggeringly high rates of non-affiliation characteristic of intermarried families in this area and most others around the country.

Even those with a cursory knowledge of Jewish life are aware that in quite a few local Reform and Reconstructionist congregations as many as half their younger members are intermarried. It’s hard to imagine they are moved to join if those congregations are as inhospitable as imagined by the task force. At a time when the buzzwords of Jewish communal life are “inclusiveness,” “diversity” and “big-tent Judaism,” the assumption that a lack of welcoming is the reason for widespread non-affiliation defies credulity. 

Moreover, several recent studies conclude that intermarried families by no means feel unwelcome. Two years ago, a task force of the American Jewish Committee looking at “Non-Jews in the Jewish Community” found that “few non-Jews report unpleasant experiences or negativity from Jewish settings.” A recent study of Jewish summer camp usage in the Midwest also concluded that intermarried families do not feel unwelcome in the Jewish community. Indeed, data included in the federation’s task force report reveals that only 18 percent of intermarried families in the New York area “feel it is very important to be part of a Jewish community” as compared to 95 percent of the in-married.

Why, then, does the task force insist that a lack of welcoming is the root cause of non-affiliation? The answer, perhaps, lies in its blithe assumption, repeated several times, that intermarried families are part of the Jewish population. It is one thing to reach out to intermarried born-Jews and children being raised exclusively as Jews by their intermarried parents. But is it not insulting to people of other faiths or no religion whose only Jewish connection is through a family member to assume that they are part of the Jewish community?

Missing entirely from the task force report are the voices of the intermarried and their children, explaining their complex or non-existing relationship with organized Jewish life. Thanks to websites such as, it is easy to access their views. Many write candidly about the deep religious fissures running through families, about the impossible dilemmas posed by dual-religion households, about personal psychological barriers to participation in Jewish life. Rather than take the intermarried at their word about why they do not wish to participate in Jewish life, the task force knows better: the root cause is found not in family dynamics or indifference but in the failure of the Jewish community to be sufficiently welcoming.

This misreading has been abetted by some outreach advocates claiming they have found the magic bullet. One study in particular is invoked endlessly to this effect. A few years ago, the Boston Jewish community survey found that 60 percent of intermarried families claimed to be raising their children as Jews, double the national rate. The Boston federation immediately declared victory by asserting that this high percentage is a result of its strong outreach efforts.

But does this finding prove anything? Because survey questions can be understood in different ways, “raising children as Jews” may refer to an aspiration or to actual practice, to “Jewish and something else” or to some vague sense of Jewishness. Even more important, there is no evidence that higher rates of participation are the result of outreach, rather than other possible factors. To measure the impact of outreach would require tracking people before, during and after their exposure to “welcoming” efforts and to take all kinds of other variables into account. Rather than do the hard work of proving what is efficacious, we rely upon wishful thinking, while ignoring the damage caused by “welcoming “at any price.

A case in point: the chairman of the task force asserted to this newspaper, “We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it.” A generous reading of such stunning “non-judgmentalism” might attribute it to pragmatism. The task force was to come up with a “welcoming” program and, by golly, it has. Let others worry about questions of right and wrong.

As a statement about where the largest Jewish community in the United States stands on the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy, the neutrality of the UJA-Federation of New York is a devastating commentary on our times. In the name of “welcoming,” the federation no longer asserts what Jews have understood for millennia: that leaving aside exceptional cases when conversion or unambiguous commitment to Jewish life are embraced by the intermarried, intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism. In abandoning the Jewish commitment to endogamy, the task force does not reflect the views of large populations of traditional Jews in greater New York.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape.

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Hahahahah. Oh you are a delight. How wonderful the image of you hunched over your keyboard, back aching from the chip on your shoulder, wildly composing your frenzied rebuttal. But of course, that's a picture I've conjured in my head, perhaps not representing reality- but as this is your preferred method of attack, well, I'm indulging myself a bit, forgive me. And who said I was intermarried,or that my synagouge is some Christian stew spilling over with gentiles? Or that these few examples I've mentioned you see as enemies of Judaism are non-jewish women married to Jewish men (interestingly enough, I do believe in every case its been the opposite, meaning that per Jewish law, the children are de facto Jews being raised with the Jewish faith)? Once again you hastily scribble an image not true to the reality. As to the destruction of Judaism, how have these folks interferred with your worship, with your childrens' upbringing? With the upbringing and worship of other more Orthodox/Conservative/Reform communities? What is more harmful, a fist or an open hand? You are a card sir. I've enjoyed our sparring, if for nothing else than the entertainment value as your intellectual debating leaves much to be desired. And I'll be the first to admit debate has never been my strong suit. But you paint yourself has such an unlikable curmudgeon with so much vitrol, prone to name-calling moreso than reasonable discussion that how could I possibly entertain your point of view when the person putting forth that view appears to me as such a bitter, nasty individual with no redeeming qualities, that why would I want to be allied with your way of thinking?

I don't need a lecture by an intermarried secular Jew. I wrote the truth and don't care if it offends you. You and your so-called Rabbi's pro-intermarriage attitude is destroying the Jewish community. You can't have a so-called synagogue filled with gentiles and call it Judaism. If these intermarried individuals wanted to stand with Judaism they should have made an effort to date other Jews. They can't make their children Jewish if their wives aren't Jews.
Decent human beings don't encourage the destruction of the Jewish community.

"Anti-Intermarriage": Rabbi Hammerman is my Rabbi. He's a fantastic leader, and an all-around fine, outgoing, inclusive individual. Your snide, dismissive, rude attitude does you no service either as a debater or a decent human being (it might help perhaps to write under an actual name rather than some pseudonym designed to cloak yourself whilst sputtering invective anonymously on the internet- I find that tends to make people more accountable and polite for how they conduct themselves with strangers). As to the members of my synagouge, when we're praying as a community, enjoying Shabbat together, participating in the many and varied activities offered by the institution, I've got to tell you I have a hard time telling who's "Jewish" and who isn't (what would your solution be I wonder? Have the "real" Jews wear yellow stars?). Because all I see are people praying, participating in Jewish life, and bringing their children to do the same. I've had one or two volunteer the information during casual conversation they have mixed-marriages, but there they are, praying, being part of the community, sending their children to Hebrew school and prepping them for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. They look like Jews to me. It looks like a growing synagouge with an active community and if there are people who want that connection, want that upbringing for their kids (with I might add, no objection from their significant, non-Jewish other), than I wish them well and I will pray alongside them and shake their hands and wish them a good Shabbos as my fellow congregants. Because they have made a choice to stand with Judaism as individuals, and are raising more individuals with that sensibility (which is basically Rabbi Hammerman's point, though I suppose it bears repeating since you would so blithely cast aspersions on our congregation and our Rabbi).

If Judaism, and other religions today, had something of value to offer, people would be banging on the door to be let in. Since the movement of people is in the opposite direction, perhaps Judaism really has nothing to offer other than a sense of belonging, similar to being Irish or Italian, where their no belief requirements.

Whether they admit it or not, most American Jews are either agnostics or atheists and just go through the motions of 'Judaism' for the warm memories. What we need are more 'Jewish' cultural activities which do not involve prayer rituals which turn modern youth off to traditional Judaism, unless they are brainwashed from an early age.

Bravo! Jack (as usual) is spot on. He is a courageous voice to call things as they are.

But the problem is not just with the UJA. It strikes closer to home in the Big Tent of Conservative Judaism -- that is a ship unmoored. Whle Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews contend with the great and basic ideological issues: Why be Jewish (Reform)or How to be Jewish and steeped in halacha while living in the modern world (Ortho) -- the Conservative movement struggles with the prosaic "what" question. What is Conservative Judaism? Few adherents allow for halachic claims on their life and are religiously indistinguishable from Reform. It is quite likely that the future growth of Reform Judaism will come from Conservative Jews who are without rudder. There is an urgent need to find a good answer to the what question if the issue of intermarriage is to be addressed -- with quality religious practices and meaningful conversion standards when appropriate. If one takes a stand to be Jewish, she should have a good grasp of what this means.

CGS; Your comments are appalling. How dare you call Jack's article racist. What he is doing is standing up to perserve Judaism. That is something that you can't understand because you're not Jewish. The Jews are not your puppets that you can use to impress your spouse, who should have married a Jew if he/she wanted a Jewish family.
You can't be part of the Jewish community or raise Jewish children if you're not Jewish.

The task force should ask why even serious Jews - not to mention less comitted ones - are unaffiliated with formal Jewish institutions. Synagogue membership is expensive and too often spiritually vapid; intellectual engagement is hard to come by; and federations - no matter what they say - really aren't welcoming to people who aren't potentially big givers. And then there's just indifference, apathy, and the other demands of modern life.

One would be hard put to find Reconstructionist or Reform congregations that are less welcoming to interfaith couples than they are to Jewish ones. Even many Conservative can be so characterized. In fact, most seem to feel thrilled when they are "chosen" by interfaith couples.

This is an appalling essay. As a non-Jew happily married to a Jewish educator, I have been privileged to have been immersed in Jewish ideas, traditions, culture, and family life for years. I don't want to convert because I'm an atheist, but I feel a strong connection to Judaism and actively participate in the Jewish community as a friend and ally. Many people are individually welcoming enough, but we face a constant official undercurrent of dismissal and disparagement solely based on my non-Jewish identity. The idea that the woes of the Jewish community can be blamed squarely on the head of "outsiders" is an absurd fallacy that would be laughable if it weren't so blatantly motivated by a kind of tribalistic paranoia verging on racism. To be constantly accused of waging a "second Holocaust" on a people I love and support is a monstrous distortion and an unjust slap in the face. I've been pushed time and again to turn away from Judaism altogether, but I will stick by the Jews, my adopted people, in solidarity against the real threat to a thriving Jewish community: the misguided fearmongering of the Jack Worthheimers of the world.

For more comments in response to this op-ed, go to Julie Wiener's "In The Mix" blog:

Jack Is definately correct in his analysis on intermarriage in the Jewish community. The pro-intermarriage groups are already squealing in protest. How typical. Groups like the horrid "Interfaith Families" really show what a disaster intermmarriage has been for the Jewish community.

Unfortunately so-called leaders like the so-called Rabbi Eytan Hammerman are also condoning and pushing intermarriage as an acceptable alternative. That couldn't be more wrong. There's no such thing as "Jewish families of all types." A family is either Jewish or not. A Jewish family has to have two Jewish parents to be Jewish. it seems like this "Rabbi" has a synagogue filled with gentiles which makes him more of a Reverend than a Rabbi.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of being in Israel can look around and see a myriad of different "racial types." From Eastern Europe, we have Jews with Slavic features, from the Middle East, we have Jews of Middle Eastern appearance. Jews from Europe generally resemble the racial types from which their forebears came. Because they were cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so long, the Jews of Ethiopia were a surprize, but they are also Jews even though they physically resemble their Ethiopian neighbors.

This is not merely the result of pogroms with accomanying rape. There has been intermarriage between Jews and their neighbors during the 2000 years of diasporic living. While I understand that many influenced by the rabbinic establishment believe that there is a "Jewish soul" that cannot be acquired except through biological inheritance; this is a metaphysically based assumption. The reality of the Jewish people's wide variety of physical appearances disputes that assumption.

In an atmosphere of freedom, this intermarriage becomes more common. We will lose some and we will gain some, and we will look like our non-Jewish neighbors and they will look like us.

Intermarriage is not the same thing as conversionary marriage. If, during our long history, people not born Jewish have married born Jews and become Jewish in the process, that is a COMPLETELY different thing from a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew (i.e. intermarriage). To conflate the two is to dismiss the act of conversion that so many sincere converts have undertaken. Someone who converts is a Jew - period. So their marriage, by definition is not an intermarriage.

Intermarriage is not the same thing as conversionary marriage. If, during our long history, people not born Jewish have married born Jews and become Jewish in the process, that is a COMPLETELY different thing from a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew (i.e. intermarriage). To conflate the two is to dismiss the act of conversion that so many sincere converts have undertaken. Someone who converts is a Jew - period. So their marriage, by definition is not an intermarriage.

Rabbi Hammerman,
Do you or anyone at your synagogue advise these mixed couples (where only the father was born Jewish), that, rightly or wrongly, one day their child will not be allowed into a Hebrew School? Hebrew Day School? Summer Camp?
You may think that I am being a smart aleck. Quite the contrary.
I lived thru this. I converted thru a Conservative Congregations. Little did I know that large segments of Jews would still view me as not Jewish.
I have no regrets. Happy with what I did.
I do have complaints to the Rabbi that converted me for not divulging such crucial information.
It was when I moved out of the community and attempted to register my daughters to a traditional Hebrew School for Bat Mitzvah lessons that “my world collapsed”. I was told that my Jewish children are not considered Jewish!
It’s like buying a camera and the salesperson does not tell you that it does not work west of the Mississippi. I would still buy the camera but it’s wrong for him not to divulge it.
I got over it and found a more accepting place. But I should have been forewarned.

Dear Derek,

Very good and fair questions. Any child born to a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish until they complete a conversion process - beit din, mikvah, mila. For the youngsters in my congregation, this process has to be completed before they are to become bar/bat mitzvah (they do participate in Hebrew School before that). For these kids, at that point, it is less of a "conversion" than an "affirmation" of the Jewish lives that they have lived - but it looks just like any traditional conversion/giur process.

Could it be the case that some segments of the Jewish world (in Israel or elsewhere) would not "hold" by a giur process performed by Conservative rabbis? Yes, it is sad to know and I mention that to my prospective converts. As the same time, I do not realistically expect them to move to a community so "traditional" - on the periphery of the American Jewish community -while the vast majority of Jews do not share such an approach to our tradition. Remember, even the State of Israel, by law, is to recognize all conversions performed in the diaspora.

As for your particular situation, I don't understand what you wrote -- you converted (before kids, I assume?) through a Conservative congregation and then your children were rejected at a "traditional Hebrew school" (you mean, Orthodox)? Whomever rejected you was NOT in the mainstream of American Jewry. I'm certainly sorry to know that you had that experience.

Jack Wertheimer is one of the very few sane voices on intermarriage. He is 100% correct in saying that there are many "welcoming" settings right now for those intermarried who wish to be part of the community, but that most are not participating despite this (in fact, Rabbi Hammerman's posting above proves Prof. Wertheimer's point on this score - Hammerman descirbes his synagogue as a place that both welcomes and involves intermarried families - so, an intermarried family not walking through his door is staying away for other reasons).

In my many years of experience first as one of the "intermarried" and now inmarried (my wife converted, and our family lives an observant Jewish life), I can say that for the vast majority of intermarried people I've met who have chosen to be uninvolved or minimally so, it is because of their own internal obstacles (very often obscured by a facade of rationalizations) more than any real inablity to find a welcoming place within the Jewish community. And many within the Jewish community have created their own facade of rationalizations about how intermarriage is really not a problem, "many" intermarrieds participate, etc. (some do, many don't).

I fully expect that the Kerry Olitskys, Paul Golins, etc. of the outreach world will be weighing in next week with their own columns or letters to the editor telling us how Jack Wertheimer "doesn't understand", that everything's just rosy out there, and that if only we were more welcoming things would be even rosier. Sadly, as Professor Wertheimer points out, these self-serving statements (often backed up by their own polls that bear a close resemblance to smoke and mirrors) are hardly a substitute for rigorous data upon which real outreach programs could be based.

The American Jewish community has many challenges. It's no time to engage in wishful thinking.

For more, please see:

Bravo to Jack Wertheimer for another excellent article! Over the years, I have enjoyed and learned much from his many Commentary articles. I hope he will continue to speak out for many years to come.

As always, Jack Wertheimer is spot on and has articulated the issue flawlessly. I would however add that there has been a gradual drop of affiliation and association with synagogue life, federation etc. among endogamous Jewish families. Surely they aren't made to feel unwelcome. Perhaps they aren't finding relevance in this anachronistic construct of Jewish life that is in desperate need of retooling.

I can't believe the author cited as a source of information that SUPPORTS his claims. The articles and personal testimonials on that site are a compelling argument for the idea that interfaith marriage might strengthen a Jewish future rather than put another nail in our coffin. People wrestle and struggle with the various dilemmas that come up in interfaith households, but they deal with them. Those who wrote on that website will not fail to create a Jewish future for their children. It's the apathetic couples (both intermarried and not) who we should be worrying about.

It appears the author's purpose, based on his final paragraph, is not to comment on the survey results as much as condemn intermarriage - a point that is hardly new. While the Reform and Reconstructionist (go ahead and FIND a Reconstructionist temple, I dare you!) are welcoming to the intermarried, the unstated point here is that Conservative temples are entirely UNWELCOMING to intermarried couples. As half of what once was an intermarried couple, it was very, very clear where we were welcome and where we were not after a brief conversation with congregants and rabbis. We joined a Reform temple, I've since converted, we remarried with a ketuba - all because we were made to feel both welcome and wanted.

My esteemed Jewish Theological Seminary professor, Dr. Jack Wertheimer, in his “Outreach to Intermarrieds Makes Wrong Assumptions,” takes UJA Federation to task for its recent report on welcoming intermarried families. He claims that the task force has abandoned “the Jewish commitment to endogamy” insisting that, with the exception of rare cases, intermarriage is always bad for the Jewish people. In his argument, Wertheimer is repeating the “old math” of past millennia, where 1+1=0, one Jew plus one non-Jew in a marriage definitely equal zero future Jews in the newly-formed family.

Here in the exurban portions of greater New York, we see this math quite differently. In our Conservative congregation, families with one Jewish parent continue to show us that 1+1 can equal three, four or five. These families make up a large and growing segment of the community. They are deeply committed. They actively participate in synagogue life. The educate their children Jewishly and they show a love and respect for Judaism in the wider community. Nearly each week since Rosh Hashanah, a new family has comes through our doors and joined the congregation – 29 families so far this year - many with one Jewish parent, rather than two.

What’s the secret to engaging these families? Indeed, it is more than just being a welcoming institution. We also meet them where they are - socially, religiously and spiritually. We invite all members of the family to participate in ritual celebrations as appropriate. We go out of our way to involve the non-Jewish parent, to encourage him or her to also serve the community. We demonstrate an infectious love for Judaism and, as we have seen, they continue coming back. It is not simply about welcoming; it is about involving. And, it is about looking forward to a Judaism that does not have the barriers that once wholly separated our people from our neighbors. We can either criticize those Jewish institutions and organizations that embrace the reality of our Twenty-First Century Jewish community or we can focus on creating dynamic, forward-looking and sustainable communities. We plan to do the latter here in Mahopac, with Jewish families of all types.

Rabbi Eytan Hammerman
Temple Beth Shalom
Mahopac, NY

I was raised believing that very premise, that if you marry out of the religion you will end Judaism. My experience, in a very large part due to the philosophy of Rabbi Hammerman and Temple Beth Shalom, has been the complete opposite. Being in a "mixed" marriage, my husband and I knew that we wanted to raise our children with a religion. If my experience at a Temple had been anything less than warm and rewarding, I may not have raised my children Jewish. I think this is the case with most people in an interfaith family. Therefore, if the Jewish institution would be more open to interfaith families, the chances for growing the population in our religion may be better than if turn families like mine away. Also, if we can entice the non-Jewish spouse to participate, it enables us to show others, who may have little or no knowledge about Judaism, what a beautiful religion it is.


Unless these studies treat couples married by rabbis differently than those whose marriages are rejected by the Jewish community from the get-go, then they are inherently flawed. Often 'welcoming interfaith' starts too late - just after the ceremony which sets the tone for the rest of the marriage has taken place.

Bravo! Where are our politically correct "leaders" and their bureaucratic minions taking the organized Jewish community to?

I have to disagree with this article. I think the Jewish community is still as a whole very suspicious of intermarriage.

For one thing, can we stop calling a marriage between a Jew and a Non-Jew "interfaith marriage?" That's not an accurate term in our day and age of Atheism and secularism. if one of the partners has *little or no* faith, then how can "interfaith" be a valid descriptor.

There are actually a lot more people willing an able to be committed to a Jewish life through conversion as Jews by choice, but a lot of Synagogues, often by no fault of their own, choose not to put outreach to prospective Jews on their agenda.

Judaism should be proud of its history of non-proselytizing. But I think our community has to realize that with our low birthrate and our pop. not exceeding pre-holocaust numbers, that we have to accept Jews by choice as a more and more common phenomenon. It's a miracle that despite all the hatred and ignorance, that there are people who are still brave enough to want to convert. Sadly a majority of those people are overlooked.

How true! All nations, including Judaism (the nation of Israel), have minimum requirements for citizenship. We all must learn the laws of our nation. They are open to interpretation and practice. Every parent has the obligation to transmit his/her paradigm of Judaism, through education and practice (observance).

If you choose to be Canadian, you must complete the process for citizenship.
The same is true for Judaism.

A fair point that the report contains assumptions that are insufficiently substantiated. What's not fair is 1) the article's title is as unsubstantiated as the assumptions the article attacks, and 2) the implication in the last paragraph that a rejection of endogamy is wrong because it goes against the traditionally observant community's preferences.

The Jewish communities that reject endogamy and conversion as the sole bases for membership in the Jewish world do it with their eyes wide open, and for better or worse, with a full awareness that this will not be accepted by the traditional world. The fact that they make a wide variety of assumptions about what additional factors make for a Jewish family does not affect the basic principle involved: being/acting Jewish (however defined) is a reasonable criterion for being counted as Jewish. That definition is certainly subject to much discussion, but it's the principle that needs understanding and acceptance.

I am curious, Mr. Leavitt - according to your criteria of "being/acting Jewish", how would treat Messianic/Christian Jews?

I agree but I think in your second paragraph you meant to say that Jewish communities shun exogamy and conversion. Endogamy= in-marriage, and what Jewish parents don't want their kids to marry other nice Jewish kids.

Exogamy=outmarriage. many Jewish communities are upset by outmarriage and conversion, is what I think you meant based off of context.