In our ongoing debate over the challenges and opportunities found in interfaith relationships, one of the arguments we often hear is that when someone marries outside of the faith, the chances of Jewish continuity drop significantly. The theory is that with a non-Jewish spouse, the children won’t have a proper Jewish education, and they will grow up without a clear indication of their religion. Therefore their children will have an even lesser understanding of their Jewish roots. We tend to blame interfaith families for not engaging with the Jewish community or providing their children with a Jewish education, but at the same time we refuse to let them do so in our institutions.
We know that’s a nihilistic view that needs to change. And so does Shari Rabin.
Shari is a junior at Boston University, majoring in religion with a focus on religion in America. She writes a blog called the Chutzpah Chronicles for the website On Faith, in which she records “her observations and intellectual meanderings.”
In her most recent blog post, she writes about meeting the seven other participants in her summer internship in Jewish studies (she doesn’t say for what organization). As everyone starts to introduce themselves, one thing becomes strikingly clear – she was the only person in the room who was “100 percent” Jewish, that is, with two Jewish parents. In a room full of people preparing to spend the summer in a Jewish internship, two were not Jewish, and four were the children of interfaith marriage. The realization that interfaith families are increasingly the norm challenged one of her most basic assumptions about Jewish life. Shari wrote:
My family’s strong opposition to intermarriage has also ingrained in me a certain internal narrative in which intermarriage leads to confusion leads to disaffection leads to abandonment of Judaism. But the fact that 4 out of the 5 Jewish interns spending the summer doing intensive Jewish studies research come from such backgrounds has shown me that this is not always the case.
It’s often been remarked upon that converts are the most dedicated Jews. And I think that for my fellow interns and other dedicated Jews from interfaith families, there is a similar reason – Judaism for them is something exciting and chosen that they don’t take for granted. I am still convinced that marrying another Jew is the best thing for Jewish people, but I have learned to be a little less pessimistic about interfaith families.
It’s a good day when someone can look at the world around them and see opportunities instead of barriers; when they can put aside assumptions and approach things with an open mind. Shari grew up thinking interfaith marriage was an end to Judaism, a nail in the coffin. But during those introductions, she saw people excited and dedicated to learning about and preserving the Jewish faith. That optimism is what drives JOI, and in the end, we think that’s what will help grow our Big Tent and strengthen the North American Jewish community.