US Jews debate intermarriage as survey shows jump in mixed unions

According to the Pew Center’s research, 58 percent of Jews married since the turn of the millennium have gentile spouses.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism)
American Jewish leaders have engaged in a heated debate over the issue of intermarriage during the past several weeks, in anticipation of Tuesday’s Pew Research Center report detailing a massive drop in endogamy.
According to the Pew Center’s research, 58 percent of Jews married since the turn of the millennium have gentile spouses.
The debate played out in the online Mosaic Magazine, in response to a scathing editorial by historian Jack Wertheimer of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Wertheimer’s calls for a renewed drive to stigmatize exogamy prompted several prominent Jewish academics and religious leaders to join the fray.
Wertheimer decried what he termed resignation to the inevitability of intermarriage, and moreover the enthusiasm with which some rabbis and communal leaders have embraced the phenomenon.
Citing a rabbi of his acquaintance who “reported his befuddlement when a member of his synagogue’s religious-education committee appeared at a meeting one Ash Wednesday evening with a cross etched on her forehead,” Wertheimer expressed his own consternation with congregations that “permit non-Jewish spouses to take part in religious services and serve on synagogue committees that set policies for how a Jewish life should be conducted.”
Citing historian Jonathan Sarna, he complained that speaking out against such trends “now ‘seems to many people to be un-American and [even] racist.’” Wertheimer mourned the steps which American Jewish organizations had taken to accommodate the intermarried. He specifically noted the bestowing of synagogue honors and positions to gentile spouses, as well as honoring them at fundraising dinners.
“Already, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues around the country proclaim their warm embrace of all kinds of families, and many Conservative synagogues are competing to be equally hospitable,” he asserted. “Yet there is no evidence to suggest that such large investments make a significant difference.”
The problem, he claims, lies with Jewish leaders who do not make any demands for increased Jewish commitment from intermarried couples, preferring to be as accommodating as possible so as not to turn anyone away. However, this approach has shown itself not to work, he said.
According to Wertheimer, “Research has shown that ‘intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their inmarried counterparts.’” He wrote: “Jewish communal leaders bet heavily on a formula that they believed would help tip the scales in a different and better direction, and lost. But the bad news does not appear to have resulted in any rethinking of the formula.”
The best way to encourage endogamy, Wertheimer believes, is to have Jewish institutions openly acknowledge endogamy as a stated goal and to continue building networking opportunities for Jewishonly socialization. He also suggested that there should be less focus on courting intermarried families, and more on encouraging marriages within the community.
Jewish leaders must begin “confronting single Jews who are contemplating marriage to a non-Jew with some of the complications they can expect to encounter,” he said, adding that as for “the already intermarried, an emphasis on endogamy, contrary to the assertions of outreach advocates, need not ensue in feelings of rejection.”
However, he further asserted, “the right to join comes with responsibilities – for in-married and intermarried families alike.”
“It is past time not only to rebut the falsehoods and expose the failed promises but to proclaim that, for the sake of the American Jewish future, it matters greatly who stands under the marriage canopy,” he argued. “The blurring of religious boundaries in order to achieve peace in the home may lower tensions in the short term, but demonstrably sows confusion in children and huge losses of adherents in the longer term. The intermarriage taboo crumbled in part because individual Jews came to realize they would pay no price for exogamy in the form either of familial or communal disapproval or of pressure on the non-Jewish spouse to convert.”
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, however, believes differently, calling Wertheimer’s proscriptions a “strategy of despair.”
In an article written in response to the conservative historian, Yoffie contended that lowering the intermarriage rate “cannot be done” and that “focusing on what is not possible will leave the community worse off than it is now.”
“The simple fact is that no feasible strategy is available to lower those rates in any dramatic way,” he asserted. “Doing so would require Jews in this country to pull back from full, enthusiastic participation in American life and to construct barricades and bunkers to separate themselves from the American mainstream.”
In fact, he stated, outreach is “a benefit and a blessing,” and instead of creating social barriers to exogamy, Jewish leaders must “strongly encourage conversion whenever possible, while recognizing that our encouragement must be gently couched and that we will not succeed in every case.
Where conversion is not an option, we should emphatically urge our children to become part of a Jewish community and raise their children as Jews – not as a strategy for survival but as a natural extension of their own practice and beliefs.”
Countering Wertheimer’s assertions regarding lower levels of communal identification and participation among the children of mixed marriages, Yoffie stated that “one-third of intermarried families raise their children as Jews, up from a previous low of about onefifth.
There is no reason why that figure should not be at three-quarters or higher.”
However, researcher Steven Cohen of the Reform Hebrew Union College indicated that he believes that there are issues with both the “normative school,” to which Wertheimer belongs and the “welcoming school” of Yoffie.
Yoffie’s argument, “that intermarriage doesn’t necessarily lead to a departure from Jewish life,” Cohen argues, “is true enough but statistically insignificant.”
“No statistical manipulation can explain away the enormous gaps between the in-married and the intermarried in the rates at which children are raised as exclusively Jewish,” he said.
However, he disputed Wertheimer’s assertions that voicing disapproval of intermarriage would decreasing the frequency of intermarriage or have any other desired effects, as some Jewish communities have acted in that way for 50 years without results.
In fact, he added, “today’s non- Orthodox communal leaders are simply incapable of embracing the normative approach.”
One of Cohen’s policy suggestions, promotion of earlier marriage among Jews, is echoed by Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University, who argues that the battle over intermarriage is part of a larger American conflict over “marriage itself.”
“To an extent not always appreciated, intermarriage is also deeply entangled with the phenomenon of delayed marriage,” she asserted.
Noting that as the average age of marriage rises, parents of unmarried children worry less about whether their grandchildren will be Jewish, and more about whether or not they will have grandchildren at all. In a society as open as that of the United States, this manifests itself in a minimization of the exogamy taboo and increased pressure on rabbis to accept the gentile additions to Jewish families.
Another factor in the promotion of intermarriage, she added, are social stigmas and stereotypes associated with the Jewish woman in popular culture.
The promotion of Jewish education, earlier marriage and increased socialization, she believes, will help keep intermarriage rates down.