Why Intermarrieds Stay Away


There’s a new article coming out in the Forward by Gal Beckerman,  New Study Finds That It’s Not a Lack of Welcome That’s Keeping the Intermarrieds Away.

Beckerman starts by saying that “the guiding principle” of organizations like InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish Outreach Institute is to “be more welcoming.” Then Beckerman says that Steven M. Cohen in a recent study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that most interfaith couples feel like that have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. Cohen is quoted as saying that outreach “has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming” and that “the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried, and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.” He suggests that there is a competence barrier, that the couple does not have access to what is going on once they are in a synagogue, that they need not open arms but a helping hand.

Encouraging Jewish communities to be more welcoming is only one part of InterfaithFamily.com’s strategy. We have a theory of change that posits that interfaith couples will engage in Jewish life if they are attracted to it, if they feel knowledgeable about it, if they can reconcile the other religious tradition in their family – and if they experience welcome in Jewish settings. In short – there is a need for the community to be welcoming, and there is a need to help interfaith couples feel competent.

The notion that interfaith couples don’t feel unwelcome in Jewish settings simply does not recognize reality. Belittling being welcoming as a matter of having smiling ushers may explain why Cohen doesn’t “get it.” Being welcoming is much more than that. Sylvia Barack Fishman chimes in with a particularly insulting comment. She suggests that outreach leaders focus on overcoming stigma because they are intermarried themselves and had to overcome uncomfortable stares in an earlier era, decades ago, no longer relevant.

I’ve got news for you Sylvia, and Steven: there is still a tremendous need for improvement in the welcoming department. I just watched the video of a focus group that IFF’s marketing communications consultants conducted last week. People said they didn’t feel welcomed when they heard “don’t intermarry” messages, when they felt subtle pressure to convert, when rabbis tell them what they have to do in order to participate, when the first reactions they experience are suspicion and infiltration. The issue of officiation came up a lot; one person said, “rejection stays with you. It turns you off to the synagogue and it turns you off to Judaism.”

At least Cohen says that being welcoming is “a good thing to do.” That’s a start. And his support for providing Jewish education to the intermarried, and “changing our own expectations of new initiates to Jewish life” – that is very positive as well.

I appreciate being quoted in the article for saying that welcoming institutions and increased Jewish literacy are both necessary, and I agree with Kerry Olitzky from JOI that literacy can be addressed but “you have to demonstrate to people… that they are going to be welcomed and embraced, that there are others like them that are part of this community, that they will feel like they belong.”

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

7 thoughts on “Why Intermarrieds Stay Away”

  • I might have been one of the respondents in the “recent study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp” cited above and I am truly grateful for the generous grants administered by the foundation last year and this year that helped pay for my son to spend the summer up at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I don’t know if my answers would be considered to be from an “interfaith” family, since we became a “conversionary household” when I converted only a little over a year ago. I don’t remember every one of the many questions on the survey, but here’s what I’m guessing about my answers about feeling “welcomed” in Jewish settings: I would have answered “yes”, but that is only because the question was not more specific, such as asking if I had ever felt less welcome in a Jewish setting. Also, yes, I have attended bar mitzvahs at a nearby Orthodox synagogue (and I have felt very comfortable, in part because I’m used to a service that is nearly identical to the Orthodox service), but would that synagogue welcome my family as members rather than guests? I think not.

    Association with an Orthodox synagogue for my family is less hypothetical than you might imagine because when our “secondary” lay-led minyan needed to find a new situation when its synagogue merged with one that was not within walking distance, one possibility was that our tiny minyan could have joined a nearby “partnership minyan” which is Orthodox, but as egalitarian as possible within a halachic framework. Many members of the two minyanim know each other socially and because some of those families’ kids attend the same Conservative or community Jewish day schools that our minyan’s kids attend. I recently attended a joint Shavuot learning session of my minyan with that congregation. However, we probably would have stopped being members of our secondary minyan if they had joined the partnership minyan because the latter would not accept me or my children as Jews since we converted under Conservative auspices. Regardless of the fact that the partnership minyan is as progressive as possible for an Orthodox congregation, I would expect a some discomfort if a family like mine were to want to become regular participants rather than simply guests.

    Overall, I have been very lucky in mostly having interacted with non-judgmental and welcoming Jews. When I first started to attend synagogue almost 26 years ago (a few years before I got married), I had no idea that the kind rabbi of the Hillel in being so welcoming to my boyfriend and me was going against the position of responsa of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly of which he was a member that held that intermarried Jews should be treated as second-class Jews: they should be denied synagogue honors and not be allowed to be on synagogue committees. When I converted after 14 years of being very active in our lay-led Jewish congregation, a number of members made it a point to tell me that I had always been a valued member of the community (even if not an official congregation “member”) even when I wasn’t Jewish.

    But still, of course I heard negative things about Jewish intermarriage, even if mostly not from people in our own Jewish communities. And did they make me feel bad?—yes, they did. The ironic thing is that I now think that I internalized these negative messages such that it caused me to lack confidence in who I was, which was one of the reasons that I took so long to convert even though I had always felt an affinity with Judaism. And even if my family is all Jewish now, I still cringe and feel personally offended when I read about or hear someone criticizing intermarried Jews or warning about the dangers of intermarriage. I do hope my children will marry Jews, but I also think it would be better for them to marry a supportive non-Jewish spouse, than an aggressively anti-religious “Jew by birth” who would want them to give up the many Jewish observances that they grew up with.

    And a comment about the “competence barrier”: that may be a barrier for some interfaith couples, but it is certainly not the only barrier. In my case, I was a lot more “competent” in my knowledge of Judaism and led a more Jewishly observant life before I converted than just about any of my Reform Jewish friends and many of the Conservative Jews who were members of the synagogue where my children attended Hebrew school. I knew the whole long traditional Shabbat morning service (and holiday services too) well enough that I shocked a member of our secondary minyan when I turned down an aliyah shortly before converting. How could I not be Jewish he wondered when I knew the service so well? I even knew how to chant Torah, although of course as a non-Jew I was not allowed to do so. But I celebrated my conversion just a few weeks later by chanting the maftir for Shavuot and have continued to leyn on a regular basis since then. So I have always found the assumption that non-Jewish spouses and intermarried Jews don’t feel welcome because of their own short-comings (i.e. lack of knowledge) to be irritating. I think it is sometimes a way of deflecting responsibility for making interfaith couples feel welcome. I can assure you that my knowledge of Jewish ritual did not make those who disapproved of my interfaith family think I was any better for it. If anything, those kinds of people would just disapprove even more of my “failure” to convert since it was not lack of knowledge that was holding me back.

  • Early this morning I received an email from a person who identified herself by name, address, email address and phone. She said that she had composed a response to Steven Cohen’s reported comments about “welcoming” but that as a licensed clinical psychologist she could not put personal information on the internet. She asked if we could post the response without identifying her. After reviewing it, I decided that we should. This is the unedited message:

    “As a fellow academic, I am loathe to comment on Dr. Cohen’s conclusions because I have not done him the courtesy of reading his original study.  In the absence of knowing more about methodology, I cannot address the stated statistic that only 17% of interfaith couples report feeling rejected or uncomfortable.  I am sure that Dr. Cohen, as a academic, either had a non-self selected sample, or included caveats in his conclusion to the effect that study data cannot necessarily be generalized to the population at large.  In the interest of polite and respectful discourse, a stated goal of Dr. Cohen, I would like to add the following comments.

    1.  My understanding that the meaning of the word reconcile, which I believe is supported by Webster’s dictionary, is “bringing into agreement or harmony.”  Taking this to assume that Mr. Case was advocating merging of two religions is a surprising mental leap of the part of Dr. Cohen.  I took Mr. Case to mean that the practice of Judaism, and having a Jewish household, does not preclude the respect and appreciation for the non-Jewish spouse’s background.  Mr. Case is clear that he advocates Jewish choices, and so his use of reconcile in this context, hardly suggests any religious blurring.  Dr. Cohen’s concern seem rather rather precariously based on an alarmist interpretation of the word reconcile.  This suggests a subtle agenda of finding fault with interfaith marriages.

    2.   I was intrigued by Dr. Cohen’s assertion that avoiding intermarriage is a fundamental precept of Judaism.  Lacking the background that he has, I can only wonder, as a lay person, about the wisdom of relying on a historical norm as written in stone.  If this is indeed a current, accepted norm, then I find it unfortunate that it is stated as an injunction, rather than encouragement to have a Jewish home because of the innate benefits and meaning of having a solid religious foundation.   

    3.  Given Dr. Cohen’s carrying an argument to a logical extreme, I would like to do the same.  Taking his assertion that a fundamental precept is that intermarriage is wrong, then there should be no discussion about interfaith outreach.  Outreach would only serve to validate something that goes against the religious principle.  Encouraging “Jewish choices” would not exist, because it would be seen as a compromise.  A stance of integrity would be to focus on Jewish families, and not discuss, debate, or weigh in on interfaith marriages.  Thus, I am at a loss as to why Dr. Cohen would study interfaith marriages, or feel the need to publicly caution against excessive welcoming of them.

    Dr. Cohen is clearly an intelligent, well-spoken, and thoughtful man.  As an academic myself, I admire his lengthy and comprehensive response to Mr. Case’s comments. I accord him the right to his opinion and feelings, and do not disparage him as a person.

    However, I would now like to respond from the perspective of someone actually in an interfaith marriage.  To establish context, I have been married for over 15 years, and before marriage, agreed that my (future) children would be raised Jewish.  This was because I wanted a religious grounding for them, and since it was so important to my spouse that his children be Jewish, it was the logical and best choice for our children.  I was raised in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, and was well versed in Judaism, and respected it, long before I met my husband.  I have been 100% clear with my children that they are Jewish, and this is something wonderful and meaningful for them, even if I don’t share it.  They do not participate personally in any Christian religious practices, but are also secure enough in their religious identity that it is not threatened by seeing a Christmas tree at their grandparents house.

    So to Mr. Case, and the other people who offered responses, I am offering my reaction as a non-Jewish mother of Jewish children.  Logically, I accept Dr. Cohen’s statistic of only 17% of interfaith couples feeling uncomfortable.  Emotionally, I find the statistic absurd and completely unrepresentative of my reality.  Dr. Cohen’s response serves an unintended purpose of illustrating how frustrating, infuriating, and demoralizing responses from the Jewish community can be to interfaith couples.  His entire stance is predicated on an us-versus-them mentality, with no respect or acknowledgment for the sacrifices a non-Jewish spouse makes.

    I visit the Interfaith.com website in order to get information and guidance on how to help support my children in their religious identity.  For all practical purposes, I am the ideal interfaith partner.  I gave into everything, gave up all the religious traditions of my family and my childhood, and accepted that I was always going to be fundamentally different and separate from my children.  And yet, the message that I get is that it is never enough, that I am simply wrong for not being Jewish, and I am a threat and a second class citizen.  When I hear rabbis stress the evils of interfaith marriage in synagogue, how does Dr. Cohen think I feel?  How do my children feel, knowing that their father was considered wrong, and that he married an unacceptable person?  Is it so much to ask that yes, they soft pedal the admonitions and prejudice against intermarriage, given that we are advocating and living Jewish choices?   Is it so unreasonable to be sick of hearing that you are a second class citizen, that by virtue of birth, will never be accepted?  I have long, long ago given up any hope of being appreciated or understood; now I am struggling with the expectation that not only should I raise my children to be Jewish, to give up passing on any of my own traditions and identity, but that I should accept unrelenting messages about how wrong I am, and how my union with the person I love more than anyone in the world, is institutionally labeled unacceptable?   My husband’s grandfather disowned him for marrying me, and called me a shiksa, claiming that I was just out to “trap” him by getting pregnant (for the record, our first child was born 15 years after we started dating, so I must not be very good at entrapment).  My family acquiesced to every demand made by his family in terms of the wedding, and there were no Christian aspects to it at all (although I am constantly reminded that it was not a “real” Jewish wedding and is invalid anyway).  All non-Jewish groomsmen and my father wore a yarmukas during the wedding, and yet my husband’s mother said she may not come if my relatives wore a cross around their neck.  My parents and I stood silent as my son had his bris in our living room, something shocking and confusing to anyone who isn’t Jewish.  The christening gown that every child in my family for 4 generations has worn sits in my linen closet; I can’t bear to throw it away, but I have agreed it will never be used again.  Forgive me for my emotional statement, Dr. Cohen, but perhaps you will be relieved to hear that I have heard the Rabbi’s admonitions against interfaith marriage loud and clear.  I hear it all the time.  My children hear it all the time.  Message received.  I know I’m not welcome.

    I am not going back on my choice — made rationally– for my children to be Jewish.  Which makes it that much harder to sit with an intellectual discussion on interfaithfamily.com filled with cautionary tales about being too accepting or too tolerant of interfaith marriage.   The thing that is keeping me away, as you put it, is NOT a lack of competence; given that I am the partner taking time to read articles on interfaith families and how to make Jewish choices, not my Jewish partner, I find that statement insulting.  Dr. Cohen is right when he states that outreach “has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming.”  I agree, what is the point of a tepid “welcoming” when it is delivered in the context of fundamentally discounting and objecting to interfaith marriages at all?”

    That is the complete unedited message. Although our discussion board system indicates “written by” me, just to be very clear, this is a message composed by someone else that I was asked to post.

  • Ed, Steven, Bridget and Brian;

    I truly feel this conversation is B’shem Shamayim–for the sake of heaven.  I know that we may not all agree in the particulars, but I do think we agree in our search to find ways to create pathways for people to engage with Judaism in a meaningful way that honors the rich history of the Jewish People.

    One of the things that I find inspiring about the Jewish Tradition is that it illustrates so many paths one can take to find meaning.  Innovation has always been embedded in the Tradition, along with a flexibility and resilience to withstand and thrive in the winds of change.  The cultural milieu in which we find ourselves is not the same as it was 6000 years ago when Abraham and Sarah first set out, nor like when Moshe Rabbeinu led a mixed multitude out of Egypt, nor like the time of David HaMelech when worship was centralized in the Beit HaMikdash.  It is not even like that of the past century, when Reform, Conservative and even Reconstructionist Judaism provided new forms of Jewish expression.  We cannot become stuck in one moment in history–the essence of Judaism transcends those particulars.

    We are in an age where individual identity supersedes group identity, where we are defined by the “identity clouds” of our individual interests.  How then, does Judaism continue to be an important feature in the identity clouds of Jews?  How do we hypertext the Tradition to allow those who are hungry for a connection to find what is most relevant to them in the moment (and provide enough follow-up links to perhaps stretch their preconceived notions)?  How do we invite “user created content” to appear side-by-side with the voices of the past, just as we are creating now?  How do we continue this great conversation spanning the generations that we call “Judaism”? 

    One key is acknowledging the wisdom of Ben Bag Bag “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.”  I have no doubt that the Tradition of Judaism has the capacity to allow for the Jews of today to find their own unique Jewish expression while remaining authentically Jewish.  Judaism is a way of life that invites us to engage with sacred text and the wisdom of those who came before to bring forward the hiddush (new learning) that makes Judaism relevant to this moment in time, to one individual or an entire generation.

    Perhaps we can bring forth the wisdom or Reb Nachman–“v’ha’ikar lo lifached clal.”  If our fear hinders the necessary innovation that continues to make Judaism relevant to the lives of Jews (and those who travel the path with us), our worst fears may be realized.  “Min hametzar karati y”, anani me’merchav y”.”  From the Psalms we learn that from close-up, we see things narrowly, but from afar–a G-d’s eye-view, if you will–the possibilities are endless.

    Let’s keep learning, talking and LISTENING to expand our view and open to the possibilities. 

    Kol tuv–all the best,
    Mira Colflesh

  • I’m Rabbi Brian Field, one of the rabbis who has joined with Rabbi Wynne to help articulate and develop the field of pluralistic Jewish engagement.  I’m based in Denver and work for an organization called Judaism Your Way.  Rabbi Wynne doesn’t particularly like the phrase “pluralistic Jewish engagement” that we’ve coined, and neither do I, but we’re all reaching for a term that conveys something more than the word “outreach” does.

    What we’re trying to accomplish at Judaism Your Way is not simply about being welcoming, or even creating more literacy and cultural competence among intermarried families and disengaged Jews, though the work absolutely includes these goals.  We recognize that progressive Judaism is reaching a crisis of purpose and identity, and we need to respond with something deeper, something roomier, something that addresses the new complexities of Jewish identity and connection that are emerging before our eyes, more “both/and” than “either/or.”

    Like Rabbi Wynne, I’m deeply engaged in responding to Jews and their beloveds.  I’m keenly aware of my colleagues’ concerns, as expressed in this exchange by Steven Cohen.  I share his concerns, and I am also thrilled with creating new questions and pathways with people who, despite everything we’re wringing our hands about, very much want engaged Jewish living, albeit on significantly different terms than it’s usually being offered to them. But those specifics are for a different conversation.

    This conversation touches on matters close to my heart. In his response to Ed Case, Steve Cohen raises an important concern that underneath all the discussion about welcoming, something core and vital about Judaism is being surrendered, that an agenda of welcoming means that rabbis will need to retreat or soft-pedal deeply held beliefs. Yes. The last thing any spiritual leader should do is soft pedal or retreat from a deeply held belief.  If you think that you have to soft pedal what you believe in order to be welcoming, you’re going to fail on both ends – in communicating your beliefs, and in being genuinely welcoming. 

    There’s no question in my mind that Judaism is heading into uncharted waters.  We’re swimming in an ocean of pluralism, multi-culturalism and globalism such that our challenges, our opportunities, our relationships, our fears, hopes — and the competencies we’ll need to swim well –  have all become increasingly global in scope.  Today it’s not even a matter of “being a Jew at home and a citizen on the street.” There is hardly a Jewish family in the United States today without relatives who are not Jewish.  The challenges of the world are no longer just “out there” anymore but increasingly part of many, in some cases most of, Jewish conversations and activities, including in the home.  Plus, the claims on Jews of the core viscera of Jewish communal identity and purpose – the Holocaust and Israel – are fraying.  Most Jews no longer talk about their Jewishness except in terms of family, nostalgia and tradition.  Fewer and fewer Jews are comfortable or engaged by thinking about Jewishness in terms of God or something equivalent that makes demands and speaks to eternal purpose.  Liberal Jews are challenged as never before to answer the basic questions – Who are we?  What does it matter that we are or that we do Jewish?

    This isn’t the first time that our people have entered into unknown territory.  When the Romans destroyed the Biblical template for a Judaism based on connecting to the Sacred by bringing the produce of the land to a central location, we emerged with an Oral Torah and a decentralized rabbinic Judaism.  When vast portions of our Eastern European ancestors were looking for spiritual sustenance, we emerged with Hasidism.  When our people had the opportunity to leave the European ghettos and become citizens in western Europe, we created Reform and Conservative Judaism.  When the European empires began to break up and the forces of nationalism began to rise, we created Zionism. 

    Each of these creative and hugely adaptive revolutions in Jewish consciousness gave the Jewish people fundamentally new ways to understand our place in the world, new stories or midrashim to tell, new understandings of our responsibilities, and new beliefs about who we were and what our possibilities could be. 

    So here we are, professionals who are deeply committed to Jews and to Judaism, not only disagreeing about how welcoming of inter-marrieds we need to be, but also disagreeing about how welcoming we actually are, not to mention what it is that we’re welcoming people to.

    When seen in a pluralistic, globalized context, the practical difficulties of creating welcoming communities for a rapidly growing intermarried Jewish population is evidence of a fundamental challenge not just to the tachlis of welcoming, but to who we Jews think we are, what it means to be Jewish, and whether being Jewish is still serving a sacred purpose that is helping to move humanity forward, as our people has done so many times in the past.

    That’s why I think that the conversation as it’s presently laid out – as a debate between being welcoming on the one hand and standing up for principles on the other – will be ultimately unproductive.  Instead I think we should be reaching for a both/and  conversation.  How does one both develop the competencies of being Jewishly grounded while also embodying and expressing one’s multiple and multi-faceted identities?  It’s a given that our Jewish worlds are evolving and changing.  So how, in the midst of this creative upheaval, can we help people be more Jewishly fluent while at the same time model to them how to generously host, extend to, be curious about and have expectations of other evolving cultures and faith traditions?

    The next question then becomes: What are the beliefs that will support those competencies?  And what kinds of practices express those beliefs?

    That’s why I think it’s time for another creative revolution in Jewish consciousness, grounded in a freshly articulated midrashic initiative, built on, for starters:

    • Abraham and Sarah’s 4-doored tent and their welcoming expertise, 
    • Jacob’s blessing of his mixed heritage grandchildren, saying to them, “Through you shall all Israel be blessed,” 
    • Moses’ non-Jewish wife, Tzipporah, enabling the Exodus to proceed by circumcising her son,   
    • the presence of non-Jews (the mixed multitude) at that most Jewish of all events – the Exodus from Egypt.
    • the Torah itself was revealed through Moses, an inter-married Israelite, who was raised in an Egyptian household*

    When the sacred Jewish stories that we share and teach more accurately reflect and respond to the complex both/and lives that we are living, then, it will no longer be a question of welcoming or outreach.  Then, I believe we’ll be witnessing, once again, a creative unfolding of Jewish peoplehood.

    Rabbi Brian Field
    Judaism Your Way
    Denver, Colorado

    *I’m happy to identify references and/or elaborate on any of these narratives for anyone who would like to pursue them.

  • I approach this issue as a Jewish educator.  Through that lens, of course I agree with Dr. Cohen that the issue of competency is a high barrier that the Jewish community must address in order to further engage those who have not been involved in the Jewish community for any number of reasons.  And yes, a large portion of those who are currently unaffiliated and unengaged are from intermarried families–either the couple themselves or their children.  The Jewish community needs to create educational opportunities that help those who are interested in becoming more engaged in Jewish life to learn the skills necessary to do so.  

    Where I differ with Dr. Cohen is in declaring the community welcoming enough to all those on the periphery.  The only assessment that can deem “mission accomplished” in that arena is necessarily a superficial view of what it means to be welcoming.   I will not dispute that the data is accurate for responding families–those who self-selected to respond, were within the net cast by the study, etc.  I only question what is meant by welcoming.  In my experience, the Jewish community, to a large extent, is often welcoming to newcomers to a point.  Synagogue office staff in many, but certainly not all, synagogues are polite and generally encouraging, people are often greeted with smiles and words of welcome, schools (supplemental, JCCs, even many dayschools) often will make accommodations to include the children of intermarriage in the programs.  Please come to this event, please donate to this cause, please pay dues.  This is only welcoming on a transactional level.  

    My vision for welcoming is on a much deeper level.  I draw my inspiration from the notion of a covenantal community (b’nai brit), where each member is responsible to one another (kol yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh) on more than the most superficial level.  I look to Buber’s definition of the “I-Thou” relationship. For if our religious communities are not a reflection and a model of the ultimate relationship, then I question what the purpose of community is.  

    And that question of relevance–the relevance of Jewish community to Jews and their families, or the relevance of Judaism itself, is the crux of the matter for me.  I agree with Mr. Bronfman when he said that the problem isn’t that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism.  I am concerned that with all of the hand wringing about intermarriage and assimilation (as if they were the same thing), we have lost sight of the truth that JUDAISM HAS SOMETHING TO OFFER.  I’ll paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel-Judaism is a series of answers, it’s up to us to find the questions.   When we stop worrying about who is a Jew and start inspiring all who approach with what Judaism has to offer, we will find a way to overcome the challenges of demography and the worry about syncretism in one stroke.   When we stop judging people for what they don’t do Jewish, we will open the possibility for them to find ways to connect to the meaning that Judaism has to offer–for them and their families.  

    I know the challenges of intermarriage from the inside–my parents were intermarried in the 1970’s.  I am not one of those professionals carrying the grudges of times past (suggested by Sylvia Barak Fishman), I am the next generation with the experience of the challenges and opportunities of this moment in time.  As co-founder of Jews in ALL Hues, I work to create the space for other children of intermarriage to explore the intersection of their heritages and the chance to connect to Judaism.  Yes, there is still much bias out there, I am sorry to say.   Since I began this work, I have heard the most heart rending experiences of exile and the most inspiring experiences of reconnection.  Certainly we need to find ways to retool Jewish communal professionals with the sensitivity to welcome those from various backgrounds into meaningful and authentic Jewish experience.

    It seems to me that being a child of intermarriage is a sort of “original sin” that many struggle a lifetime to overcome.  We overcome it not by creating a fractured identity–forcing people to choose an identity, but through integrity–by giving people the permission to explore the intersection of their identities AND helping them to find the form of authentic Jewish religious expression that is relevant in their lives (if that is what they are seeking).

    One personal anecdote–at dinner with a group of Jews I had just met on the evening before a Jews in ALL Hues workshop, Jared (the other co-founder) and I were describing our workshop and our stories.  Jared’s father was African American and his mother is Ashkenazi, where my father is Jewish and my mother was WASP when I was born (for those concerned about my authenticity, both she and I later had an Orthodox conversion).  The one woman looked at us both and said “you mean he’s more Jewish than you?”  

    Dr. Cohen, I want you to know that you are the reason I do this work. Long after I had cemented my relationship with the Jewish community, long after I had chosen Jewish education as my career, my calling; I learned of your theory about those in the center of Jewish life maintaining their connection and those in the periphery drifting away.  That study was used in the old inreach/outreach debate—invest money in the core, where you know it will have an impact.  It was in that moment that I realized that I could not abandon the other people, like I once was, who are on the margins without any idea of how to make a meaningful connection to Jewish life.  This work is my tikkun-to repair the breach that makes us feel unwelcome, in exile.  I believe that we each received a piece of Torah at Sinai when we stood together as an Erev Rav—mixed mutltitude, and by losing the Torah of so many on the margins, we are diminished.  

    I look forward to continuing this worth conversation with each of you.  

  • Thank you both, Ed and Steven, for your thoughtful discussion. Ed, you speak from your experience as director of Interfaith Family’s national website, and Steven, you speak from your experience as a sociologist and researcher. I want to add an additional perspective, that of an educator working “on the ground” with families and individuals who want to connect with Jewish life and community.

    Here’s some of what I’ve learned, and conclusions I draw from it. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts.

    • Intermarriage is one barrier, but we need to broaden our perspective. You are both right: Jewish professionals need to welcome, educate, offer a helping hand, and change our expectations of what intermarried couples will know. We also need to do this for all who want to explore Jewish life. Many adults, Jewish or of Jewish heritage, don’t know much about Judaism, whether or not they are intermarried. They have good reason to feel uncomfortable entering Jewish environments in which they will not understand what is going on and what is expected of them. If in addition they are intermarried, the adult child of intermarried parents, a person of color, or other identities that fall outside the mainstream notion of who Jews are “supposed” to be, and to which people inside the mainstream Jewish community may respond with questions or discomfort, that adds yet another barrier.

    • Jews and their family members need Jewish professionals to respond to their needs and concerns. This may sound obvious, but … many Jews’ main perception of Jewish organizations is as places that want to recruit them, tell them what to do, get their donations, and encourage them to attend boring services or follow outmoded rules. As professionals we may protest that this is not our goal — we want to share the riches of Jewish life, or ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, or both — but what matters is not what we think, but how those we want to reach perceive us.

    • Synagogues are usually not the best entrance into Jewish life, no matter how hard they try. Yes, synagogues are central to Jewish life, yes, they need to be as accessible as they can, while maintaining their core values and integrity. But, synagogues mean prayer, and God, and people who we imagine already know about these things, and already know one another. Who would want to enter an environment in which people we don’t know are doing things we don’t understand that are supposed to address some of the core issues of life? If in addition you feel you’re a “bad Jew,” as many people do, for not knowing, and for not believing in the God you think you’re supposed to believe in … to be flip just to make a point, why try out an unfamiliar experience, for which people may ask you to pay thousands of dollars, that may leave you disappointed and embarrassed?

    How can we address these issues? We need open-ended Jewish environments in which Jews and their family members can build personal relationships with people who can help them access Jewish life in ways that work for them. By “ways that work for them” I do not mean bending Judaism to whatever they want. I mean responding to individuals where they are, listening to and respecting their concerns and desires, supporting them to take next steps on their Jewish journeys, and helping them to find their place in Jewish life.

    As a synagogue rabbi I discovered that I was not in the position to help the dozens of Jews and their family members who told me they’d like to explore Jewish life, but … they didn’t know enough, didn’t think Judaism could offer a spiritual life, didn’t believe in God (usually meaning the anthropomorphic God of the Bible), were not Jewish according to Jewish law, were gay or lesbian, or all the other reasons you might imagine. I could talk with them once or twice, suggest they take a class, or send them to an Orthodox outreach organization. Often these were not good ways to address their concerns. Who could serve these people? How could liberal Judaism not offer them a way in?

    Eventually I addressed this problem by starting a pluralistic Jewish engagement organization, Jewish Gateways. It has been amazing how, in our first four years, we have discovered that many people choose to join synagogues or otherwise engage deeply with Jewish life once they have the personal support, guidance, and information they need — what Steven calls hand holding. Most of these people would not have connected with Judaism in any other way. Many had been longing to do so for years.

    Seeking to learn more, and to discover colleagues, I searched the country and found several other pluralistic Jewish engagement endeavors, each of which started independently through varying circumstances. About a year ago we formed a national community of practice and have been exchanging information and ideas regularly. Each of us has discovered, in a variety of ways, that many Jews, those of Jewish heritage, and their family members are hungry for what we offer. The “we” is not about us; it is about enabling people to discover, in an open-ended environment, at their own pace, whether Jewish life is expansive enough and meaningful enough that it is worth pursuing, not for the sake of grandparents, children, or a nebulous sense of nostalgia or duty or guilt, but for themselves.

    Because our pluralistic Jewish engagement (as we call ourselves until we have a better name!) endeavors are local and not yet part of an identified field for Jewish professionals, we mostly fly under the radar. Yet we see from our experiences that these efforts need to be widespread. A hundred years ago or more, Jews in the U.S. created Jewish Family Service agencies, Hebrew Free Loan, burial societies, and the rest of an infrastructure that helped us become not only Jews, but also Americans. Today, our communities need to find ways to offer entrances into Jewish life with that same level of creativity and dedication.

    We who do open-ended Jewish outreach, or as my colleagues and I call it, pluralistic Jewish engagement, want to share what we have learned more broadly. We also want to explore how to strengthen our efforts and build our capacity to serve the hundreds of people we know are there in our communities longing to find ways in to Jewish life. As one member of our community of practice said, “We need to keep researching and collecting data, but at the same time, we know this works, and we can’t keep up with the demand!”

    I invite all those who care about these issues to enter into conversation with us.

    Rabbi Bridget Wynne
    Executive Director

  • While sharing several goals in common, Ed Case and I continue to differ on several points, worthy of respectful debate and discourse to which I am very pleased to contribute. Let me state from the outset that we agree on the value of interfaith families and inter-married families (the first is a subset of the latter) becoming more involved in Jewish life, broadly defined. We also seem to agree (with one important difference, see below) on the need for a sophisticated and multi-faceted strategy for achieving this worthy objective.

    So where do we disagree?

    1) I think “welcoming” is over-used and a misnomer. I believe that the term “welcoming” diminishes and distorts the nuaced and complex approach that InterfaithFamily.Com, JOI, and others in the “outreach” camp (with all their distinctions and special contributions) advocate. These organizations do and advocate much more than “welcoming,” as Ed’s letter (and JOI’s work) clearly demonstrates. For the sake of clarity and communication, we need to replace “welcoming” with other terminology that does justice to the work underway.

    2) I worry (I think much more than Ed) about the merging of Judaism with other faith traditions. To explain: Ed promotes the idea that people in intermarried families (presumably the Jews within them) “reconcile the other religious tradition in the family.” “Reconcile” is a pretty broad word. Does it include, say, merging Pesach and Easter, or giving equal status to Christmas and Chanuka, to say nothing of Christmas and Yom Kippur? Does it include reconciling Judaism’s emphasis on Peoplehood, language, land, and culture with Christianity’s very different take and much diminished emphasis on such matters. I can think of forms of reconciliation that blend various religious traditions, or others that preserve the cultural integrity of each of them, or still others that submit one religious tradition to the criteria for legitimacy established by the other. All are ways in which people can “reconile the other religious tradition in the family.” Which ways does Ed support? Which does he reject? We may have some differences here.

    3) Ed comes very close to advocating that rabbis and other representatives of Judaism soft-pedal, if not silence, their expression of the normative preference of Judaism that Jews should marry Jews and that non-Jewish spouses should be invited to convert to Judaism. He avers that such stances inevitably alienate some intermarried families and make them feel unwelcome. He’s empirically right. Yes, indeed, couples seeking a rabbi to perform their inter-marriage do indeed report feeling rebuffed, rejected, and repelled by rabbis who turn them down. But, if Ed is right about the reaction of Jews marry non-Jews, wouldn’t he be right about Jews who fail to believe in God, or fail to guard their tongues against slandering others, or who fail to honor their parents, or fail to study Torah (in the broadest sense), or fail to give charity generously, or fail to undertake social justice activities, etc. (Full disclosure: I’m among those who fail to live up to all these and other worthy precepts of Judaism.) But, does Ed believe that rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders should retreat from teaching what they understand to be Judaism’s normative precepts simply because some people may feel offended or unwelcome? Carried to a logical extreme, where no norms are articulated so as to offend no one, we’d have a Judaism lacking in norms, lacking in purpose, lacking in authenticity, and, ultimately, lacking in staying power. Since I know that Ed believes in promoting a Judaism that is purposeful, meaningful, authentic, and viable– how does he reconcile that noble objective with a policy position that abjures the articulation of the “shoulds” of Jewish life? Which “shoulds” (or norms) should Jewish leaders teach? Which should they not? And why some, but not others?

    As always, I welcome Ed (and others) grappling with these critical and difficult issues.

    Steven M. Cohen
    Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, HUC-JIR

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