What is an “In-Marriage Initiative”?

In response to this op-ed from the so-called “In-Marriage Initiative,” the current issue of the Forward ran a letter from the Jewish Outreach Institute that you can read here.

We also wrote a full rebuttal exclusive to our blog, below, that delves more deeply into how intermarriage is an American phenomenon, not just a Jewish phenomenon, and therefore just trying to “change the Jews” is a futile strategy:

What Is An “In-Marriage Initiative”?
By Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin

Our organization was attacked—or complimented, depending on how you look at it—as “the most pro-outreach organization on the communal map” in an opinion piece in the Forward weekly Jewish newspaper on September 9, 2005. The piece attempted to show how intermarried households differ from in-married households by such a “yawning chasm” as to not merit what little “accommodation” the community has begun to make toward the nearly 50% of all Jewish households containing non-Jews, and went on to suggest that resources should instead go to “initiatives designed to promote in-marriage and conversion,” of which no examples are cited.

We who are on the ground, working with the actual Jewish people—outside the ivory towers, beyond the Jewish bastion of New York City—would like know: What is an “In-Marriage Initiative”? Is it a series of programs causing actual change in people’s lives, the way outreach is? Is it practical techniques for fostering growth in the Jewish community? Or is it simply a “Just Say No” campaign by a small group of “leaders” whose people have long since passed them by?

For over a decade, Steve Bayme and Jack Wertheimer have been the go-to guys for dissention on the issue of welcoming intermarried households. Like a TV newscast giving “equal time” to 20 protesters even though the parade is 100,000 marchers strong, this debate gives unequal time to notions that are woefully outdated.

The American Jewish Committee, for whom Steve Bayme serves as director of contemporary Jewish life, illustrated this gap in its 2000 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion. That study found that while two-thirds agreed that “the Jewish community has an obligation to urge Jews to marry Jews,” when it came to their own families, only 39% of Jewish adults agreed with the statement that “It would pain me if my child married a gentile,” and fully half thought “It is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.”

Perhaps more importantly, a whopping 81% said “The Jewish community has an obligation to reach out to intermarried couples,” and 80% said “Intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.”

The following years’ surveys were modified to no longer ask these questions.

Jews are smart people, and smart Jewish leaders should listen to them. Instead, a small group of insiders looked at this data and decided that, no, the overwhelming majority of American Jews were simply wrong. They launched the In-Marriage Initiative to “reeducate” the Jewish public about why we should fear and loath intermarried families as much as they do.

The problem is, they’re wrong. Intermarriage really is inevitable in an open society, as 80% of all Jews already know. The key to understanding Jewish intermarriage in America is to understand America in general.

The rate of Jewish intermarriage in America remained in single-digits until the 1960s, even though Jews had embraced America long before that. The explosion in intermarriage couldn’t happen until after America embraced the Jews. It wasn’t altruism alone that put Jews on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement; we gained as much as anyone, perhaps more. College quotas and other tacit restrictions were removed. Jews “became white folk.” And the liberal notion that people should be judged as individuals overwhelmed ideas of endogamy, not just for Jews but for every other ethnic group that’s lived in the United States for more than three generations.

We of course support in-marriage but we also support the right of those who have chosen to intermarry, even with the inherent challenges, because we understand that intermarriage is not a Jewish issue, it’s an American issue. Trying to “change the Jews” in order to stop intermarriage is a strategy that completely ignores the most powerful factors behind the phenomenon: the other 97% of Americans. The only solution the In-Marriage Initiative can offer is withdrawal from the open American society. That’s a route rejected by almost all American Jews.

The mistake they make in their employment of statistics is to create a picture that “good Jews” don’t intermarry: if only we can keep our kids sequestered—day school, summer camp, Brandeis, birthright israel—they won’t intermarry. But that’s simply false. Yes, they may intermarry less, but the current 50% intermarriage rate cuts across a broad swath of the community. We know JCC execs who are intermarried. We know heads of Federation in major cities who have intermarried children. Of course it’s an “uphill struggle” for some of them to raise Jewish children, but if Jewish leaders are going to truly “speak with candor,” they would acknowledge the single most closeted issue in the professional communal world: intermarriage within our own families.

We should begin speaking up about how proud we are of our intermarried children who are raising strongly identified Jewish children, because they are a model for other intermarried families to follow. Just as decades of low intermarriage rates in the first half of the 20th Century did not predict the explosion of intermarriage in the second half, today’s seemingly glum statistics about the rate of intermarried families raising Jewish children should not predict what is to come, or what has to be.

Outreach is about creating many more doorways into Jewish life for those who would join us. Take day schools for example. Wertheimer and Bayme say that fewer than 3% of intermarried families have children in day school, but how many have actually been invited? The day schools in the movements with which Wertheimer and Bayme associate won’t even allow patrilineal children, yet they still unfairly beat them with this statistic. When specifically asked about the admissions policy at the 2002 General Assembly (by us), Wertheimer said, “Let them convert, then we’ll welcome them.”

That’s a sad and ineffective response, but luckily, it is not the majority response. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we have the honor of working with amazing Jewish leaders and professionals all across North America who are looking to create those additional doorways into the Jewish community, for all unengaged Jewish households (i.e., the majority, at over 60%). The question we have to answer for people is not “Why Marry Jewish,” but “Why BE Jewish In The First Place.”

We will take up that question in Atlanta this December when, for the first time ever, Jewish communal leaders from across denominations and institutions will meet specifically over the issue of engaging intermarried and unaffiliated families. Together, we will create even more positive responses to what is really the byproduct of a positive development: the full acceptance of Jews into American society.

Called “A New Vision For Jewish Outreach,” this conference will move beyond the tired and obsolete debates about whether we should reach out, and instead discuss how best to reach out. At this very moment, there are literally millions of non-Jews living in Jewish households. We’re way past “prevention.” Instead, we need a strategy for “absorption.” And we believe it can be done.

We have come together as a community to absorb millions of Russian Jews who did not grow up with a Jewish education but had an ethnic connection to us. We did it because they were our family. Well, we’ve got an extended family now that also needs our help being absorbed. Most of them are as non-religiously Christian (or another religion) as their spouses are non-religiously Jewish. This represents a huge potential for growth, if we can welcome both spouses and excite them about the Jewish community—which includes not just the Jewish religion but also our rich culture and strong peoplehood. And the same exciting messages of Judaism we share with them will also excite our unengaged in-married families, single Jews, multiracial Jews, LGBT, and all other underrepresented populations in our midst.

The fact that Google finds only 25 references to an “In-Marriage Initiative” after four years suggests that their expected groundswell of support and activity never materialized. However, a Google search for “Jewish outreach” finds 90,500 web pages, and we are growing that every day. More importantly, we are adding actual Jewish families to the community, by welcoming rather than turning away, and by sharing what we love about Judaism, not what we fear about demographics.


Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a national, independent organization dedicated to welcoming intermarried and unaffiliated households into the Jewish community and helping the community better welcome them.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of JOI.


  1. Well, I suppose logic has been rare in the Jewish community as well and this is a prescription for disaster for our community. The statement that “we support in-marriage BUT we also support the RIGHT of those who have chosen to intermarry…” Thus, the logic becomes “Yes but” which really means NO to in-marriage and Yes to a supposed RIGHT to choose which is exalted for another horrible cause in addtion to the RIGHT to kill an unborn child, the call is out for the right to choose a non-Jew to marry.

    Sadly, this “right” has always existed and those Jews who have made the most important decision of their lives contrary to Judaism should not be chased after and fawned over as if they are model Jews when they are not. The intermarried are as they are and if they have enough desire to remain with the Jewish people, Jewish options remain for them without their spouses and children.

    The validity of their CHOICE seems to be lost on the writers of this blog who wish to believe that this choice has no consequence–almost as if it is a special class of choice devoid of consequence. The need to absorb those who will not convert is a puzzling need that begs for an explanation that is absent. INstead, readers are offered a “vision” for inclusion and if that does not raise our sensitivity, we are offered a “new vision” and when that will surely fail to move those of us who remain supposedly stubborn, no doubt, we will be offered contempt and ridicule (oh, sorry, I think that is already implicit in this kind of commentary so we have that already.)

    Wertheimer and Bayme are easily correct in their analysis and the fact that in-marriage is even openly debated and opposed might be shocking if it was not so predictable.

    Olitzky and Golin seek to uphold a right to choose to be intermarried–fine. Now that we know that there is a choice, we should all choose wisely and when the choice is made not to marry Jewish–accept the choice with regret and honor the choice, while seeking to prevent the wrong choice for the future.

    Comment by David N. Friedman — December 23, 2006 @ 10:59 pm

  2. The deterioration of family values R2

    Since World War 2 when women were encouraged to join the work force en mass, to replace the men who went to war and keep the economy and the war effort going.

    There has been a trend where a mother was not home to take care of her children, monitor their behavior, help with the homework and discipline when and where necessary.

    The advancement in technology has harmed family values. The Media and Television has totally destroyed any comprehension of values in our society.

    The lack of discipline and total disregard for authority and respect is clear to anyone who has watched the past 50 years and seen our society’s values deteriorate.

    One example alone is that 50 years ago a teacher was happy to go to school to teach, a teacher was respected and looked up-to, a teacher could discipline. Today teachers fear for their lives they are petrified by their students.

    This scenario caries on to other social interactions of society today, and the situation is getting worse and worse every year.

    You will notice that many families who come from other countries have a very strong family values, good education, respect and the children excel in their studies. That is because they have not had the chance to be influenced by our society.

    The education of our children begins at home and continues in school – the parents and the school must take a proactive approach to teach our children values and respect.

    In today’s society a teacher is not permitted to discipline a student, the teachers will be sued, not to mention that teachers fears for their safety.

    Parents in today’s society are also restricted as to how to discipline their children; in many cases parents are getting sued. In many cases children would never dream of treating their parents with such disrespect 50 years ago. Today some parents are afraid of their own children.

    Abuse has been and will be with society to eternity that does not give society the right to prohibit discipline; a few acts of abuse should not cause society to prohibit proper discipline.

    When an individual or individuals utilize a vehicle to commit a crime cause the death of others, does society prohibit vehicles altogether, no, a vehicle is very important for our everyday life.

    Well, the discipline of our children by parents and teachers is extremely important for our society and the preservation of humanity.
    It seems that our society is so busy chasing the dollar, fame and glory, that anything goes all values goes out the window. We should be an example of honesty, integrity and respect to our children.

    Yehuda Draiman, Northridge, CA.


    Are Americans patriotic and proud enough to defend, protect and bring family values back to America? Is America ready to fight for honesty integrity and justice in our society, eliminate corruption and fraud, waste and self serving programs.
    Re-invigurate our economy and decrease our dependence on foreign economies and resources.
    Tell me and I will forget
    Show me and I may remember
    Involve me and I will understand.
     Chinese Proverb.

    Protecting Family Values
    The family is the most basic unit of any society or nation. Without healthy, functioning families, a culture cannot survive.

    God created marriage as the unity of one man and one woman. This has been both the legal and traditional understanding of a marriage – literally – for millennia, since Eden.

    Sadly, many radical activist groups in the U.S. are attempting to twist the law to change the definition of marriage and the family to include same-sex “marriage,” polygamy, polyamory, and other structures. These groups scoff at the idea that there is any fixed or known set of values or beliefs that is generally good for families or culture.
    We should fight against numerous attacks on marriage and family values, including efforts to:
    • Allow children unlimited access to pornography over the Internet in public libraries
    • Allow those engaging in homosexual behavior to have preference to adopt children and be foster parents
    • Allow those engaging in homosexual behavior to serve openly in the military
    • Expose children to explicit sex education materials contrary to parental approval
    • Deny parents the right to raise their children before God as they see fit

    Comment by Jay Draiman — July 9, 2009 @ 9:58 am

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