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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.



3 Comments

  1. I don’t think it is productive to either promote or decry ANY position onthe issue to the exclusion or any other position in the debate. I doubt there is adequate research support to make definitive judegments: Example - are we really wise enough to decide if funding is available only for either (a) promoting dating and marriage betwen 2 Jews or (db) encouraging and supporting interfaith couples to raise their children Jewish.

    Comment by Robert Friedman, Ph.D. — February 27, 2006 @ 4:27 pm

  2. I don’t think anyone would deny that it is usually easier to raise Jewish children when there are two Jewish parents. The pressing question for us here at JOI is how to deal with the situation on the ground and best help intermarried families raise Jewish children. And the reason we oppose condemnation of intermarriage is not because we think intermarriage is the ideal situation (we recognize the difficulties it presents), but because of the negative message it sends to intermarried families who are either already active or considering becoming more active in the community. Instead of feeling welcome, they end up feeling alienated and frequently deciding not to raise their children as Jews. So funding aside, the question remains: how can you publicly condemn intermarriage and then convince intermarried families that they are just as welcome as everyone else? I think the two might be mutually exclusive.

    It also has to do with context. In an open discussion of the challenges of raising Jewish children, not having two Jewish parents is certainly one of those challenges, and that’s where it’s fair to talk about intermarriage as a challenge. But then we should also talk about other challenges, such as the high cost of Jewish education, or having one (single) Jewish parent. We know divorced Jews engage less in the organized community than in-married (still married) Jews, but we don’t rail against divorced Jews for their divorce. Instead, we work with them to help them do the best they can.

    We’re not saying “don’t talk about intermarriage” - we’re saying that tone and context really do matter. Ongoing condemnation is not only not constructive, it is actually counterproductive.

    Comment by Julie Seltzer — March 1, 2006 @ 10:56 am

  3. i attended the JCC’s panel discussion on intermarriage, and while i felt it was very insightful it paid more attention to the demographic aspect rather than the personal issues of families and communities. it also did not focus on interdating, which leads to intermarriage. i am the Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship (my boyfriend grew up in a house that put lots of emphasis on open-mindedness and no emphasis at all on religion) and we are committed not only to each other, but to working on any challenges that my arise. and really the only issue we face is my parents’ (both are Jewish but not very observant) disapproval of our relationship, despite the fact that this wonderful young man has willingly decided to learn about Judaism and has even asked about attending certain holiday functions to get a better idea of them as opposed to just reading about them. his parents are thrilled that we are together and feel that open communication, happiness, and love are the most important things to have in a relationship. it means a lot to me that my boyfriend is so willing to do so much for me and it’s a shame that it means absolutely nothing to my own parents. granted, these may be small steps but they are steps nonetheless. i’m sure there are Jews who are dating/married to other Jews and they can’t even get their partner/spouse to go to temple or to a Jewish function with them most of the time (my parents happen to be such an example). the fact that my non-Jewish boyfriend agreed long ago to go with me to see my Rabbi to discuss our issues makes it clear that he is not only committed to his relationship with me, but also to understanding the importance of Judaism in my life. the Rabbi is Modern Orthodox but very open-minded (the only reason my parents attend his shul is because it’s close to their house. and he actually pointed out to my boyfriend and i that my parents go there maybe 4 times a year at most) and he said to us: ‘it’s always easier to be with someone of the same faith. but it is not the make or break factor in a relationship. there are many issues to deal with in dating/marriage and common religious values can’t solve all of them.’ the Jewish community should also take steps, no matter how big or small, to try and address the issue of intermarriage. i’m neither for nor against intermarriage. i see it as something that happens and if people are choosing to work through their differences and make more Jewish choices, then they should be applauded, not berated. it seems that rejecting those who interdate/intermarry has worked in a negative manner, thus resulting in people choosing to raise their kids either in another religion or in no religion at all. so now the Jewish community might be thinking to itself: ‘well, we’ve driven out all these people and now we have to deal with the consequences.’ if that is what they’re thinking, perhaps it’s time to try a different approach.

    Comment by heather — March 1, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

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