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even though the parade is 100,000 marchers strong, this debate gives unequal time to notions that are woefully outdated.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.

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