At JOI, we often make the distinction that assimilation and intermarriage are not the same thing. From the rapid expansion of our programs like The Mothers Circle – for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children – we know there are an untold number of intermarried families who want to participate in Jewish life but instead find barriers. These are not families on the road to assimilation; they are on the road to deeper Jewish involvement and we need to make sure we are doing all we can to reach them and welcome them in.
This distinction, though, is still mistakenly seen by too many as one in the same. There is an ingrained belief that when someone intermarries, they are “marrying out.” That is why we were delighted to read in the Jerusalem Post some words by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Israeli branch of the Reform Movement.
Speaking recently to the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, he said intermarried families and their children should not be ignored. “There may be 55 percent of marriages between Jews and non-Jews, but that does not mean there’s a 55 percent assimilation rate and that families in this group are torn away from the Jewish people.” He urged authorities to “institute faster conversions and carry out a more inclusive policy toward the children of mixed marriage, lest they be lost.”
Rabbi Kariv has hit the nail on the head and hopefully his audience was listening. We are at a point in our history where intermarriage is a reality among every Jewish denomination, no matter how liberal or traditional. At the same committee hearing, a study by the Knesset Information and Research Center found that “intermarriage rates among religious and secular families are almost identical.” This means that as we move forward, intermarried families and their children need to be seen and treated as members of the Jewish community, especially if we want them to make Jewish choices.
Member of Knesset Marina Solodkin added to the issue, recounting a Russian phrase that is quite appropriate: “Half a Jew is still a Jew.” Instead of demonizing intermarriage, which has never succeeded in stopping the phenomenon, the Jewish community needs to do a better job of opening our doors and meeting the needs of these families. We need to engage, not assume these families are on the “verge of assimilation.” If we do make that assumption, we won’t have much of a Jewish community in the future.