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Debate Grows Over Impact Of Intermarriage On The Future Of American Judaism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 2001

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that 52 percent of American Jews, a majority, were marrying outside the faith. An opinion survey in 2000 conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that 80 percent of respondents agreed that intermarriage was "inevitable" and 50 percent said it was "racist" to oppose such marriages. Sixteen percent saw intermarriage as a "positive good."  

An article in the Fall 2001 issue of Reform Judaism examines the question of "What do these results portend for Jewish continuity?"  

Author Rahel Musleah writes that, "There is little agreement among Jewish leaders. Some say intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a free society and there's nothing we can do to stop the trend. Others call for a determined campaign to promote inmarriage. Still others take a middle position that fosters inmarriage but actively welcomes intermarried couples into the synagogue — a position known as outreach."  

Back in 1978, Musleah reports, "long before intermarriage statistics made headlines, then Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) President Rabbi Alexander Schindler ... unveiled a controversial strategy to face the reality of intermarriage by `confronting it, coming to grips with it, determining to shape it' ... Calling on Jews `to remove the `unwanted signs' from our hearts,' he outlined a three-fold plan of Outreach: embracing Jews-by-choice and encouraging non-Jews to convert; drawing the non-Jewish spouse in a mixed marriage into Jewish life to heighten the probability of raising Jewish children as well as conversion; and launching a proselytizing program to welcome all religious seekers into the Jewish community."  

Dru Greenwood, director of the UAHC William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach, stresses that, "Outreach is about allowing space and opportunity for non-Jews to grow into Judaism. Growth rarely proceeds in a straight line. Often it takes years for a Jewish identity to grow and it doesn't develop at all in a harsh climate of fear and suspicion. Outreach depends on trust in the beauty of Jewish life. We freely offer a place in that life to others, believing that they may wish to accept the invitation to bring Judaism into their homes and their lives."  

Outreach has succeeded in connecting tens of thousands of interfaith couples to Jewish communities, says Greenwood. Two- thirds of Reform synagogues have institutionalized Outreach efforts.  

Musleah notes that, "All Reform congregations today include intermarried couples who are raising Jewish children — and in some cases 50 percent or more of a synagogue's members are intermarried. For instance, 80 percent of the 125 families of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois — which grew out of an Outreach support group — have one partner who is not Jewish ... Phoebe and Jules Kerness, who work with parents, grandparents and children of intermarried couples in Savannah, Georgia view intermarriage as an `opportunity that can bespeak an exciting future for American Judaism based on Outreach. They cite the twelve conversions last summer in their 350-family synagogue, Congregation Mickve Israel, and note that at two recent bar mitzvahs, the non-Jewish parents spoke about what Judaism means to them. `Coming out of strong church backgrounds,' they said, `non-Jewish partners often encourage more Jewish commitment in their spouses.'"  

Rabbi Sam Gordon of Sukkat Shalom says: "Intermarriage doesn't mean assimilation. Jews who fall in love with non-Jews are not failures. They are not abandoning Judaism."  

Sociologist Egon Mayer, director of research at the Jewish Outreach Institute, sees the high rate of intermarriage as a fact of life in America: "When I'm asked how I feel about intermarriage, I compare it to asking someone who studies weather patterns how they feel about the weather. You can't be opposed to the weather. You can know what the patterns are and carry an umbrella or wear shorts. You can't change it. Sometimes people look at intermarriage as a pathology in the Jewish community. I look at it as a pattern emerging out of the reality of our normal lives as American Jews. We need to adjust to it. It becomes a danger to Jewish survival if we view it as some horrible disease. Then we will mishandle it and alienate people. Intermarriage in and of itself is not the challenge. How we react to it is."  

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