Jewish Families, And Especially Grandparents, Struggle With Intermarriage
When George and Nancy Bacall's daughters came to them within
weeks of one another and announced their engagements to two perfectly nice, but
decidedly non-Jewish, men, they were devastated.
First they tried to stop their daughters from marrying, but, not surprisingly, that didn't work. Then they tried to persuade their prospective sons-in-law, both Roman Catholic, to convert. That was equally unsuccessful.
"We were in mourning," George Bacall said.
Although their reaction might seem extreme, the Bacalls had a profound reason for their distress. Not only did they wish to preserve their Jewish heritage through future generations, they were also thinking of the generations that had come before them — especially George Bacall's parents, Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz.
"My mother lost a child in Auschwitz," Bacall said. "They both
lost almost everyone they loved. I grew up with stories of those horrors, and
knowing that what was most important to my parents was reuniting what family was
"The miracle is that Jews have lasted over 5,000 years, despite everything," Bacall added. " Hitler tried to wipe us out, but what Hitler didn't accomplish, intermarriage might."
The topic of intermarriage, and how the Jewish community as a whole should respond to it, is one that can provoke intense debate about how much of the culture is slipping away.
For many, the issue is now skipping a generation. Grandparents like the Bacalls — who, in the past, might have had a strained relationship with a child once they married outside the faith — are increasingly looking for ways to pass down traditions and beliefs to their grandchildren, even when they aren't being raised exclusively Jewish.
And, as the sheer size of the intermarried Jewish population grows, some grandparents are taking solace in their shared predicament, turning to each other both formally and informally for guidance and support.
In Connecticut, for example, the Bacalls are participating in the first "Grandparents Circle" support group — sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford — to help navigate the tricky waters of duel-faith families. The program recognizes that as grandparents of children being raised in interfaith homes, they share a unique position in the debate.
Grandparents are often the standard bearers of tradition for the family, experts said, and, as such, they feel compelled to impart their Jewish heritage to grandchildren who might not be raised Jewish. And, as members of an older generation that sometimes still has a direct connection to the Holocaust, the feelings surrounding the issue of intermarriage can be especially strong.The percentage of American Jews marrying outside the faith now hovers at almost 50 percent, and studies have shown an overall Jewish population decline of roughly 5 percent since the 1990s, due to both intermarriage and low birth rates among non-Orthodox Jews.
"The issue of Jewish continuity and survival is unlike that experienced by other religious groups," said Steven Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and a leading expert on American Jewish demography.
Cohen, who is the author of a study titled "A Tale of Two Jewries: The 'Inconvenient Truth' for American Jews," has studied the intermarriage issue intensely and said he believes that intermarriage is a true threat.
"The numbers are not encouraging," Cohen said. "Less than 40 percent of Jews who marry non-Jews raise their children as Jews, and as these kids grow up, even fewer identify as Jews, so I see intermarriage provoking severe population decline."
The percentage gets worse as the generations multiply. According to Cohen, only 13 percent of grandchildren of intermarried couples are Jewish.
These are exactly the sort of statistics that bother George and Nancy Bacall, who say that their daughters — who are currently raising their children Jewish — might have the best of intentions but can't control what their children do in the future.
What if, they ask, after being raised Jewish, their grandchildren also marry outside the faith, like their mothers, as Cohen's research suggests?
"You can't hold your child to a higher standard than you held yourself," Nancy Bacall said.
But it's also true — as the Bacalls of West Hartford know only too well — that even if you hold yourself to a high Jewish standard, that doesn't ensure anything.
Although they belong to an Orthodox synagogue, keep a Kosher home, and sent their children to Jewish day schools, the Bacalls, like millions of Jewish parents, were unable to ensure that their children married Jewish men.
"You think that you're raising your children to a have a good sense of self within the religious boundaries," Nancy Bacall said. "You want them to feel good as Jews, to stay part of the faith, and then they fall in love with someone who is not Jewish."
Then focus on the grandkids.
Find The OpeningThere are many options for grandparents seeking to knit close cultural and religious relationships with their grandchildren, ranging from weekly inclusion in Sabbath dinners and worship to Jewish-based gifts for holidays and birthdays.
Cohen and other experts said that one effective way that grandparents can encourage their grandchildren to embrace Judaism is to make funds available for their Jewish education, or offer to send them to Jewish camps, or take a trip to Israel.
But for most Jewish grandparents, what they do largely depends on how much involvement their children — and their children's spouses — want them to have.
This can get tricky, especially if they are attempting to pass down traditions and beliefs that, in the past, might have come under the sole direction of the child's parents or if the parents have not decided what faith they will practice as a family.
For Rona and Barry Gelber, who have three grandchildren, the answers have come with time and experience.
When their oldest son, Jonathan, called them in 1988 from college to announce that he was marrying his Catholic girlfriend, they were a bit stunned.
Still, they weren't about to react like some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews they had heard about, who consider their children virtually dead and sit shiva for them when they marry non-Jews. Instead, they immediately embraced the idea because, as Rona Gelber said, "We felt we had no choice. We didn't want to alienate our son."
They worried, though, because they knew how difficult marriage can be, even when a couple shares a common heritage.
Rona, a youthful grandmother, and Barry, a periodontist who began his career in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, began their married life on family charity and whatever Barry could scrape together working part-time in Manhattan while finishing medical school.
Jonathan was born a short time later and — as Rona Gelber said — marriage on so little money with so much responsibility might have been a lot harder if she and her husband hadn't shared something other than love — namely, their Jewish identity.
"We both grew up in New York as cultural Jews," she said. Their parents were all born in the United States, but most of her own and Barry's grandparents emigrated from Russia and Poland in the early 1900s.
The Gelbers also had to deal with reactions from the outside world when Jonathan announced his engagement.
"When our Jewish friends heard about Jonathan wanting to get married to a non-Jew, they thought it was a terrible thing," Rona said.
"But now everyone of our friends has a child who is married to someone who is not Jewish," added Barry. "I think some of them look to us as a guide now."
It's been 20 years since the Gelbers received that phone call, and many of their initial worries have been put to rest.
Jonathan and his wife have had three children and are raising them Jewish. Not only has this eased their concerns, it's made the Gelbers' involvement that much easier.
The Gelbers' expansive home on Avon Mountain in Avon, which Rona helped design, is a bit of a shrine to the kid in everyone. There is a full-size Coke machine in one room, a working phone booth in the upstairs hallway and a drawer full of Jewish holiday toys in the library that the grandchildren seek out whenever they visit.
Although the children identify as Jews, the Gelbers said, they have celebrated Christian holidays as well, especially when visiting their mother's family in the Midwest. Their Jewish grandparents in Connecticut have learned to accept this and embrace the frequent opportunities they have to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions with them.
The trick is to make it fun — attractive to children.
As Rona put it, "There's never a 'no.' There's always an opening."
The Bacalls, who are a blended family and therefore old hands at adapting to difficult change, are slowly finding their way through the interfaith obstacle course.
Their daughters have each had children of their own since they married, the Bacalls said, and each is handling the issue of religious upbringing slightly differently.
The oldest daughter, Kerri, gave birth to triplets two years ago and appears to be embracing both religious traditions in her home, her parents said.
"Kerri put up a Christmas tree," Nancy Bacall said. "But she also invited us over for Hanukkah. She's very private, so we're not sure where her commitment is."
The other daughter, Lindsay, who has a 10-month-old daughter, brings her daughter to the Bacalls' house for Friday night Sabbath dinners.
They have tried to include both daughters and their families in all their traditions and give their grandchildren Jewish-oriented gifts, said George Bacall.
"The point is we're taking this seriously," George said. "We've moved beyond the grieving point."
Contact Elizabeth Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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