What we lose when we embrace intermarriage

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing just outside the sanctuary at shul, when a friend of mine walked in, his four children in tow, straightening his big tallis and looking flustered.

“Sorry we’re so late,” he sighed. “Our dog was really sick last night, we had to take him to the hospital. My wife was too exhausted to make it, but I needed to come to services to get a little peace.” He quickly went inside, sat down with his prayerbook, and the tension visibly melted off his face. He was home.

He has been Jewish for less than six months.

Recently, there was a set of recommendations put forth by Conservative Rabbi Charles Simon and Reform Rabbi Kerry Olitzky which presents us with the same straw men and logical fallacies that agitators for Conservative intermarriage have been employing for more than a decade.

– An article on the subject in The Forward asserts that, “intermarriage is rampant in the Conservative pews.” According to the recent Pew study, Conservative Jews have a 73% IN-marriage rate. While that indicates a significant number of intermarriages, it can hardly be described as “rampant.”

– In that same article, Rabbi Simon is quoted as saying, “conversion is more complicated than it was thought to be 20 years ago.” What exactly does that mean? Have some new religious requirements for conversion been recently discovered? On the contrary, at least on the face of it, conversion would seem to be easier now than it was in the previous generation. Our synagogues are indeed more open to intermarried families, which gives potential converts the opportunity to live in a Jewish community before taking the plunge. There is much less overt anti-Semitism in the U.S. today, which can only make the decision to consider conversion easier. And, an ever-increasing openness in society means that non-Jewish families are significantly less threatened by the idea of “losing” a child to conversion.

– The boogeyman of congregations that are unwelcoming to intermarrieds simply does not exist. Non-Jewish spouses are active participants in nearly every Conservative context, and they are treated with respect and care. Not participating in the moment of the marriage itself does not mean that intermarried couples are shunned in a Conservative context. Members of Conservative congregations make decisions that are contrary to halakhic norms every single day. They choose not to keep kosher, to go shopping on shabbat. They are encouraged to consider making different choices, but they are not ridiculed if they don’t. So, too, non-Jewish spouses are always encouraged to consider conversion, but are welcomed if they choose not to, nonetheless.

– If I were attending the service of a close friend or loved one in a church, I would not demand to be part of the service. Religious institutions are particularistic by their very nature. They are places for like-minded people with a particular set of beliefs and commitments. I would no more demand to be allowed to participate in a mass than non-Jews should expect to carry a torah or lead prayers on shabbat.

– Discouraging intermarriage is not discrimination. Many who make these arguments use the same language and logic that was used in the Conservative world to expand rights for women and gays, but it is not the same. The fight for equality of those groups was based on a belief that there was a moral imperative to find halakhic solutions to include people – Jews – who had been excluded from the Jewish conversation. Jews who wanted “in” needed to be given every opportunity to take part in religious and synagogue life. Non-Jewish spouses and family members – black or white, gay or straight – are decidedly not excluded from religious life. Literally any day they can choose to begin the path towards conversion. We are excited to teach them and to eventually welcome them into our ranks. We are enriched by their entrance into our communities.

– Finally, those who make the affirmative choice not to convert – we honor and respect that choice as well. There are many reasons non-Jewish spouses come to that decision. Some are truly still believers in a different tradition, and are happy being who they are. Some would be interested in converting, but are worried that family members would feel insulted or rejected. Others are not interested in any religion, and consider that it would be dishonest to convert to Judaism when they couldn’t in good conscience profess an interest in Jewish peoplehood, or observance, or beliefs. All of these are valid and even compelling reasons not to be Jewish, but, as in all other aspects of our lives, choices have consequences, good and bad. Choosing not to be Jewish means choosing, with eyes wide open, not to be an active participant in various public Jewish rituals. It would be a disservice to their affirmative choices to do otherwise.

I have attended many conversions, some as mikveh attendant, but also those of close friends and relatives. It’s a measure of how seriously converts take this commitment that many people are literally shaking as they get ready to complete the process. All the conversions have been moving, each in its own way. Lots of tears have been shed. The idea that someone would be willing to do what it takes to be part of this crazy, confusing, infuriating people is truly awe inspiring.

My friend, whose dog is doing much better, if you cared, is only one of many Jews by choice that I have had the privilege to know, and sometimes love. Many of them would not have considered conversion had they not fallen in love with a Jewish man or woman who challenged them to consider the idea. To be honest, if intermarriage had been fully accepted in Conservative Judaism, these couples, both born Jewish and not, might never have been challenged to seriously consider increased observance. They might never have become regular shul-goers, shabbat observers, holiday celebrators. Maybe our paths would never have crossed. The Jewish people would most certainly have been poorer without them.

Every time I make a choice I close one door and open another. But in not making the choice, I’ve made a decision as well. There is, indeed, a price for full participation in the Conservative Jewish community. But for those who have paid it, in learning and living, it can feel like the biggest bargain around. After all, how much would any of us pay to finally feel at home?

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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