Intermarriage notices in Jewish paper spark debate

NEW YORK — The Connecticut Jewish Ledger recently publicized its policy of refusing to run announcements of interfaith weddings, prompting such controversy that dozens of readers weighed in on the issue and The New York Times picked up on the dispute.

The Ledger is one of the very few U.S. Jewish newspapers with a concrete policy against printing announcements of weddings known to be interfaith. However, many papers edit out any overt references to another religion when running such announcements.

The Connecticut controversy, which began with a February editorial, illuminates the delicacy of covering intermarriage in the Jewish community.

The Ledger got a strong response. Since the New York Times ran its story in mid-July — after which Times columnist William Safire wrote a related piece — the Ledger has received a tremendous amount of letters addressing its policy, said Ledger editor Jonathan Tobin.

Nearly all this mail has been positive, Tobin said, noting that 51 letters applauded his position. Eight letters opposed the policy, two were neutral and three he described as "hate mail, including one death threat," which came from an anonymous source in Brooklyn.

The relevant question is, Tobin said, "Is an intermarriage a Jewish simcha [joyous occasion]?"

"My answer is, `No. It's not.'"

"It can be a personal [simcha] for the individual family, but there's a difference between what an individual can do and what the community can celebrate," he said.

However, an informal survey of Jewish newspaper editors across the United States revealed that Tobin is nearly alone in his policy.

Most of the editors said their policy is "don't ask/don't tell." They said they feel obliged, as journalists, to reflect the reality of the Jewish community and not to make judgments by ignoring announcements of intermarriages.

"When a newspaper starts dictating how people should live, it's an abomination journalistically," said Marc Klein, editor of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, which is published in San Francisco.

"In the climate we live in today, where we've intermingled and assimilated with the rest of society, there's nothing a newspaper can do to change the field of intermarriage," said Klein. "That comes from the home and how a family raises its children.

"What Tobin is doing is excommunicating Jews and non-Jews alike," said Klein. "He's saying, `We will not give you a hech-sher [kosher certification] in our community even if you raise your kids Jewish.' It's ridiculous.

"Let the rabbis make the rules and let the newspaper report on what the rabbis say," said Klein.

Marshall Hoffman, managing editor of Minneapolis' American Jewish World, agreed: "The paper should reflect what's going on in the community and not try to whitewash what's going on.

"It's not promoting anything, just putting it out in front of their faces," Hoffman said. "This is the way it is. We don't put any judgment on it."

And on a pragmatic level, in a day and age where there is at least one non-Jew named Gladys Cohen and there are Jews named Seamus McGraw and Winston Pickett, editors say it's nearly impossible to screen submitted wedding announcements for non-Jews.

"Do you call up every family and ask if it's a convert?" asked Hoffman. "It's also the kind of thing that wouldn't win you any fans from your readership."

The Atlanta Jewish Times has received letters from readers "saying we're damaging the future of the Jewish people" by running interfaith marriage announcements, said editor Neil Rubin.

"It's the same issue we face with taking advertising from traif [nonkosher] restaurants," he said. "I don't think that to run them is to endorse the practice."

At least one Jewish newspaper editor, however, disagrees.

Orthodox Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Denver-based Intermountain Jewish News. Denver has one of the U.S.'s highest measured intermarriage rates.

The paper "will not knowingly print a notice of an intermarriage just as we won't print something about a gay synagogue," said Goldberg.

"We're here to promote the welfare of the Jewish people and Jewish community," he said, adding that a newspaper is perhaps the "major sanction in a community.

"When the sanction breaks down, the intermarriage rate goes up, and the same thing goes for homosexuality or anything else," said Goldberg. "We're very conscious of our role as being a public sanction."

In some communities, the response to articles on interfaith-related topics can be even stronger.

About two years ago, the Baltimore Jewish Times ran a story on rabbis and cantors who perform interfaith ceremonies with clergy of other faiths, said Times editor Michael Davis.

"I got my head handed to me on a platter by the community," said Davis.

And when the Arizona Jewish Post ran an article last year about Jews who marry Jews, the paper got phone calls and letters from outraged readers, mostly the parents of people who had married non-Jews.

Though the story was all about in-marriage, not intermarriage, the angry readers felt that it implicitly condemned intermarriage. Some canceled their subscriptions to the Tucson-based weekly as a result.