Jews Not OK in the UK?

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You will rarely find the intermarriage debate within the Jewish community more starkly defined than in this report from the BBC today. Much of the piece focuses on Orthodox “outreach” to encourage Jews to marry other Jews. That’s not an unusual reaction to studies showing “between 30% and 50% of young British Jews now marry outside the religion.” However, the problem is in some of the statements made…

For example, Rabbi Yitchak Schochet, adviser on family issues to the Chief Rabbi (yes, they have a Chief Rabbi in England) says:

“In North America there is a great opportunity for social interaction which can put an end to intermarriage because of the millions of Jews who live there. In Britain we are considerably smaller, which presents a big problem. Intermarriage rates will continue to escalate and that could put an end to British Jewry full stop.”

If Rabbi Schochet believes he has a way to “put an end to intermarriage” in North America, he’s apparently living on the wrong side of the pond. His quote suggests that when you’re less than one percent of the population (like Jews in England) it’s much more difficult to have social interaction with other Jews than when you’re a whopping 2.5% of the population (like Jews in the United States). BOTH percentages are statistically insignificant.

(While it’s true that there are a handful of cities that contain a substantial Jewish density to produce greater Jewish “interaction” — New York, Philadelphia, Miami — most US Jews live in cities where they are less than 10% of the local population, and the majority are not affiliated with Jewish institutions anyway. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Jews in the UK live in or around London, so his challenge is probably not very different than that of the Jewish communities in, say, Chicago or Boston.)

A more disturbing quote is unattributed and therefore may be the fault of the reporter, though somehow I feel she probably heard it expressed: “many also believe that Judaism can only be passed on from mother to child and ‘marrying in’ is therefore vital for the continuation of the faith.”

Judaism — even Orthodox Judaism — is not ONLY passed on from mother to child. There’s something called conversion. A love of Torah learning is not genetic, it can be learned, even by an adult born to a non-Jewish mother.

It was apparently left to the Reform rabbi, interviewed at the end of this piece, to mention conversion. He also gives a quote that we at JOI can get behind:

“If we cry foul and say [intermarrying Jews] are betraying their faith then we will make sure they opt out of the community but if we recognise that they still often feel Jewish and want to retain their place in the community then they will stay and we will gain not only them but their non Jewish partners as well. It’s all a matter of recognizing the new social reality.”

So which offers the better hope for Jewish survival in the UK: more Jewish matchmaking, or the welcoming of non-Jewish spouses in the hopes that they will join our community? Can we do both at the same time, or do programs that espouse the idea that Jews must marry other Jews “make sure [intermarried couples] opt out of the community”? Obviously, these are not questions unique to the British Isles.

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