Counterpoint: Birthright for mixed marriages

If we're to salvage momentum among new family configurations, an infusion of Judaism is essential.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
Shortly after my aunt died, her granddaughters read her diary and came upon an entry relating to our relatively large but close-knit family. "Everything was fine in our extended family until. . . tragedy struck. Paul announced he was marrying a shiksa (non-Jewish woman). He sought his parents' blessing, but they would only grant it if his intended, Julie, converted. Having no objection, Julie discussed the matter with her folks, who, very impressed with Paul, immediately agreed. "And so, both Julie and Paul attended conversion classes at a nearby synagogue; and soon afterwards, Julie converted. Then the fun started. Julie began keeping a kosher home, demanding Paul go regularly to synagogue with her. Shabbat meals were surrounded by all the appropriate rituals and prayers. "One day, Paul returned from work just before Shabbat and forgot to buy halla. Totally distraught, Julie began to cry. Paul calmed her, saying there was still time before candle lighting for him to run to his mother's and get a halla from her. "When Paul arrived at his mother's, he complained bitterly: 'Ever since Julie converted, she's driving me crazy. We have to keep kosher, observe Shabbat, attend synagogue. We've created a religious monster.' Paul's mother laughed: 'I told you son, if you had married a Jewish girl in the first place, this never would have happened!'" THIS IS a recurring story in the Diaspora. The Jewish partner in a mixed-marriage is less committed to establishing a clearly defined Jewish home than the recent convert. And sadly, as often happens, the once enthusiastic convert eventually loses interest in maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. While many within the Jewish community believe that in mixed marriages it is usually the non-Jewish spouse who converts to Judaism, statistics do not bear this out. There are actually few marriages between Jews and non-Jews where conversion takes place. Of those where conversion does occur, 7% of non-Jews convert to Judaism, whereas 9% of Jews convert to Christianity. Ironically, there are probably more interfaith couples who are active in Jewish life than there are mixed-married couples, meaning those in which the non-Jewish spouse converted. One reason could be that the non-Jew in an interfaith marriage is committed to his or her religious faith and appreciates the role religion can play in one's life. And yet, the likelihood of the children of mixed and interfaith marriages maintaining ties with Judaism and the Jewish people is not encouraging. Is there any answer to the tidal wave of mixed and interfaith couples becoming the commonplace paradigm of a questionable Jewish household, placing the Jewish future of the Diaspora in jeopardy? Integration defines Diaspora life. Therefore the organized Jewish community, instead of agonizing over such a reality, should address it at the moment that those mixed-married and interfaith couples attend introductory courses on Judaism, so as to exploit whatever Jewish goodwill exists at the time. The vast majority of interfaith and mixed-married families define Jewish life as faith-based. Jewish self-identification is viewed almost exclusively as a religious or spiritual expression, without the necessary obligation to Jewish religious practice and tradition that can safeguard a Jewish household. If Judaism is to survive the onslaught of mixed and interfaith marriages, we need to guarantee that these families do not relate to Judaism as a civic religion - a Protestantization of Jewish life. Judaism cannot be defined solely in religious/theological terms. To fully understand what it means to be a Jew, Jewish identity must be propelled by a self-definition that includes people, land, language and state, as well as religion. Jews belong to a people who always had an attachment to a land, spoke their own language and established their own state. AT A recent symposium on Reform Judaism at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, some representatives from the Reform Movement abroad postulated that "the condition of Judaism in Israel is a disaster!" Recently, my four-year-old grandson told his mother that his nursery school teacher was very old - so old, he said, that she must have been a teacher in the Beit HaMikdash! Setting aside the fact that four-year-olds are chronologically challenged, how many adults in the Diaspora Jewish world would use the ancient Temple as a point of reference? Quite the opposite from being a "disaster," not only does Judaism come to life in Israel; it informs the life of every Israeli Jew. Indeed, programs like birthright, which provides a 10-day free trip to Israel for college-age Diaspora Jews, are predicated on the thesis that even a short visit to Israel is perhaps the best way to strengthen Jewish identity. Why not establish a trip to Israel as a mandatory part of any conversion course and as an integral part of outreach programs to interfaith and mixed-married couples? If we are to salvage any sustained Jewish momentum among these new Jewish family configurations, then not only at the outset of their union, but also at a latter stage in their lives, an infusion of Judaism as experienced in Israel - the only place in the world where people live according to a Jewish calendar, speak the Jewish language and use Jewish history as a guide for conduct - must become an essential ingredient of their Jewish identity. Investing time in the Jewish state may be the last hope to ease interfaith and mixed-married couples into a committed Jewish life; otherwise, Judaism in the Diaspora will become a disaster.