Once upon a time, most Jews considered intermarriage a shanda for the neighbors. Today, one in four couples in the Jewish community are interfaith.
Those are the stats, according to Barbara Fishbein, a Jewish psychotherapist and researcher in the field of intermarriage.
Fishbein, who is married to a rabbi, has been studying this contentious issue for many years. She will share her insights in a presentation at the Dovetail Conference, to be held Aug. 6 to 8 at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion.
The Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing interfaith families with what they call “nonjudgmental educational and networking venues and opportunities.”
Every two years, Dovetail holds a national conference, bringing together clergy, social scientists and interfaith families. The organization has grown despite a Jewish community still largely uneasy about Christian-Jewish unions. Given current demographic trends showing flat or declining Jewish birthrates, interfaith marriage is seen as a threat, according to some Jews.
Oscar Rosenbloom isn’t one of them. A Palo Alto attorney married 39 years to a Christian woman, Rosenbloom is a Dovetail activist and one of the conference organizers. He is excited about Fishbein’s upcoming presentation, as well as the other speakers on the line-up.
Says Rosenbloom: “There will be plenary presentations, plus workshops with special tracks and themes.” Among them, sessions with titles like “Dispelling misconceptions about intermarriage,” “Relationship negotiation skills,” “Planning your wedding” and “Making choices for children.”
The latter is a topic of particular interest to Fishbein. She earned her doctorate studying the impact of intermarriage on children, and is a pioneer in the field. Her upcoming presentation is titled “Pursuing the anecdotal: A look at the emotional development of the children of intermarriages.”
Though Jewish community organizations have examined the subject of intermarriage, no other social scientist had ever done a proper controlled study, according to Fishbein. Her main conclusion: Children from interfaith homes have as equal a chance of being healthy and happy as the general population.
Not that intermarriage between Christians and Jews is a cakewalk. Says Fishbein, “When you get married and have a baby, you find ties to religion and parents are much deeper. Many couples don’t work it out.”
As with many other issues in family dynamics, interfaith marriage in and of itself is not a determining factor, according to Fishbein. Rather, it all depends on what the spouses bring to the table.
“The marriages I studied ran the gamut,” she says, “from absolutely wonderful to absolutely horrible. The interfaith challenge frequently was a trigger, but there is evidence that in multicultural families of any kind, there is a tendency for people to focus on side issues convenient to fight about.”
Those kinds of marital cheap shots never happened in Rosenbloom’s household. He and his wife retained their individual religious identities while fully supporting the other. “We both had very strong upbringing in our faiths,” says Rosenbloom, whose wife is the daughter of a Methodist missionary. “I am now a member of [Conservative Congregation] Kol Emeth and also a member of First Presbyterian.”
Rather than dilute his commitment to Judaism, Rosenbloom found his involvement with the church had the opposite effect. “In my case, it led to a deepening of my understanding and knowledge of my Jewishness.”
Through his work with Dovetail, Rosenbloom has made his own observations regarding intermarriage. “Until recently,” he notes, “institutionalized Judaism was pretty inaccessible [for interfaith couples], but thank goodness that is changing. The question is, how do people find a sense of community and build practices of religious family life that comfortably reflect their combined faith traditions?”
Fishbein thinks she knows the answer. “Harmony is the key,” she says. “As a therapist, the literature I read said that how families got along had more impact than anything. Religion was only one of many hurdles. The kids with the greatest self-esteem came from parents who were loving and in sync, where the spouse would say it’s OK to go to synagogue or church.”
Fishbein has seen this principle in action. One of her four children married a non-Jewish woman, and she reports that the two families have warmly embraced each other. “It worked out very well,” she says. “The grandchildren have families that adore them.”
In addition to Fishbein, the Dovetail conference line-up includes Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. He will present the findings of his Teferet program, which studied the role of non-Jews in Conservative congregational life. He and several colleagues wrote a book, “A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism,” which is set for publication.
Daniel Matt, translator of the Zohar, will share the podium with Christian theologian Christopher Ocker in a program titled “Torah and Jesus: a dialogue.” And a documentary titled “Mixed Blessings: The Challenges of Raising Chidren in a Jewish-Christian Family” will be screened.
“We wanted to have a program of substance,” says Rosenbloom, “and draw on resources in the Bay Area.”
As for the New Jersey-based Fishbein, she is looking forward to her West Coast trip. “Dovetail is terrific,” she says. “The work they do is fabulous. The most important thing we can do is get couples to live together in peace and not bring up rejecting children who hate Judaism, Catholicism or whatever.”
Still, she does harbor some reservations about intermarriage. “I still think it’s an existential threat,” she says. “We Jews do get a good percentage back, but a huge population is unaffiliated. I wish they could be more accepted.”
The Dovetail Institute conference takes place Aug. 6 to 8 at the Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley. Information: (800) 530-1596, or www.dovetailinstitute.org.