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Jewish Journal

A Second Wake-Up Call

Heartbreak of AJCommittee's findings on intermarriage.

by Jack Wertheimer

November 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

It took nearly 10 years, but now the other shoe has dropped. In the early 1990s, the American Jewish community was jolted by findings of an intermarriage rate exceeding 50 percent during the previous five years. Now, a new survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) sheds light on the profound social and psychological consequences of widespread intermarriage.

The new study indicates that American Jews are rapidly accommodating themselves to the new realities. Only 39 percent of the people questioned agreed with the statement, "It would pain me if my child married a gentile." In the judgment of merely 25 percent, the best response to intermarriage is "to encourage the gentile to convert to Judaism." Half claimed "it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages." And 56 percent were either "neutral" or "positive" about marriage between a Jew and a gentile.

Equally startling were responses to questions about how rabbis ought to deal with prospective interfaith marriages. Fifty-seven percent want rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, side-by-side with gentile clergy; only 15 percent would like rabbis to refuse to officiate at any interfaith wedding.

What has caused this apparent wholesale abandonment of long-standing Jewish norms? Certainly, trends within American society at large play an important role. Marriage between individuals of different religious and ethnic groups has become the rule, rather than exception, and is widely regarded as a symptom of growing tolerance within our society. American individualism as applied to religion, moreover, encourages people to "follow their bliss," making up their own rules as they go along. And the new "pluralism," which celebrates blurred boundaries, now teaches that multiple religious or ethnic allegiances are better than one.Undoubtedly, American Jews are influenced by all of these social trends. But the AJCommittee data also make plain that many respondents are reacting not only to changes in the wider culture, but to the reality of intermarriage close to home. Among members of this sample who have a married child, nearly two-thirds claim at least one of their children is currently intermarried. Given the ubiquity of intermarriage, few American Jews with unmarried children can confidently expect all their offspring to marry Jews. The AJCommittee data suggest that American Jews are coping with these painful realities by defining the problem away. Rather than risk friction with intermarried children, they have come to accept interfaith marriages, and they turn to their rabbis for help in keeping relations with their offspring free of tensions - at any cost.

This conclusion seems inescapable in light of an otherwise puzzling pattern of responses to the survey: Jews over age 60 were considerably more tolerant of intermarriage than were younger Jews, even though the latter are presumably more in touch with current cultural trends. One can only assume that the resistance of the over-60 population has been weakened by the actual incidence of intermarriage within their own families and in the families of their peers.

For those of us who are unwavering in our commitment to endogamy as a Jewish religious imperative and strategy for ethnic survival, the findings of the AJCommittee survey are undeniably heartbreaking. Indeed, the news is so bad that one can only hope these grim findings may actually serve as a catalyst for increased Jewish unity among our religious leaders. For with a few exceptions, even the most ardent champions of outreach to the intermarried reject the views of amcha, of the Jewish masses. Rabbis of all stripes regard the conversion of a gentile married to a Jew as the ideal Jewish choice. And only a small minority of rabbis who co-officiate at interfaith weddings do so without setting at least some conditions. On these issues, rabbis across the religious spectrum have far more in common with each than they do with their own congregants.

A unified campaign is also in order because the survey indicates that all sectors of the Jewish community are affected by intermarriage and its social consequences. True, Orthodox Jews are consistently the most likely to oppose accommodation, but even in the Orthodox camp resistance is eroding. Moreover, while the incidence varies considerably from one group to the next, intermarriage hits home within every religious stream.

We are all in this together, and we had better engage in the battle of ideas quickly and forthrightly. Ten years ago, Jewish communities mobilized to fight for "Jewish continuity" by redoubling their efforts to strengthen Jewish education. Unfortunately, this campaign was not matched by an explicit confrontation of intermarriage. Rabbis, religious educators, and communal leaders may have believed that improvements in Jewish education and positive Jewish experiences would deter Jews from intermarrying. Perhaps they were reluctant to talk about the vital necessity of inmarriage because they feared alienating the swelling population of intermarried Jews and their families and friends. But unless we are certain that all the past rules of Jewish survival ought to be suspended because "America is different," we had better engage in this cultural battle - and a battle it is when large numbers of Jews regard opposition to intermarriage as "racist." It is inconceivable that for fear of giving offense, we are not articulating the Jewish case for inmarriage at time when growing numbers of our people are embracing views antithetical to Jewish values and interests.

Fortunately, the AJCommittee survey offers evidence that a pro-endogamy message will not fall on deaf ears. For with all their open-minded views on this issue - and perhaps their despair about how to cope with intermarriage occurring all around them - more than two-thirds of the people in the AJCommittee sample nonetheless agree with the statement, "The Jewish community has an obligation to urge Jews to marry Jews." (This figure, we should note, holds steady for all age groups.) Despite their personal accommodations to the reality of intermarriage and their desire to have their rabbis make interfaith marriages kosher by officiating at ceremonies, American Jews still want their communal institutions and leaders to affirm the tradition-al ideal. Here is the foundation on which to rebuild communal consensus on what Jews until recently long took for granted, namely, that a Jewish marriage is a marriage of two Jews.

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