After lull, Jewish debate on intermarriage reignites

In the months since the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews renewed communal concern about assimilation, the intermarriage debate is flaring up again.

Jewish religious and communal institutions had been shifting away from seeing intermarriage as a problem to be combated and toward focusing on engaging the intermarried. But in recent weeks, there have been several high-profile warnings against abandoning the traditional Jewish emphasis on endogamy, or in-marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs photo/jta-clark jones

When the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, gave a speech suggesting that high intermarriage rates should be accepted by Jewish leaders as the inevitable result of life in an open society, he was criticized by the editors of two of America’s leading Jewish newspapers. Meanwhile, a new group of Jewish thought leaders has been convened by three longtime advocates of Jewish in-marriage hoping to influence the post-Pew conversation on assimilation.

Partisans on both sides of the debate cite the findings of the Pew survey, released in October of last year, in support of their views. The survey found that 58 percent of American Jews who married since 2005 have non-Jewish spouses, a proportion that rises to 72 percent among the non-Orthodox.

Advocates for in-marriage point to survey findings that people with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish or engage in Jewish activities. But their critics say the prevalence of intermarriage means that the communal focus needs to be on engagement rather than on what they see as futile efforts to turn back the tide.

In his December speech at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention, Jacobs had called for an “audacious hospitality” to welcome the intermarried and others into the Jewish community.

“Incredibly enough, however, I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease,” Jacobs said. “It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close.”

Jacobs’ speech has met with pushback. The New York Jewish Week’s editor, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote a Jan. 15 column warning that intermarriage “becoming the norm poses a threat to the sustainability of American Jewish life.”

The next day the Forward newspaper wrote in an editorial that the approach supported by Jacobs has so far “not proved sustainable.” The paper concluded that “encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is too essential to surrender to the uncertainties of American assimilation.”

Rosenblatt and the Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, both attended a Jan. 9 meeting in New York of some 25 Jewish thinkers who came together to discuss the findings of the Pew survey and shape a communal agenda in response. Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the meeting’s lead organizer, said he hoped the group would “raise the level of anxiety about the future of American Jewry.”

Cohen gathered the group with two other veteran advocates of in-marriage: Jewish Theological Seminary historian Jack Wertheimer and Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee. The three organizers — who were working as individuals, not as representatives of their respective institutions — were leaders a decade ago in a short-lived effort called the Jewish In-Marriage Initiative.

Meeting participants have differing ideas about how central the issue of intermarriage should be to the communal conversation.

“I’m not particularly interested in a food fight between people who think intermarriage is here to stay and we should embrace it and people who think intermarriage is a problem and we need to fight it,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan. “I’m interested in how we build a Jewish life that is attractive, engaging and deeply meaningful to the people who are in it.”

Rosenblatt, in a column on the meeting, wrote that papers presented for discussion showed intermarriage to be not “the sole cause, but rather the primary symptom of this thinning of Jewish identity.”

“The challenge, in a sense, is how to convince a largely satisfied and increasingly less passionate American Jewry to strengthen its ties and commitment by promoting earlier marriage, in-marriage, more children and intensive Jewish education — all steps that are contrary to prevailing trends,” he wrote.

Jacobs, who said he only learned about the meeting after the fact, said that there is “a slippery slope” between discouraging intermarriage and making the intermarried and their children feel unwelcome.

Asked whether he saw any value in encouraging in-marriage, Jacobs noted that some interfaith couples are more committed to Jewish life than some couples consisting of two Jews. He said that “talking about endogamy as an abstract concept is not the way to address” declining levels of Jewish en-gagement.

“The way to address it,” Jacobs said, “is to have an experience of Jewish life that’s so profound, so deeply engaging, that the question is not who’s going to be my choice in terms of partner, but what choices am I going to make in my home?”

But there is also common ground between the two sides in the debate. Even staunch advocates of in-marriage emphasize their support for outreach to the intermarried.

“It’s a bad tactic to make intermarried people feel bad or to hector people that they should in-marry,” Cohen said, although he noted in-marriage should still be an “aspiration.”

“The way to encourage in-marriage is giving people motivation to participate in Jewish life and giving them the opportunity to construct strong social networks with lots of Jewish friends, colleagues and associates around them.”