We would like to add a decidedly Zionist dimension to the discussion on this worrying trend of American intermarriage.

Taglit-Birthright Israel 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 it.”
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.
American 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 distinctions.
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. Joffe.
We would like to add a decidedly Zionist dimension to the discussion on this worrying trend of American intermarriage.
For aside 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 religious.
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 intermarriage.
Admittedly, it is unrealistic to expect hundreds of thousands of marriage-age American Jews to pick up and leave.
Merely by 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.
A 2009 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 lottery.
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 indefinable Jewishness.
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 intermarriage.
Strengthening ties with Israel must be an important element of the battle.