Supporting intermarriage is a failed strategy

Peretz: the rise of intermarriage in the US is a spiritual holocaust

By DAVID ELIEZRIE
July 15, 2019 22:32
4 minute read.
Illustrative photo of marriage rings

Illustrative photo of marriage rings. (photo credit: TNS)

The latest target of Jewish liberal ire is Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the newly appointed education minister in Israel. His indiscretion was saying that the rise of intermarriage in the US is a spiritual holocaust.

Liberal Jews, already not too happy with the fact that a leader of the religious Zionist party is the education minister, reacted like a tsunami. They labeled him an extremist, called him insensitive and blamed him for exacerbating the divides among Diaspora Jewry.

Let’s be honest. While his choice of words may not have been the best, Jewish leaders have been making the same point for decades. Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says, “Relatively few children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews, and adult children of intermarried parents are much more likely to intermarry in turn. Intermarried couples display low levels of participation in Jewish religious practices, and even lower levels of ethnic connectedness (like having Jewish friends), and – in the largest gap of all – intermarried couples show little attachment to Israel.”

It’s clear that once a Jew makes the decision to marry a non-Jew, it accelerates the path away from Jewish life and from Israel. Yes, there are exceptions, but that is not the norm.

Peretz’s words challenge the accommodations that liberal Jewish movements have made. Once, opposition to intermarriage did not create controversy. Today it’s a delicate subject; with so many Jews intermarried, for many it’s deeply personal. And while some have reservations, others find ways to validate intermarriage in a quest to keep family unity. Today, the vast majority of Reform rabbis perform intermarriages, and some Conservative rabbis are beginning consider the same. Yes, there are those who truly believe it’s the best strategy to retain Jewish involvement. Other rabbis have reservations, but feel pressure from their employers, Temple boards, with members whose children want a rabbi to perform their intermarriage.

All the justifications cannot change the reality. If Judaism is important to a person, then he or she should choose a life partner who shares those values.

The new generation of Jews has moved farther from tradition. The nostalgia of Bubbie’s homemade kosher chicken soup is gone. Most young Jews know little about their heritage. Their level of Jewish literacy is low, their understanding of how the wisdom of Torah can enrich their lives is minimal. They live in a society that focuses on equality. And when they want to marry non-Jews, their rabbis are willing to officiate at the weddings and give a green light to the relationships.

As a rabbi in a suburban community in the US, I encounter intermarried couples daily. It’s a difficult balance, not validating a relationship that is inimical to Jewish tradition and at the same time creating an opportunity for Jews to get to know their tradition in a warm and loving atmosphere. At times, when the Jewish spouse becomes more observant, the non-Jewish spouse decides that Judaism is of value. We have been blessed in our community with spouses who have converted and are today fully observant (shomer Shabbat). However, it’s clear to me that for the vast majority, intermarriage does not create a Jewish future, but, rather, accelerates the path to the exit from the community.

What Peretz did, though he should have been more diplomatic with his wording, was challenge the mind-set of those who fear opposing intermarriage. And instead of having the courage to reflect on his point, people criticized him harshly. Their anger represents the depth of their anxiety over the approach they have taken.

Deep in their hearts, many liberal rabbis, who without question care about a Jewish future, have misgivings about what they are doing. They can’t ignore the fact that intermarriage is the stepping stone toward Jewish disengagement.

AS JEWISH leaders, our strategy must be to be forthright with young people and discourage intermarriage. The old idea of saying “your grandmother will be upset” is not effective anymore. There are no magic answers; however, there is a strategy that is tried and true.

When Jews are exposed to the wealth of Jewish wisdom, the beauty of Jewish observance, and see its relevance in their lives, intermarriage will not attract them. They will want a life partner who shares those values.

However, when Judaism is replaced by political activism and tikkun olam, then finding a Jewish spouse is not a priority.

The strategy of the liberal Jewish world of deemphasizing classical Jewish learning, minimizing the importance of observance and endorsing intermarriage has failed. All Peretz did was call out that failure. The unwillingness of those who lashed out at him to have an honest discussion is indicative of their own deep anxiety that their strategy is not working.

The writer is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, California. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com


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