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Outreach expert sees 'opportunity' in intermarriage
Speaking in Somerset, an expert on Jewish outreach described interfaith marriage as the Jewish community's "greatest challenge and biggest opportunity."
While families and institutions tend to focus on the challenge, marriages between Jews and non-Jews also present an opportunity if institutions find ways to welcome non-Jewish spouses, he said.
"What we're saying too often is, 'We want your children, but not you,'" said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in Manhattan. "That's a very unwelcoming message."
Olitzky made his comments during the ninth Dr. Michael Fink Memorial Lecture, held Nov. 26 at Temple Beth El of Somerset.
The lecture is held around the anniversary of the death, in 1987, of Fink, who was 27 and had only just received his doctorate in psychology when he was felled by a brain tumor. The annual lecture was established by his parents, Lori and Robert Fink.
This year's topic, "How to Grandparent Interfaith Grandchildren and What To Say When Your Child Brings Home Someone Who Isn't Jewish," was chosen to coincide with a holiday season when religious issues facing interfaith families tend to bubble up, said the synagogue's rabbi, Eli Garfinkel.
"It really affects every family the same way," said Garfinkel. While it is rare for a Jewish family to literally mourn a child who marries a non-Jew, "intermarriage continues to sadden us."
Olitzky, a Kendall Park resident, said intermarriage was "the most crucial issue facing the North American Jewish community short of the survival of the State of Israel."
Intermarriage, he said, was "demographically driven" and "an American phenomenon, not a Jewish phenomenon," resulting from the increased interaction with and acceptance by non-Jewish neighbors.
With an intermarriage rate already estimated by some to be 52 percent — amounting to more than one million families — and rising, Olitzky advised "grasping it with both hands."
"How we respond to the challenge of interfaith marriage will, in fact, determine the future landscape of the American-Jewish community," said Olitzky. "We have the power in this room and in thousands of sanctuaries across America to influence interfaith marriage."
Olitzky suggested changing the culture at synagogues where non-Jewish spouses are barred or ostracized, even though their children may be attending congregation religious schools. Some synagogues still require Jews married to non-Jews to join as single parents, and many exclude non-Jewish parents and grandparents from having any role in lifecycle events such as a bar or bat mitzva.
"Go down the street to the Unitarian church, where you'll find many interfaith families because they've figured out a way to make them feel comfortable," he said. "We're still trying to figure out where they can stand on the bima."
And many synagogues bar the non-Jewish spouse from voting on synagogue matters.
"I contend the determining factor in inclusiveness is voting rights," said Olitzky, adding that a way to get around non-Jews voting on certain matters is to consider giving each family one member vote.
In a question-and-answer period, Sue Bernstein of Somerset said her own Baptist-born mother converted after marrying her father and agreed to raise her children Jewish, seeking out a synagogue for them to join with little help from anyone.
"My mom brought us up Jewish, and it was important for me to marry someone Jewish and bring up my own children Jewish," said Bernstein.
Olitzky called Bernstein's mother "one of the great Jewish heroines," adding, "She helped assure the continuity of the Jewish people."
Yet, synagogues continue to offer little support in particular for non-Jewish women and converts trying to raise Jewish children, explained Olitzky.
Although Conservative rabbis can't officiate at interfaith marriages and very few Reform rabbis are willing to, Olitzky said, they often miss other valuable opportunities to welcome such couples into the community.
Among Olitzky's suggestions: The rabbi can call on a newlywed interfaith couple to congratulate them on their marriage and offer to come by and hang a mezuza in their home. A Conservative synagogue he works with in Los Angeles offers premarital blessings for interfaith couples.
"I'm very optimistic about the American-Jewish community," said Olitzky. "I'm less optimistic about our American-Jewish institutions' ability to change and keep up."