For the past 150 years, as Jews in Europe and then America have integrated successfully into their respective cultures, intermarriage rates have risen. The vicious cycle of Jews seeking and gaining acceptance came with a growing disconnect from tribalism and the value of marrying within the community.
In the past two decades, Jewish innovation like JDate and other similar dating platforms, Birthright, and a reinvigorated Hillel on campus have stunted the precipitous rate of intermarriage. Still, it is a natural result of “arrival” that must be dealt with thoughtfully.
In our Conservative congregation in a bedroom community of Bergen County, where we live and thrive, we are facing a new phenomenon that I refer to as “the other intermarriage.” This is a marked number of people who are products of our congregation, who celebrated become b’nai mitzvah on our bima, who were educated in our Solomon Schechter and religious schools, who visited Israel with our congregation and had their Judaism reawakened through Birthright, who meet and fall in love with young modern Orthodox men and women. While the love is vibrant, the obstacles to making a lasting relationship are at times insurmountable, and are leading to a feeling among our Conservative Jews in these relationships of feeling “other,” “not Jewish enough,” or “part of a different religion.”
This is not a one-off example. In the last five years there have been at least half a dozen such cases in our community. I know about them because I have been called upon to counsel and to help navigate the uneven terrain. Each case is complicated and unique, but these differences tax the relationship and in most cases leave lasting scars. This happens equally between Jewish young men and women.
There are three kinds of challenges that I see:
1. A lack of familiarity and basic awareness about other streams of Judaism.
2. Duplicitous behavior and mixed actions in the public and private square.
3. Unwillingness to compromise for fear of Divine retribution that is coupled with a rejection of the core identity of their partner.
Streams of Judaism differ based on theology and practice. Just because we believe and follow one stream, that should not discourage us from learning about another. Judaism always encourages us to learn and share a minority opinion or an alternative practice (see the Mishna in Eduyot 1:5, or ask Rabbis Karo or Isserles about differing opinions under a shared umbrella to better understand my point).
Many of the obstacles in these relationships stem from lack of knowledge about the very basic foundations of Reform, Conservative, and modern Orthodox theology and practice. Making a familiarity with all streams of Judaism a priority is important; it will help inform the future leaders of our shared religion, while creating a better sense of understanding with those from whom we differ religiously.
In many of these relationships, the non-Orthodox partner has expressed confusion at their Orthodox partner’s behavior, which is radically different when the partner is at home with parents or interacting with his or her rabbi, versus when the partner is on campus or living independently. Whether it is abrogating kashrut, driving and texting on Shabbat, or crossing boundaries with physical intimacy, those behaviors are put in a drawer and never discussed when visiting family. This leads to confusion.
The rejection of a different religious practice is tantamount to the rejection of a core part of a person. That is because religion is one of the most inherently self-determined components of a person’s identity. It is an organic blend of the influence of our parents, the environments in which we were raised, and our personal passions and beliefs. To have another person smash down and/or denigrate that construct can be as hurtful as someone destroying art we fashioned. Religion is a personal representation of our connectedness with God, community, and Israel. We cannot thumb our noses at another’s expression of Judaism. Further, appreciating another person’s expression of religion does not mean accepting that expression of religion for ourselves.
Recently, a modern Orthodox Jew attended our Conservative congregation on Shabbat. It was their first experience in a non-Orthodox prayer environment. They were surprised when a woman ascended the bima to read Torah but were wildly impressed by her Torah chanting prowess. They also remarked at many things that we had in common and the few things that were different. At no time did we foist a tradition or requirement upon this soul that would make them uncomfortable. Most notably, the modern Orthodox person realized there was much more of a shared foundation than what they had believed. Differences were minimal, even though highlighted. And, equally amazing, this person was not struck down by a bolt of lightning after Adon Olam.
The Talmud teaches that our insides should match our outsides, tocho kevaroh. For many who are products of the Conservative and Reform world, these religious expressions and behaviors are the same in front of or behind the backs of their parents and colleagues. Jekyll and Hyde personas are confusing, especially with religion. More unnerving is the unknown of which of these paths the modern Orthodox partner will choose when building a life with the Reform or Conservative Jew.
When parents meet the person from the other background whom your child is dating, being open-minded and gracious is important. Making sure the person your child is dating is wise, kind, successful, and good-natured is more important than the form of Judaism they celebrate. Knock down preconceived notions and unfair portrayals and reserve all forms of religious judgment. It can be contagious.
Finding a life partner is an exciting time in a person’s life that often comes with its fair share of anxiety as well. Will we have two kids or four? Will these children attend private or public school? Should we share or separate our bank accounts? Will we live in Long Island, Westchester, or New Jersey when we outgrow our apartment? With whose parents will we celebrate Passover?
These decisions will be influenced by parents, passions, and perceptions. I regularly advise couples that instead of dividing and conquering these decisions in an equitable way, aim to write a new story, paint on a fresh canvas with your own pens and brushes, all which have been guided by individual experiences. Instead of Person ‘A’ competing with Person ‘B’s family, traditions, and customs, aim to make a life seen as ‘C’, which is an amalgam of a shared sense of custom, belief, and that which they will create together. Do the same religiously. I believe that the story they will write together and the picture they will illustrate as a couple will be rich, vivid and compelling.
The outside world makes little distinction about who is a Jew based on any expression of Judaism. Perhaps we can start to appreciate Jews of all streams, learn about the other, and be more accepting. Our future ultimately will depend on it.