In­ter­mar­riage: The De­bate Rages On

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Sam Kesten­baum

Marci She­gogue was raised in a Con­ser­va­tive syn­a­gogue in the sub­urbs of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., but she fell in love with a Catholic man, Rich. They dated for seven years, speak­ing of­ten about their dif­fer­ent faiths, but when they de­cided to fi­nally marry they had a very hard time find­ing any cleric who would bless their union.

She­gogue, who is now a 51-year-old mu­sic teacher, called five dif­fer­ent rab­bis — who all said they were un­able to per­form the wed­ding. “Your hus­band is Catholic,” one rabbi told her over the phone. “We don’t do that.” She­gogue cried af­ter hang­ing up. Af­ter more re­jec­tions, the cou­ple de­cided to do the wed­ding their own way. They held it not in any syn­a­gogue, but in their par­ents’ back­yard, at­tended by more than 100 friends and fam­ily mem­bers. They wrote their vows and in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments of Jewish and Chris­tian li­turgy. “It was a beau­ti­ful wed­ding in the end,” She­gogue said. “But it was a real chal­lenge.”

Sto­ries of rab­bis re­ject­ing Jews for choos­ing non-Jewish part­ners, date back decades. But now, the con­sen­sus among clergy in cer­tain Jewish com­mu­ni­ties against in­ter­mar­riage is start­ing to break down.

Lead­ers and groups that have long re­fused to com­pro-

mise on the is­sue have de­cided that they must, lest they lose their rel­e­vance by deny­ing the re­al­ity of in­ter­mar­riage in Amer­ica. Jews are in­creas­ingly cou­pling with non-Jews, par­tic­u­larly among the non-Or­tho­dox. Pew Re­search Cen­ter data puts the over­all in­ter­mar­riage rate for Amer­i­can Jews at 58%, up from 43% in 1990 and 17% in 1970. Among non-Or­tho­dox, the rate is even higher — 71%. Where will these Jews wor­ship? Which de­nom­i­na­tion will have them?

“They are see­ing that it doesn’t pay to cas­ti­gate in­ter­mar­rieds as traitors,” said Arthur Blecher, au­thor of the 2007 book “The New Amer­i­can Ju­daism.” “Ac­cept­ing in­ter­mar­riage is an ac­com­mo­da­tion for sur­vival.”

These new stances are just the lat­est chap­ter in the long-run­ning strug­gle be­tween those who cast them­selves as a van­guard call­ing for in­clu­sion of non-Jews — and those who worry about a weak­en­ing of the Jewish peo­ple.

Avram Mlotek, a rabbi or­dained at the lib­eral Or­tho­dox Yeshi­vat Chovevei To­rah, wrote a call to ac­tion in the New York Jewish Week, ar­gu­ing that it was time for the Or­tho­dox to “re­visit our trib­al­is­tic ap­proach to­ward in­ter­mar­riage.”

In an essay for the For­ward, Mlotek ex­panded upon his the­sis, writ­ing, “Ju­daism is more than law and more than To­rah. It is its peo­ple and their prac­tices, their cus­toms, their songs and dances, recipes and rules. Ju­daism has sur­vived thou­sands of years fac­ing per­se­cu­tion and has adapted al­ways.

The Is­raeli-born Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who runs the in­no­va­tive Lab/Shul, said he would of­fi­ci­ate at in­ter­mar­riages de­spite his or­di­na­tion from the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment, which for­bids rab­bis from do­ing so.

And clergy at B’nai Jeshu­run, an in­flu­en­tial syn­a­gogue on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West side, an­nounced that they would be­gin of­fi­ci­at­ing at the wed­dings of in­ter­faith cou­ples who com­mit to “cre­at­ing Jewish homes” and rais­ing Jewish chil­dren.

B’nai Jeshu­run is not af­fil­i­ated with any move­ment, but Lau-Lavie and Mlotek have al­ready faced push­back from their af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions.

“Jews are meant to find the spir­i­tual growth and mean­ing we seek in… ‘bounded’ spa­ces,” Rabbi Julie Schon­feld, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Rab­bini­cal As­sem­bly, the in­ter­na­tional as­so­ci­a­tion of Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis, wrote in de­fense of her move­ment’s po­si­tion. Rab­bis do not of­fi­ci­ate in­ter­mar­riage, she wrote, to em­pha­size that Jewish wed­dings and the rit­u­als in­volved are meant for Jews ex­clu­sively — not as a mes­sage that clergy doesn’t “love or care about” in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples.

And Chovevei To­rah also came out with a state­ment re­it­er­at­ing that it clearly for­bids rab­bis to per­form in­ter­mar­riages. In­ter­mar­riage “poses grave dan­ger to Jewish con­ti­nu­ity,” rab­bis from the Or­tho­dox school wrote. “Need­less to say, we strictly for­bid any of our rab­bis to per­form in­ter­mar­riages.” Both sides of the ar­gu­ment are well re­hearsed. On one hand, some are hope­ful that when a rabbi wel­comes in­ter­faith cou­ples there is a bet­ter chance the cou­ple will re­main in the Jewish fold. On the other hand, there is anx­i­ety that in­ter­faith mar­riage will lead to full-on as­sim­i­la­tion and loss of Jewish iden­tity. And both camps have data. Pew Re­search Cen­ter num­bers from 2013 show that the off­spring of in­ter­mar­riages — Jewish adults who have only one Jewish par­ent — are much more likely than the off­spring of two Jewish par­ents to de­scribe them­selves as athe­ist, ag­nos­tic or hav­ing no re­li­gion in par­tic­u­lar. “In that sense,” Pew re­searchers wrote, “in­ter­mar­riage may be seen as weak­en­ing the re­li­gious iden­tity of Jews in Amer­ica.” But that same Pew re­search also shows that a ris­ing per­cent­age of the chil­dren of in­ter­mar­riages iden­tify as Jewish in adult­hood. Among Amer­i­cans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish par­ent, a quar­ter of them are Jewish to­day. By con­trast, among adults un­der 30 with one Jewish par­ent, more than half are Jewish to­day. So in­ter­mar­riage, para­dox­i­cally, “may be trans­mit­ting Jewish iden­tity to a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans.” For con­gre­ga­tional lead­ers who sup­port some form of in­ter­mar­riage, the is­sue has been set­tled. For ex­am­ple, the Re­form move­ment does not bar rab­bis from of­fi­ci­at­ing at in­ter­faith wed­dings.

“We are al­ready in­ter­faith, al­ready in­te­grated,” said Rabbi David Ing­ber, head of Man­hat­tan’s Romemu, which is widely seen as the flag­ship syn­a­gogue of the Re­newal move­ment. Ing­ber has been per­form­ing in­ter­mar­riage cer­e­monies for five years at his syn­a­gogue, which even in­cludes a Chris­tian min­is­ter on the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s board.

To­day, it’s among the Con­ser­va­tive or more lib­er­al­lean­ing mod­ern or “open” Or­tho­dox, where this is­sue is be­ing duked out.

“Re­form is not go­ing to con­vince Or­tho­dox, and Or­tho­dox is not go­ing to con­vince Re­form,” said Shaul Kel­ner, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and Jewish stud­ies at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity. “The strug­gle is go­ing on in the space in be­tween.”

In de­scrib­ing their ra­tio­nale for re­think­ing their ap­proach to in­ter­mar­riage, com­mu­nity lead­ers say in­ter­mar­riage is some­thing that is al­ready hap­pen­ing — and they’re sim­ply catch­ing up to it. If rab­bis at B’nai Jeshu­run or Romemu, for ex­am­ple, don’t per­form the in­ter­mar­riages, cou­ples will find a rabbi who will.

“The fear is that Jewish loy­alty will be di­luted,” Blecher said. “This is very threat­en­ing to Jewish lead­er­ship.”

‘Re­form is not go­ing to con­vince Or­tho­dox, and Or­tho­dox is not go­ing to con­vince


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