November 23, 2000
Ten years ago, intermarriage rose up as one of the great bogeymen of Jewish communal life. The National Jewish Population Survey, released in 1990, reported that some 52 percent of Jews marry outside their faith. You could hear the rending of garments from Maine to San Diego, as rabbis and Jewish leaders bemoaned American Judaism's imminent collapse. Intermarriage equals demise, we were told. Jewish communities formed committees - task forces, even - and programs on Jewish continuity multiplied like legal briefs in Tallahassee.
Now, as our cover story details, comes a new study from the American Jewish Committee, which finds that most Jews don't think intermarriage is the monster under (or in) the bed after all. The AJCommittee study found that one reason for the growing acceptance is the fact that most people know someone - a child, sibling, best friend - who is intermarried.
I suspect there are some other good reasons as well. For one, the 1990 survey has withered a bit in the spotlight. Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew University called into question the survey's definitions and methodologies and claimed the intermarriage rate to be a good 10 percent lower.
The popular media also helped defang the monster. It seems a Jew could not get hitched on screen without walking a WASP down the aisle. The tension made for good drama ("thirtysomething") or intermittent laughs (see cover), but it is as venerable a Hollywood tradition as superfluous nudity on cable TV.
The Journal's own Ellen Jaffe-Gill, author of "Embracing the Stranger: Intermarriage and the American Jewish Community," has pinpointed another reason for the shift in attitude. As a generation of mixed marriages has matured, the grandparents who once sat shiva after the wedding have found that their grandchildren are, in many cases, being raised with strong, positive Jewish identities.
Intermarriage is an inevitable fact in a society where Jewish identity is an elective and not a requirement. As with most fearsome things, what matters more than the thing itself is our response to it. As we look around our family gatherings this weekend, many of us will see Jews who have gained nothing from their tradition and non-Jews who have found richness and joy in it. We will see children for whom Judaism is a source of wonder and others for whom it is a drag. The difference has less to do with that bogeyman, intermarriage, and more to do with education and personality.
In their excellent new book, "Rabbis Talk About Intermarriage," Gary Tobin and Katherine G. Simon write that for those on the front lines of the issue, acceptance, inclusiveness, outreach and understanding go a long way toward demonstrating a Judaism that is "positive and relevant in an assimilated society." You need only look as far as the success of Rabbi Neal Weinberg's "Introduction to Judaism" program at the University of Judaism and others like it to see the wisdom of these words. What would happen, Tobin and Simon seem to be saying, if all those committees and task forces focused less on intermarriage and more on conversion, on helping non-Jews become Jews?
None of this is to say the tooth-gnashing and continuity programs didn't help. A new and improved Jewish population survey, underway now, will help determine their effect. But as the decade of the Great Intermarriage Fear passes, here's a worthy question: Why do we as a community feel more comfortable "protecting" our faith rather than asserting it?