The Key to Vanquishing Intermarriage

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The Internet is abuzz over intermarriage and Jewish continuity but the focus is misplaced. The Pew Research Center recently published a survey of American Jews entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” (link – PDF). The preceding weeks saw a flurry of articles arguing for and against accepting intermarriage, including a JTA article reporting on a recent convention of the largest Jewish Federation in the US, stressing what Jews everywhere have been noticing for decades, namely that intermarriage has become totally accepted in large segments of Jewish life (link):

When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

Under the eye popping title “The War on Intermarriage has been Lost, Now What?,” the article offered us more of the same empty platitudes that got us here: “the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.”

We must ask: what is the reason for intermarriage and what is the purpose for insisting on in-marriage in the first place?

However, that is not at all the conclusion that should follow. Before I continue, I should point out that being a pulpit rabbi for over a decade, and being active in batei din where internationally recognized halakhically proper conversions take place, I am not denying the possibility of bringing an intermarried family into the fold, provided they all have interest in a real conversion. A proportion of the conversions taking place in the batei din I am working with are indeed intermarried people seeking to come into and return to the fold. That said, this remains numerically a marginal phenomenon. Those intermarried Jews who seek to seriously return should be and are encouraged in this sacred effort, as are the non-Jewish family members who seriously seek to dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence and live accordingly. But the vast majority of intermarried Jews are not seeking that path.

Despite the JTA report, intermarriage has not become the new normal and acceptable in everyone’s eyes. Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at JTS, declared in an article in Mosaic Magazine entitled “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done” (link):

Against the whole sweep of Jewish communal history, then, to declare defeat on this front is a decidedly abnormal if not a preposterous response. What is more, it is totally at odds with, if not subversive of, the view held by the more engaged sectors of the American Jewish community today: Jews who affiliate themselves with synagogues and the major organizations. In a much-discussed 2011 survey of New York-area Jews, nearly three-quarters of those for whom being Jewish was “very important” said they would be upset if a child of theirs married a non-Jew. Among the synagogue-affiliated, the same strong preference for endogamy was expressed by 66 percent of Conservative Jews and 52 percent of Reform Jews; for Orthodox Jews, the figure rose to 98 percent. Similar patterns have surfaced in a national survey of Jewish leaders, including younger leaders who are not yet parents.

Wertheimer immediately moves on to the question of what should or can be done to counteract intermarriage. I believe that this question is premature. You can solve problems but not symptoms, which you can at most alleviate. And intermarriage, more than a problem, is a symptom.

When society conspired to remind us all of our Jewishness, even the most distant son and daughter remained within Israel

Before either concluding that since the war on intermarriage was lost therefore we should welcome the intermarried, or formulating our next strategy to avoid and overcome intermarriage, we must ask: What is the reason for intermarriage and what is the purpose for insisting on in-marriage in the first place?

Those questions are usually not asked. We take opposition to intermarriage for granted, as the JTA article notes:

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.
A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

In other words, intermarriage is seen as a major problem in of and of itself; Jews should marry Jews because that is what defines a Jewish home, in which Jewish children are born, who will later affiliate Jewishly. Now all that is true, but it is based on a serious fallacy: it is circular. It is important to marry Jewish and terrible when people marry out, because otherwise the children will less likely be counted among Jews, who should marry Jewish and should not marry out because otherwise their children will less likely be counted among Jews, who should marry Jewish, and so forth.

That worked as long as being Jewish was natural and immutable. When society conspired to remind us all of our Jewishness, even the most distant son and daughter remained within Israel. In those days, intermarriage meant one individual having overcome gentile society’s rejection, at the cost of fully cutting him or herself off from his or her past. However, in those days, hardly anyone intermarried, and anyway, those days are long gone. Ethnic pride and antisemitism gave us a few more generations of respite, but those times are over, too. Today, one should really wonder, why prefer Jewish marriage at all?

Jewish sociologists will not miss the opportunity to remind us that the children of the intermarried identify far less as Jews (regardless of their halakhic status) than those born to two Jewish parents, but that is really irrelevant to the lovestruck young interfaith couple about to form. To them, the expectation to marry anyone but the object of their love is archaic, parochial and even bordering on racist.

It should be obvious by now that the real question is not just why marry Jewish, but why be Jewish. Indeed, according to David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June:

One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice.

In fact, one of the more notable results of the Pew survey is that increasingly, young Jews consider themselves “nones,” without any religious identity. (Strangely enough, while 22% profess being nones, 94% of respondents, including a great many nones, proclaim being proudly Jewish; go figure.)

Redefining who is Jewish or who is eligible for synagogue membership to include the gentile partner of an intermarried Jew may help mask the crisis in the short turn. But that is merely a band aid solution. As Wertheimer points out, the Pew survey confirmed what we already knew from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study and from local communal surveys:

The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts. … In the realm of religious engagement, four times fewer intermarried families than in-married families join and regularly attend a synagogue, and five times fewer keep a kosher home. The same trends obtain in the area of social and communal participation: three times fewer intermarried families report that two or more of their closest friends are Jewish, and four to five times fewer join and volunteer for Jewish organizations or contribute to Jewish philanthropy.

Moreover, the weak Jewish identity of many intermarried Jews has a tendency to weaken exponentially in the next generation. As Josh Nathan-Kazis notes in the Forward (link):
They are also much less likely to raise their children as Jews. Only 22% of intermarried Jews said they were sending their children to some sort of formal Jewish educational program or organized Jewish youth program, compared with 82% of in-married Jews.

There is a small but growing trend to replace day school education with lesser alternatives

The acceptance of patrilineal Jewish descent by the Reform movement was another such band aid solution. It allowed Reform to claim to be in better health than it really was, but did nothing to address the underlying problem. In fact, sociology seems to follow traditional halakhah here, and the results of intermarriage are even more devastating when the mother is the gentile partner, as Wertheimer notes:
The sex of the Jewish parent matters a great deal, too. Analyzing intermarried families identified with Reform Judaism, the sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman finds that on most measures of Jewish practice and involvement, from ritual circumcision to schooling to observance of holidays and synagogue attendance, fewer Jewish men than women seem able or willing to assume active responsibility; in other words, the role of a Jewish mother remains key.

The result is that Reform, while still very large in the US and trying hard to establish itself elsewhere, does not really speak to the imagination of a new generation of young Jews and is hemorrhaging members to the Jewish oblivion of the unaffiliated. Reform’s apparent continuing health comes from the Conservative movement’s greater misfortune, as Reform absorbs many formerly Conservative-affiliated Jews. It is, however, not much more successful at retaining its youth. According to the Pew survey, only 55% of Jews raised Reform still affiliate Reform, almost all the others have joined the ranks of the unaffiliated.
In an earlier age, the very lenient conversions offered by all liberal Jewish movements were another such band aid solution that ultimately did not bring salvation. In Europe, where all Jewish developments arrive later, there is now a push, partly financed from America, to establish Liberal Judaism in its many guises, as well as an attempt to bring patrilineal Jewish identity through the back door. Thus, at the November 2011 national conference of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the German Jewish umbrella organization, one panel speaker announced to the great joy of certain delegates that there is no doubt that they will have to change the policy of their youth arm in the future and begin to accept the children of Jewish fathers, too, despite decades of postwar practice. No religious recognition, but de facto inclusion in the social fabric.

Similar to these moves to water down Jewish status, there is a small but growing trend to replace day school education with lesser alternatives. For example, in the US, some promote charter schools as real alternatives to day schools. While immersion in a predominantly Jewish charter school is better than no Jewish education altogether, it is still vastly less identity-building than Jewish day schools. Being a type of public school, it is devoid of religious instruction (though some charter schools seek creative remedies, such as by renting out premises to a religious school immediately upon completing the school day – time will tell whether that is an effective model) and its student body includes many non-Jews, so that Jewish students will not absorb any ethnic Jewish identity by osmosis, either.

Young Jews have, more often than not, never been given any good reasons to be and remain Jewish

While there are important differences among European Jewish communities, in Germany, for example, the great majority of Jewish schools are barely Jewish. Elementary schools of the Jewish communities in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and other cities have classes that are often merely 50%, 40% and even 30% Jewish, as does the secondary school of the Jewish community of Berlin. The curriculum includes some religious studies, but little more than what every student would receive in public schools (German public education includes two hours weekly of confessional education, with students taking those classes from teachers appointed by their own religious community). The result is much confusion among the gentile children, who must learn the basics of Jewish prayer and practice that in whatever limited form take place at one school or another (imagine Fritz and Margrit, Gerhard and Wilhemina singing Lecha Dodi, lighting Chanukah candles, or ironically reciting daily the blessing Shelo Assani Nokhri, blessing God “Who has not made me a gentile”). Consider also the confusion of Jewish children who after four years of elementary school still cannot read and translate a line of Bible in the original language, do not know how they should relate to their Jewish identity, whether they should have a separate identity or melt with the mainstream culture in a fuzzy mass of future intermarriage.

And yet, none of this will significantly increase the number of dues paying members thirty years hence. All these solutions are merely cosmetic because they do not address the elephant in the room: why are many young Jews, way too many, opting out of the Jewish community and Jewish life?

The answer, I suspect, is found in ashrams, humanitarian organizations, homeless shelters and elsewhere young Jews go to to either experience spirituality or engage in good works. Surprisingly, the Pew survey reveals that quite many of them even seek religious solace in churches, despite Christianity being the perennial other religion whose overtures for apostasy Jews have often resisted at all costs. The answer is also in numerous places devoid of spirituality, in places where careers and hearts and constantly made, broken, mended and broken again.

The answer is that those young Jews have, more often than not, never been given any good reasons to be and remain Jewish. The Judaism they know is that of the bar, bat and bark mitzvah extravaganza, surely fun affairs, but that have not much Jewish about them. Then there is Hebrew school, that place somewhere on the odd continuum between dreaded force fed Jewish education not practiced or lived at home, and fun-filled affairs that are merely Jewishly themed, but increasingly devoid of whatever little content it may have once had.

Mark Miller, a Reform rabbi, and Harold Berman, a formerly intermarried, now Orthodox Jew, remarked in an article on Jewish World Review (link) that our increasing openness to the intermarried is not really openness, but rather a hollowing out of Judaism by defining commitment down to the lowest common denominator. By doing so, however, by reducing expectations, while we have given the appearance of being welcoming, in truth, we have not really welcomed anyone, but rather turned off masses of kids, rendering them incapable of accessing and evaluating Jewish tradition and heritage:

[M]uch of the liberal Jewish world continues to insist that it’s all about individual choice. It’s not — because we aren’t giving Jews a choice at all. When a child emerges from years of Hebrew school and can barely read Hebrew, have we given him the ability to choose whether or not to plumb the depths of our Jewish texts? When a Jew intermarries and does not know even the basics of keeping a Jewish home, have we given him the ability to choose what kind of Jewish home he will have?

That is a not-so-faint echo of Herman Wouk’s description of the effect of Jewish parents who, not wanting to prejudice their kids for any particular religious tendency, chose not to teach them much Judaism, preferring to let the kids choose later on. Rather than giving the kids real choice, argued Wouk, the parents were confining them to the one and only choice they made available to their children: ignorance.

And so here is a radical idea: let’s stop fighting intermarriage, because that clearly doesn’t work. But let’s not stop worrying about the Jewish future. Instead of band aid solutions, let’s admit: we need to rethink and return to our roots. If we want to have future Jewish generations, we must stop approaching our identity as a consumable, something you draw upon but never refill. Instead, we must aim to inspire our children more than we have been inspired, helping them become more committed than our parents were.

We must give our youngsters reasons to want to be Jewish. Then, we must early on understand and teach that intermarriage begins not with a strike of lightning, but with a callous attitude to interdating. If being part of this exciting multigenerational link that is Judaism is extremely important to them, they will understand that intermarriage will leave them unfulfilled.

We do not have to engage in a war on intermarriage. We need to fight for Judaism at the center of the next generation’s life. We must focus with laser precision on Jewish education and meaningful content. We must inspire our children to be better Jews than their parents or risk losing an entire generation.

About Arie Folger

Rabbi Arie Folger is the Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Munich.


  1. After reading through the Pew study and having listened to this pre-Pew study lecture (Dr. Jacques Berlinerblau, -Can the Jewish People Survive as Secularists?) I think for the nonorthodox world the first question is to define what being Jewish means to them. You can’t educate towards putting something at the center of your life if you don’t know what it is. To many it may simply be western liberal ideals tied into some level of tribal identity (e.g. a history of questioning)

  2. Thank you for an important article, with which I agree wholeheartedly (although my experience has been that there may be more intermarrieds out there who would be interested in an unambiguously Jewish life – but that isn’t happening because of what we are failing to do as articulated in your article). “It should be obvious by now that the real question is not just why marry Jewish, but why be Jewish.” – that really sums up the essence of it, and sadly, too much of the Jewish world can’t even begin to articulate a reasonable answer. I expressed some of that same sentiment, although in different terms, in my response to Jack Wertheimer’s piece ( Thank you again for a much needed article.

    Harold Berman
    Co-Author – Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope
    (and co-author of the article with Mark Miller that you cited in your article)

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