My Take on the “Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message” discussion at the JCC

About 180 people gathered at the JCC of Manhattan on Wednesday evening for a conversation about intermarriage hosted by the New York Jewish Week newspaper and moderated by editor/publisher Gary Rosenblatt, between Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of JOI; Steve Bayme, National Director of Contemporary Jewish Life of the American Jewish Committee; and Bethany Horowitz, Research Director of the Mandel Foundation discuss the issue.

Everyone on the panel agreed about this: the intermarriage rate is high. The point in question was whether an attempt should be made to reverse the trend, and if it can’t be reversed, is there value in discouraging it anyway? Or do we need to move past the issue of who people marry altogether.

The evening began with Bethany Horowitz’s assessment that intermarriage is not the cause of assimilation, it’s an outcome. Her reasoning was simple: “Today, Jews aren’t a bad catch.” Dr. Horowitz brought interesting statistics and trends, but the real debate came down to this: Steve Bayme believes that endogamy (in-marriage) is a basic Jewish value and that the community should not become neutral about intermarriage even if discouraging it has an actual negative effect on the currently intermarried. Paul’s message has a different focus: instead of fruitless condemnation of intermarriage, we should concentrate instead on helping all Jewish families raise Jewish children, no matter what the make-up of that family (one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, gay or lesbian, single parent, etc.).

Something Paul came back to several times that struck a chord with me is that Judaism is a beautiful and fascinating religion. It can and does enrich people’s lives, and it’s just a matter of demystifying our programs and welcoming the unengaged so they can see that too.

In terms of Jewish leaders publicly expressing disapproval of intermarriage, Paul maintains that it simply doesn’t make sense: Who is the leader chastising? Those in the audience — inside our synagogues or attending Jewish events — are already there, why complain to them? They’re the ones trying to raise Jewish children. The idea of a Rabbi sermonizing about the crisis of intermarriage to a congregation with a significant intermarried population reminded me of my 7th grade teacher who yelled at those of us who were on time about our classmates who were late. I used to think, why are we being yelled at about being late if we’re the ones who showed up on time? Come to think of it, why should I get here on time if all that I’ll be greeted with is a lecture?! Oh, if only there was a choice whether to be here or not. Of course, for participation in the Jewish community, there is a choice, and many opt out.

Steve Bayme’s position is counter-intuitive, which he fully admits. He actually agrees that we should be inclusive. He even thinks that successful intermarriages should be regarded in the community, “but not at the price of neutrality regarding intermarriage.” But what is his true concern? Bethamie Horowitz posed the following scenario to help clarify his untenable position:

Let’s say we have the choice between two couples. In the first pair, both partners are Jewish and identify as Jews, but they are not involved in Jewish life at all and have no interest in becoming involved. In the second pair, one person is Jewish and the second isn’t; they agree to raise their children Jewish and are committed to working through the challenges.

Dr. Bayme didn’t respond to that one.

I felt that there was noticeable nodding whenever Paul made a point, and the energy of the room was buzzing with people who actually wanted to address the issue of intermarriage in a way that makes sense for the future of our community: not with numbers or demographics, but with the people in their lives and their communities — their children, their spouses, and their friends. Perhaps the next panel should simply be about helping address specific issues in people’s families than on the general phenomenon itself.

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