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Friends Don't Approve of The Girlfriend. Meddle or
Dear Rabbi Ari,
My friend 'David' is 23 years old, and has been dating a non-Jewish girl 'Alicia' for two years. We (his friends) think she is talented, sweet -- pretty amazing actually. But coming from homes that taught Conservative Judaism (David actually bordered somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox) we still aren't sure how to handle the situation. They no longer live in the same state for school-related reasons. Should we delicately interfere or let the relationship run its natural course?
Your question gets to the heart of one of the greatest concerns of the past generation of American Jews, and reflects the conflict between communal ideology and individual relationships. On the one hand, you love and care for your friend, and even like his non-Jewish girlfriend. At the same time you carry messages that have been communicated to you over the years that Jews should only marry Jews - and you are concerned that David’s long-term relationship with Alicia may be headed in the wrong direction.
The fact that you consider David’s relationship with Alicia a “situation” and are contemplating “interfering” worries me. Very little good ever comes from meddling in someone else’s personal life. The only time it is worth that risk is when someone’s physical or mental health is in danger. That’s clearly not the case here. You might be able to break up the relationship, but you’ll probably lose your friend in the process.
Instead, I would recommend talking with David. Make sure you do it in a non-judgmental manner, and give him the opportunity to share his thoughts with you. If you approach him as a concerned friend, it can give you the opportunity to openly talk about the “white elephant” that has been in the room for some time. David grew up with the same messages that you did, and he may be as conflicted as you are. He may also have resolved the conflict for himself. In today’s world it is most likely that he has chosen love over doctrine, and is willing to work out the other details. What is most important is that when you talk with him, you make it clear that no matter what, you value his friendship and want to continue to be part of his life.
I was raised to have the same feelings regarding intermarriage and interdating that you have expressed, but my thinking has changed over time. Let’s explore briefly the history of those attitudes and their place in today’s Jewish world.
In the early 90’s, the Jewish community’s National Jewish Population Study brought attention to the fact that a significant number of Jews were marrying non-Jews. Most Jewish organizations did whatever they could to shore up the bulwarks against intermarriage, and most of our rhetoric today still reflects the idea that intermarriage is “bad.” Even in the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, where some rabbis officiate at intermarriages and where intermarried couples face few, if any, obstacles to full participation in community life, the language being used still implies that Jews who marry non-Jews have somehow failed the community in a way that Jewish couples haven’t.
It is clear, almost 20 years later, that there is nothing anyone can do to “stop” intermarriage. In the order of priorities for most American Jews, finding a life partner to love and live with ranks higher than the messages of their religious tradition on the subject. None of the barriers erected against intermarriage have had any meaningful effect on the trends. Jews have simply switched their affiliation to congregations, rabbis and communities who accept their choice or have left the Jewish community altogether. Jews are going to date and marry non-Jews, because we live in and embrace an open and accepting society and people are comfortable and even encouraged to cross ethnic and cultural barriers. Our people –Hebrews or Ivrim – are so named, because we have always been boundary crossers.
If we want to keep these modern-day Hebrews in our community, we have to embrace a more positive and affirming approach to Jews who choose non-Jewish life partners. It is most difficult for people who grew up in and may still be associated with religious movements that continue to openly communicate disapproval of intermarriage. There is no reason today that one’s choice of life partner should change their position with respect to the Jewish community. In fact, as you wrote about Alicia, the non-Jewish member of the couple is often a fantastic person and a potential credit to our community.
If David’s relationship with Alicia is scorned and frowned upon we make his choice of her a referendum on his continued involvement in Judaism. Recent history shows that we lose that vote most of the time. If instead we continue to be accepting and understanding of David’s personal choices, at least we won’t be responsible for expelling him from the Jewish community. If we act well, we may even have David and his family as valuable members of our community for a long time to come.
Keep the Faith,
Rabbi Ari Vernon is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbi of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, and has served as the Director of Secondary Education at CAJE and Director of the St. Louis Jewish Community High School working with teen and youth workers to improve the quality and number of opportunities for local Jewish teens to explore and connect with Judaism. He is the proud father of Lev and Eiden and is married to Rabbi Annie Belford of Congregation Shaare Emeth. He enjoys playing guitar, reading sci-fi novels, and spending time with his family and their dog, Kaylee.
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