Jewish Journal

Could a robust ‘anti-intermarriage’ campaign work?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

September 17, 2013 | 7:25 am

Photo by Ashley R. Photography (Flickr)

And you shall teach, coax and command your Jewish children to marry within the faith…and openly and vocally disapprove when they don’t.

That, in a nutshell, is the new strategy Jack Wertheimer proposes to Jewish leaders as the way to stem the tide of Jewish intermarriage, which stands at about 50 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. In an essay that set off a conversation about intermarriage at Mosaic this month, Wertheimer calls for “a more assertive approach,” by which he means upping communal efforts to get unmarried Jews to marry one another, talking tough to those Jews who are considering intermarriage and making clear to intermarried couples that there will – once again – be a price to exogamy.

The approach isn’t really all that new, as Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary knows. Intermarrying was taboo for centuries; generations of Jewish parents sat shiva upon hearing that their daughter or son was marrying a gentile; innumerable relatives boycotted countless weddings.

What Wertheimer would like to do is revive those reactions, to turn back the clock – and that’s the part of his prescription that could raise hackles. (The positive suggestion in his essay – that Jews should encourage their young to marry other Jews, either by exposing them to Jewish education or by creating programs designed to get young Jews to pair off with one another – is uncontroversial. Endogamy is, after all, the explicit or implicit goal of just about every Jewish youth group ever created, from the BBYO to Birthright.)

But to win the war against intermarriage, Wertheimer argues, Jewish leaders must explicitly set up in-marriage as an ideal, work to discourage those who are considering intermarriage, and make clear to those Jews who go ahead and marry someone from outside the faith that if they wish their partner to be considered a full member of the community, that partner must convert.

That part of Wertheimer’s strategy – reviving the threat of communal disapproval for those who marry out of the faith – has provoked dismissive responses from those who have responded to his essay.

It won’t work, writes Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of Jewish and contemporary life at Brandeis, because the non-Orthodox Jewish community – along with the rest of America – is delaying marriage, or avoiding it altogether.

“For the parents of today’s young American Jews, the question becomes not ‘will I have Jewish grandchildren?’ but ‘will I have any grandchildren?’” Fishman writes.  Such parents…understandably come to view intermarriage as a lesser evil, and will more readily pressure their rabbis and the Jewish community at large to accept their (finally) marrying children with open arms.”

It won’t work, writes Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, because most Jews don’t want to cloister themselves off from the rest of American society.

“In the 1960s, when Jews were still a largely isolated ethnic enclave, the intermarriage rate stood at 6 percent,” Yoffie writes. “Today, only a tiny handful of Jews would accept the societal conditions of 50 years ago; for the rest of us, those seemingly impenetrable walls of ethnic and religious division have fallen, never to return. Single-digit intermarriage rates have disappeared with them.”

It won’t work, writes Steven M. Cohen – indeed, the history of the last fifty years shows that the “disapproval” strategy hasn’t worked.

And even if it did, Cohen, a professor professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, notes that “today’s non-Orthodox communal leaders are simply incapable of embracing the normative approach -- in part for fear of alienating their children, friends, congregants, and donors, in part out of aversion to ‘judgmentalism.’”

Furthermore, Cohen says that Yoffie’s preferred strategy – welcome every intermarried Jew into a synagogue with open arms -- hasn’t slowed the rush of non-Orthodox Jews heading to the altar with members of other faiths, and has been “a major contributing factor” to the decline in the non-Orthodox Jewish population in America.

Wertheimer’s recent essay may read like a prophecy of doom to some, and it is – although as an academic who works within the Conservative movement’s preeminent rabbinical school, he’s actually less triumphalist than some Orthodox Jews are when looking at the same trends.

“You want to know why non-Orthodox Judaism is doomed?” an Orthodox Jewish leader in Los Angeles asked me a few years ago. “Take a week’s worth of editions of the Los Angeles Times, read the obituaries of Jews, and just look at how many grandchildren they have. And while you’re at it, look at their grandchildren’s names. They’re not reproducing fast enough for replacement, let alone for growth.”

Wertheimer appears to be simply urging non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to consider going back to the good old days, when Jews knew that to preserve Judaism, they had to take a strong stand against intermarriage. But Yoffie clearly sees Wertheimer's essay as advocating an "Orthodox" approach, and argues that adopting Wertheimer’s “just say no” strategy simply won’t appeal to affiliated Reform Jews,

“Doing so,” Yoffie writes, “would require Jews in this country to pull back from full, enthusiastic participation in American life and to construct barricades and bunkers to separate themselves from the American mainstream.”

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