A Secret Love No More
Tue, 12/07/2010
Associate Editor
Keren Sachs and boyfriend Landis Kaufman: Interfaith couples group has strengthened their relationship.
Keren Sachs and boyfriend Landis Kaufman: Interfaith couples group has strengthened their relationship.

Eight years ago, as director of a United Synagogue Youth chapter on the West Coast, Lisa Fogelson came up against Section Five, Line 2.

A few pages into the Conservative youth group’s constitution, in between the expectation that teen officers attend religious services and refrain from drugs and alcohol, is the line: “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”

For a long time newly elected USY officers in the chapter had been signing off on the rule, but “word on the street” was that the policy was widely flouted.

And that year, Fogelson couldn’t help but notice an additional tension inherent in the rule: not only would it likely be ignored, but five out of the six youths who had just become officers actually owed their very existence to interdating. While some of them had born-gentile parents who had converted to Judaism and others were being raised Jewish in interfaith families, the fact remained that the five interfaith relationships had led not to assimilation, something the anti-interdating policy ostensibly prevents, but to five teens active in their Jewish youth group.

“The statistics say, ‘You intermarry, you assimilate,’” said Fogelson, who now lives on Long Island. “But these kids were involved in Jewish life.”

And, she added: “It’s very hard to say to a kid that what your parents did was wrong.”

At Fogelson’s urging, the synagogue and the teens rewrote the policy for their chapter (nationally, the old policy remains on the books) to say “whoever they dated had to be supportive of their Jewish involvement and belief.”

“It changed the tone,” she said, noting that the new policy actually encouraged the teens to bring their non-Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends to synagogue, rather than feel they had to choose between them (a choice in which the Jewish community does not always emerge the winner).

“Instead of, ‘I’ll go to the game with my boyfriend if I want to see him this week,’ it would be, ‘Well, he’ll come to services with me,’” she explained. “The ability to be accepting [of non-Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends] actually helped them to grow in their Jewish lives.”

With intermarriage increasingly accepted among all but the most traditional American Jews, and growing numbers of young Jews themselves products of intermarriage, interdating is seen less and less as an act of rebellion or of alienation from Jewish life.

Today even many day school grads and other Jews active in the Jewish community seem to see no conflict between their passion for Judaism and their romantic relationships with gentiles.

A 2002 study of young Jews who had attended the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah indicated that only 30 percent dated Jews exclusively, while 36 percent reported they “prefer Jews but also date non-Jews.”

And this was almost a decade ago, back when the Conservative movement was far less accepting of intermarriage, and far more vocal in seeking to discourage intermarriage, than it is now.

Even among Orthodox Jews, interdating, while still officially frowned upon, has lost much of its shock value.

One Manhattan mom, a Ramaz graduate who sent her children to Modern Orthodox day schools, told me that while in her day interdating was a “big no-no,” something done in secret and with the knowledge that it could not be allowed to become serious, in a twist with which she is not entirely comfortable, her 20-something children and their friends “openly” date non-Jews and have “relationships I would not call casual.”

Of course not all interdating leads to intermarriage, and in some cases such relationships are abandoned because of interfaith conflicts or because the partners do not wish to intermarry.

Nonetheless, whereas ending up with a Jewish partner, regardless of his or her level of observance or commitment, used to be non-negotiable for those who wanted to live a Jewish life, the new priority increasingly seems to be finding someone, Jewish or not, who is supportive of one’s Jewish pursuits.

“I would gain from dating a Jew if he had knowledge, identity and the desire to practice,” one 20-something woman, a day school grad and daughter of a rabbi, told Rabbi Susan Schnur in an article this spring in the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith. “Otherwise, dating an unidentified Jew and a non-Jew are pretty much in the same category to me.”

As an intermarried woman who has long argued that it’s more important to encourage people to live Jewish than to marry Jewish, I mostly see the new approach as a positive development.

Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge that successful intermarriages can require more work and advance planning than Jewish-Jewish ones — while also bearing in mind that just because two people are both Jewish does not mean they will see eye to eye on religious or cultural issues.

“If having a religious life is of importance to one or both of the couple, it is important that they begin to address this topic early in the relationship,” says Marion Usher, a Washington, D.C., therapist who has since 1994 facilitated structured discussion groups to help couples plan how they will manage their differences. She recently produced “Love and Religion,” a movie about the groups, and also began offering an online version of the discussion group through InterfaithFamily.com.

Keren Sachs, 31, has been dating her atheist (of Mennonite descent) boyfriend for two years, and says a San Francisco interfaith couples group the two participated in has strengthened their relationship.

“I think any couple, regardless of their religions, should have a class like that before getting married,” she says.

Sachs laughs that when she was younger she thought she not only had to marry a Jew, but that she had to marry someone who, like her, had grown up in the USY youth group and “knew all the Jewish songs and all the prayers and was just like me.”

“But the truth is, there’s so much more to being in a successful relationship: common interests, loving each other, having the same values and seeing family the same way,” she says.

The relationship and discussion group have helped her clarify what she values about Judaism.

“No one ever asked me before what I thought about God,” she says. “A lot of these things that come up now, I haven’t thought about since I was in Hebrew school … Something I love about being in an interfaith relationship is you don’t take your Jewishness for granted.”

Karen Erlichman, a social worker in San Francisco who has counseled many interfaith couples (and is herself intermarried) says it is “important for people to do their own personal work to find out if [being Jewish is] important to them and why it’s important to them.”

Of course all of this is far easier if you’re a Jewish woman, and not just because women tend to be more comfortable talking about relationships and religion.

The traditional norm of matrilineal descent means that whomever a Jewish woman marries, her children will be universally accepted as Jewish. And, since women continue to take the lead in childrearing, culture-transmitting and social-planning in most families, it is generally easier for them to raise Jewish kids.

Many intermarried and interdating women with whom I speak are also quick to point out that their gentile partners are actually more open to participating in Jewish activities than were many of the Jewish men they dated.

Of course the conventional wisdom is that interdating is all fun and games, but that the hard part comes when you get married and find yourself arguing over whether to baptize or circumcise. However, for many people (myself included) interdating — with its attendant uncertainty and the worries that many in the Jewish community wish you would break up — can be the more stressful part.

“When you’re dating, depending on where you are in the relationship, there’s still some comparison shopping going on, and still the question of ‘Should I be holding out for someone who’s going to be acceptable to my parents and who’s Jewish?’” notes Erlichman.

Hila Ratzabi, who is editing an anthology of essays by women in interfaith relationships, told me she continues to feel pressured by friends, family and the “promote in-marriage” elements of the organized Jewish community to break up with her Baptist-raised boyfriend of two years.

“I feel a strong sense of trying to be bullied out of my relationship,” says Ratzabi, 29, a Brooklyn resident who attended 12 years of Jewish day school and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College. “No one seems to care about what we actually do practice and what Judaism means to us, but more so the fact that our relationship just looks bad or wrong from the outside.”

Rebecca Hoelting, an attorney in Atlanta who was active in several Jewish organizations and participating in the Wexner Heritage Fellows program when she began dating her husband Dan, told me that while dating, “other people’s doubts and worries were a powerful influence on me,” leading her to feel uncertain at times about the relationship.

But recently, while taking a rare trip away from family, she called home on a Friday evening and her husband, who is not Jewish, but was not raised in any other faith, told their 3-year-old to “tell Mommy ‘Shabbat Shalom.’

“My husband is the Shabbat enthusiast in our house, and not just because of the challah my daughter brings home from preschool each week,” she said, adding that he encouraged her to start saying the Shema with their daughter each night and has learned it so he can say it with her too.

“All this is to say, any lingering doubts and fears I had went away when I saw what a wonderful Jewish parent my husband is,” she said. “When we were dating, the doubters could get the better of me, but now that I know who we are as a family I am confident.”

Julie Wiener writes “In The Mix,” a blog and column about intermarried life.