A lot of erudite people have been talking a lot about you lately. You are everything from the canary in the coal mine of the dying American Jewish community to its saving remnant. You are a morass of statistics and demographics. You are the few, the Pew, the modern, hipster, millennial, assimilated, “future of our people” American Jew. I learn a lot from erudite research and arguments. But I don’t live in the world of research, statistics and population studies. I live in the world, and so do you. Beyond listening to everyone talk about you, I want to talk to you honestly, respectfully, as part of our relationship, about why I want you, a Jew, to marry someone Jewish.
Let’s first be clear about a few things. I understand well how complex and messy people’s life journeys and relationship decisions can be. However, we need to be honest about the fact that intermarriage puts Jewish identity and continuity at risk over generations. Nonetheless, if you don’t marry someone Jewish, I am not going to reject you and your family, you will still be warmly welcomed in my Jewish community, and I will do everything to guide you to and through a meaningful Jewish life. Endogamy is a Jewish value, yet so is treating all human beings with respect. Finally, one of the rules of dialogue is that we can disagree lovingly and respectfully. I need to hear you, but you also need to hear me, without all the hostility and political correctness that continue to characterize discussions about intermarriage. Let the conversation begin.
“Marriage is a personal matter, and my quest for happiness is none of the Jewish community’s business. Further, I tried to meet and date Jews. Yet Hillel at my college stank, there were just too few Jews on campus, and the Jewish singles scene where I now live and work is either too weird or too filled with jerks. My soulmate isn’t or might not be Jewish, but what do you expect of me?”
I understand your argument. I also understand that our Jewish community placed you here. We insisted on breaking down the ghetto walls. Your falling in love with someone non-Jewish is the inescapable result of unconditional integration into society. You like being Jewish and you may want your kids to be Jewish, but you won’t compromise on your happiness. I don’t want you to. However, your marital choices and success are still very much the Jewish community’s business, even if we ultimately don’t get to tell you what to do. Whatever else we may have done wrong, we have successfully created vast resources for meaningful Jewish social networks that can make a difference in whom you marry, how you live, and what you raise your children to be. Let me show you what there is for you.
“I don’t know why you make such a fuss about Jewish marriage and identity. Being Jewish is fine, but it’s currently not that important to me and who I am. I am a well educated, free person living in a very open, complex and accepting secular society. To make Judaism compelling to me, you’ll have to do a lot better than appeal to some vague sense of ancestry, group suffering or existential anxiety. ‘Tribalism-lite’ won’t work.”
You are right. Judaism is about far more than one’s passing, casual, vague sense of connection to the past or to group solidarity. Judaism is a living people with an ancient, ongoing mission to transform the world for the future. Yet we cannot live up to that mission if we don’t maintain some sense of uniqueness and separateness. We only succeed at creating this distinctiveness when we are a part of the world while remaining apart from the world simultaneously. This happens most effectively through our families, the primary educators for identity and commitment, because marriage and family are two of the most intimate and emotionally loaded human institutions. They impact personal identity in ways that almost nothing else can. There are intermarried families that raise terrific Jewish children and do great Jewish things. I know this because I am constantly walking with these families on their journeys. However, my personal experience shows me repeatedly that they remain the exceptions to a much larger rule of weakened Jewish identity in families where one parent is non-Jewish, does not convert to Judaism, and/or is more deeply connected to non-Jewish family and friends than Jewish ones.
While we are struggling to transform the world, Judaism is also an incredible vehicle for transforming ourselves. Some of its best work for teaching us how to live well is done in families, but the leaders of those families have to be on the same page about its importance. There is no guarantee that by marrying someone Jewish you will be on that same page, but given your common consciousness and identities, you will likely have a far greater chance of getting there.
You correctly imply that the more basic issue for Jewish identity is not Jewish marriage but Jewish education, something you might sorely lack. I and others can help you get that education, and we can help your spouse or future spouse – Jewish or non-Jewish – get it too. Let’s begin to walk and talk that path to meaningful Jewish growth together.