Last week, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents about 2,000 Reform rabbis, met in San Francisco and announced a conceptual shift in its approach to intermarriage. Instead of devoting energy and resources to discouraging Jews from marrying non-Jews, the CCAR decided to take intermarriage as a given and focus instead on outreach to intermarried couples.
This decision was an inevitable result of the sociological reality in Reform communities in America. We expect Conservative Judaism to move in a similar direction in coming years. Even Orthodoxy will have to formulate some sort of response besides a total rejection of intermarried couples.
Already in 1964, when US intermarriage rates were still in single digits, sociologist Marshall Sklare warned intermarriage would become a critical problem. But the real bombshell was the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, which revealed that 52 percent of Jews who had married between 1985 and 1990 had chosen a non-Jewish spouse.
Hysterical, the Jewish community poured hundreds of millions of dollars into educational programs, from Holocaust museums to Israel trips to day schools to Jewish summer camps, in a frantic attempt to combat the result of a breakdown of Jewish geographical enclaves, the rise of multiculturalism and integration, and an increasing emphasis on “the sovereign self.”
TWO BASIC approaches were put forward in response to the challenge: Reject intermarriage outright and blackball those who chose that path in an attempt to scare Jews into in-marrying, or, alternately, reach out to mixed couples and make them feel welcome.
The first approach – adopted by Orthodox, Conservative and some Reform Jews – was at odds with the second strategy. If Reform leaders had chosen to fight intermarriage, mixed couples would have surely abandoned the movement. Veteran members whose children had married non-Jews might have done the same. This would have been suicidal, considering the Reform movement’s high rates of intermarriage. It would have also been a wholesale write-off of tens of thousands of intermarried Jews.
Conservative Judaism has thus far refrained from adopting some of the more extreme solutions advanced by the Reform movement, such as the CCAR’s 1983 resolution to recognize patrilineal descent. But it is likely only a matter of time before it does. After all, Conservative congregations encounter similar social pressures to those faced by Reform communities. And Conservative Judaism’s less accommodating approach to intermarried couples has cost it a serious drop in membership. Some of these couples have moved over to Reform congregations and others have abandoned Jewish affiliation altogether.
In response to this loss, Conservative Judaism has gradually begun including non-Jewish parents in life-cycle events. Rabbis might not officiate at mixed marriages, but they will often refer couples to someone who does and will provide prenuptial counseling. They will integrate the non-Jewish spouse in synagogue life after marriage.
Even Orthodoxy has responded to the challenge of intermarriage. The haredi Eternal Jewish Family project actively encourages the non-Jewish spouse of a mixed marriage to convert to Judaism if he or she is willing to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle. This marks a departure from a more stringent position in Orthodoxy that rejects the possibility of conversion for the spouse of someone who has chosen to marry outside the faith.
LEADERS OF all three main streams of Judaism recognize that, unlike in
the past, the decision of a Jew to marry a non-Jew does not necessarily
signal a rejection of Judaism. Rather it is a sign of the full and
successful integration of Jews into American society and culture.
of all three streams of Judaism also recognize that intermarriage has
become the single most formidable challenge facing American Jewry. All
three streams of Judaism have an important contribution to make toward
this end. Let’s pray they are successful.