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Posted: June 27, 2010

Do interfaith marriages threaten Jewish identity?

Growing rate of intermarriage alarms some

BY NIRAJ WARIKOO
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Step inside Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and you’re greeted by a 6-foot mosaic with thousands of hand-cut glass tiles that symbolize God’s promise to Abraham: I’ll make your descendants as numerous as the stars and grains of sand.


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It’s a scene that highlights the temple’s commitment to its future. “Preserving our Legacy,” it reads next to the artwork.

But despite its Jewish motif, the artist is Catholic: Mary Gilhuly, 49, an Oak Park resident who sits on her church’s parish council and is also active in the temple.

She and her Jewish husband, Steve Klaper, 56, are part of a growing number of interfaith couples among the area’s 72,000 Jews.

But along with the increase comes concern about a loss of identity.

Nationally, about 50% of Jews who marry now wed non-Jews. The changes have sparked a debate among Jews over how to respond.

“If you push (interfaith couples) away, they’re gone forever,” said Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Farmington Hills. “On the other hand, you’re taking away incentives for people to marry within the faith.”

Many area synagogues welcome interfaith families

Growing up in a Jewish home, Gary Shuman of West Bloomfield dated mainly Jewish girls and assumed his future wife also would be Jewish.

But after meeting Stacey Coccia in a library at the University of Michigan business school, Shuman, 48, found a connection that led to marriage, despite the fact that she was Catholic.

It's a growing trend in the American-Jewish community, where about half of recently married couples nationally have non-Jewish spouses, according to experts analyzing data from the National Jewish Population Survey and other studies.

While the percentage of interfaith marriages is lower in metro Detroit, the numbers are increasing, especially among those 35 and younger.

That growing rate concerns those who fear it will erode the vitality and numbers of a small community. Studies show that interfaith couples are much less likely to maintain Jewish traditions.

But Shuman and others in interfaith families are finding ways to maintain their Jewish identity and pass it on to future generations. Shuman and his wife are raising their three children as Jewish.

And though his wife, Stacey Shuman, 45, remains Catholic, she and their kids are an active part of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, where 30% to 40% of the couples are in interfaith marriages. All this, even though her own parents were wed by Father Charles Coughlin, the late Catholic priest from Royal Oak known for his anti-Semitic message in the 1930s.

"My Catholic wife is probably the most wonderful Jewish mother that I know," Shuman quipped.

A threat to the faith?

The upswing has alarmed others, however. A controversial ad last year sponsored by the Israeli government and aimed at Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere said those who marry outside their faith are "lost," comparing them to missing children. But the ad was quickly pulled after an uproar from Jewish Americans.

"I found that people intermarrying are not becoming lost at all. In fact, some become more Jewish," said Keren McGinity, a postdoctoral fellow at U-M and author of "Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America."

But the concern remains among some.

"Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today," said Steven Cohen, a leading expert on Jewish intermarriage who is a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Cohen and others emphasize a dual, if contradictory, strategy: finding creative social spaces for single Jewish people to bond and welcoming intermarriage while maintaining Jewish standards, so children can be raised as Jews.

This year, for example, the main body of Conservative Judaism voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Educational classes in synagogues on the basics of Judaism also are increasingly popular for non-Jewish spouses. And across metro Detroit, some Jewish congregations are increasingly welcoming non-Jews to actively participate in their temples.

In Troy, Congregation Shir Tikvah allows non-Jews to sit on its board, and at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, non-Jews can participate fully in all parts of traditional services.

"I don't see our non-Jewish spouses in any way ... harming our Jewish community," said Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanu-El. "In fact, I see them as a strength. So we're happy to welcome interfaith families, presuming they have decided their family is a Jewish family."

But some rabbis worry that such views might diminish the value of Jewish marriage by equating interfaith couples with those who commit to marrying someone who is Jewish.

They point to statistics that show clear differences in Jewish observance in families with two Jewish parents compared with interfaith couples. In the tri-county Jewish community, for example, less than half of intermarried couples participate in a Passover seder -- a significant Jewish observance -- compared with 95% of Jewish couples, according to the Detroit Jewish Population Study released in 2006.

More inclusion

The changes come as a new generation of Jews are being raised after the 1983 decision by Reform Jews that said children born to a Jewish father would also count as being Jewish; in the past, only descent through mothers generally counted.

That decision was controversial because some, especially Conservative and Orthodox Jews, worried it would devalue Jewish marriages and the long history of the Jewish people.

To the Orthodox, the growing rate of intermarriage among Jews stems from ignorance of the Torah, says Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, head of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit.

"They don't have the proper Jewish education to know the calamity that it's causing, and how strictly forbidden it is," Neustadt said.

Some go so far as to compare intermarriage to the Holocaust.

Others have mixed views.

Like many rabbis, Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller of Tamarack Camps in Ortonville and Congregation T'chiyah in Oak Park won't perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews. But he encourages couples to be active in Jewish life.

"I certainly don't want them to feel shunned or to have negative feelings toward Judaism," Miller said.

Most Conservative synagogues require children born to non-Jewish mothers to convert to be considered Jewish, but they, too, are increasingly a home for interfaith couples. In some cases, the non-Jewish spouse later will convert; about 8% of Jewish marriages in the tri-county area involve a spouse who converted.

Interfaith lives

Maria Biederman, 39, a cardiologist from Franklin, converted to Conservative Judaism in 2008.

Raised by Catholic immigrants from the Philippines, she married a Jewish man she met at U-M's medical school, and today they attend Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills. They are raising their three kids as Jewish because "if we tried to raise them as both, they would have no religion."

The Klaper family in Oak Park reflects the complexities of interfaith life.

Mary Gilhuly sees Judaism as the foundation of her Catholic faith. And her husband, Steven Klaper, a musician who was raised Orthodox Jewish, today performs with a Franciscan friar at religious concerts. Despite the differences, they have found harmony.

"I often found spiritual connections and common ground between the two worship experiences," Mary Gilhuly said.

Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO: 313-223-4792 or warikoo@freepress.com

Mary Gilhuly, 49, and Steve Klaper, 56, are representative of 
the growing number of interfaith marriages in the Jewish community. 
Klaper is Jewish, and Gilhuly is Catholic but active at Temple Emanu-El 
in Oak Park, even designing the mosaic that symbolizes God's promise to 
Abraham.   (KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press)

Mary Gilhuly, 49, and Steve Klaper, 56, are representative of the growing number of interfaith marriages in the Jewish community. Klaper is Jewish, and Gilhuly is Catholic but active at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, even designing the mosaic that symbolizes God's promise to Abraham. (KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press)

Related materials

A version of this story appears on page 7A of the Sunday, June 27, 2010, print edition of the Detroit Free Press.

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