Taglit-Birthright Israel 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Large swathes of the non-Orthodox American Jewish world have ceased to fight
against the high rates of marriages between Jews and gentiles. Some are
defeatists who believe in endogamy as essential to Jewish continuity but who
have, nevertheless, given up hope and have reconciled themselves to the fact
that intermarriage is an inevitable result of America’s openness. Others are
integrationists who embrace the phenomenon as testimony that Jews have “made
Since the beginning of September, the Internet site Mosaic
(previously Jewish Ideas Daily) has featured a particularly thoughtful and
incisive essay by Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the
Jewish Theological Seminary, on the subject.
Encouraging those among
America Jewry who still value Jewish continuity, Wertheimer insists that the
only way to fight intermarriage is to replace the policy adopted by many
non-Orthodox communities of no-questions-asked and “inclusiveness” with the
reinforcement of the boundaries that separate Jews and non-Jews and the active
encouragement of conversion of gentile partners and spouses.
Jewry, Wertheimer seems to be saying, has to be willing to pay the price of
being perceived as clannish or even racist in a country that celebrates personal
choice and indifference to religious, ethnic and racial
Wertheimer’s essay has sparked a lively debate. Leading
sociologists of US Jewry such as Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman have
weighed in, and so has former head of the Reform Movement Rabbi Eric H.
We would like to add a decidedly Zionist dimension to the
discussion on this worrying trend of American intermarriage.
from adherence to Orthodox practice, only Zionism has offered a time-tested
solution to the dangers posed to Jewish continuity by assimilation and
integration in the post-Holocaust era. Living in the State of Israel with its
strong Jewish majority nearly ensures that the danger of intermarriage is
avoided for one’s self and one’s children. And the value of in-marriage is
central to the value system of Israelis – both secular and
Numerous surveys have consistently shown that while Israelis
who define themselves as secular overwhelmingly support instituting civil
marriage, only around half would choose civil marriage for themselves. And even
among those who would, only a fraction say they are indifferent to
Admittedly, it is unrealistic to expect hundreds of
thousands of marriage-age American Jews to pick up and leave.
strengthening their ties with the Jewish state, however, young Jews can
significantly increase the chances they will marry a member of the tribe.
Several studies have shown the correlation between the level of one’s connection
to Israel and the strength of one’s Jewish identity. And this is after adjusting
for other factors, such as religious affiliation and education.
survey of the impact of Birthright trips on young America Jews was unambiguous.
The study, conducted by Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, found that after
young non-Orthodox Jews who had never been to Israel participated in a 10-day
educational tour of the Jewish state, 72 percent married Jews, compared to just
46% of those who applied for a trip but were not chosen in a
Apparently, seeing the world’s only Jewish state in action is
inspiring. Regardless of one’s opinions on specific Israeli policies, American
Jews (including those born to a Jewish father only, who are also eligible for
automatic citizenship under the Law of Return) who come to Israel experience
first-hand an entire modern nation run and populated by a Jewish majority. By
virtue of this fact everything, from the calendar and the culture to
intellectual life and business to army service and politics is permeated with
And whether they choose to or not, American Jews
know that they have the option of joining in the ongoing process of the building
of a Jewish state and even influencing the direction of its growth. As a result,
the stakes involved with intermarriage become much higher. Intermarriage is not
just about amorphous terms such as “Jewish continuity,” it is about maintaining
something real and alive and thriving.
Wertheimer is correct when he
argues that American Jews should not give up the fight against
Strengthening ties with Israel must be an important
element of the battle.