What would you do if your child married out of Judaism?
This is, of course, much more that merely a rhetorical question in the Jewish community here in America. Our national intermarriage rate, depending on whom you ask, hovers somewhere in the vicinity of 50 percent, which is astronomical by just about any standard. More and more parents, from the most Jewishly alienated to those who worked hard and to inculcate their children with a serious Jewish identity, find themselves confronted with this challenge. Given that the Jewish community places such a premium on in-marriage, it is painfully difficult to fashion a response to a child’s choice to “marry out” that expresses displeasure or disappointment, but also the ongoing love of a parent for a child.
As a father of four, this is far from an academic question to me; not to imply that I’ve faced the dilemma. But I am fully cognizant of the possibility of any and all relationships coming to pass in this most open society that Jews have ever known.
I have presided over many conversions in the thirty-three years of my rabbinate, too many to count. But just the other day, I witnessed something that I had never seen before. The non-Jewish parents of a woman at those conversion I was officiating – practicing, committed Catholics – chose to be present at the Beit Din and subsequent immersion in a mikvah of their daughter. It is common for the parents of the Jewish partner in a couple to attend, to support their child, and their child’s partner. But it is almost unknown for the non-Jewish parents to attend, particularly if they are actively practicing a faith other than Judaism.
I was, truth to tell, quite taken aback at first by the presence of my Jew-by-choice’s parents. In my wildest imagination, even if any of the Jewish parents that I know had made their peace with their child’s decision to intermarry, I could not imagine them being present at a church celebration at which their son or daughter was baptized, and formally welcomed into the church upon accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It is not at all hard to imagine parents deciding, after a painful struggle, to attend an intermarriage in which their child was marrying someone of another faith, but not converting. But to actually witness the conscious abandonment of Judaism by your child?
But there they were, this man and woman just about my age, side-by-side with the parents and siblings of the partner as they threw candy on the “new Jew” and sang Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov. I was amazed at their courage, and their grace.
In a quiet moment, I said to this Italian Catholic couple that I thought that their presence was an amazing statement of love and support for their daughter, and that I had enormous respect for what they had chosen to do. The mother responded graciously, saying that they had tried to raise their daughter with an open mind, and that her Jewish partner had made her so happy that they really had no other thought than her happiness. The father had tears welling in his eyes, and asked me a series of questions about my work, how long I had been a practicing rabbi, and whether or not I had any relationship with the Catholic churches in Forest Hills (actually, I have fine relationships with them, and with their clergy). He said that his daughter had never seemed to find her place within Catholicism, and he was glad that she had found a religious tradition that offered her the chance to live a life rooted in timeless values and cherished traditions. I have to admit that I really didn’t know what to say. I was speechless. His generosity of spirit overwhelmed me, and I embraced him and his wife.
Before you all write letters saying that I am sanctioning intermarriage or at the least advising Jewish parents to “lighten up” on their standards, let me assure you that I am not. As American society becomes ever more open and boundary-free, making one’s standards clear and intelligible to our children is more important than ever.
But what I did learn the other day is that we Jews never stop to consider what it must be like for the parents of the non-Jewish child as he/she chooses Judaism and abandon’s the birth religion that, as often as not, still matters a great deal to his/her parents. When a non-Jew chooses Judaism and in so doing facilitates an in-marriage, we in the Jewish community count that as a victory … and it is. But somewhere, there are parents and siblings who are struggling with what are, at best, mixed feelings of rejection and loss, even as they are happy for their child.
We are who we are, and our standards are what they are, because we are struggling to survive as a people. But that should not close our hearts and our mind to those who are on the other side of these decisions. They love their children, too. And it can’t be easy …
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.