I’m a few days late in responding to the outrageous assertion by Israel’s Minister of Education, in which he likened intermarriage among US Jews to a second holocaust. I was busy standing under the chuppa, as the fourth of our four children married. That milestone brought thoughts of the Jewish future into sharp focus. It’s the next generation’s turn to build Jewish families and lives, to perpetuate our precious heritage.
This is why Rafi Peretz’s irresponsible remarks cannot go unchallenged. The Minister of Education needs educating about Jewish life outside of Israel and outside of orthodoxy.
Intermarriage is a fact of life here. It happens because we live in a blessedly open society where the stigma of marrying a Jew has all but disappeared. It happens because it is hard enough to find the right person to spend your life with, and when you reduce the pool to only Jews, it’s even harder. Jews are just 2% of the US population. Sure, the percentage is higher in New York, LA, and other major Jewish population centers. But many Jewish communities– like my own vibrant one in the Twin Cities–thrive alongside a vastly larger non-Jewish majority.
Intermarriage happens in families that ‘do all the things’- raising their children with kashrut and Shabbat, Jewish holidays, Jewish summer camp, Israel trips, the works. It happens because love is unpredictable.
Knowing that intermarriage is on the rise for all the reasons above (and probably a few more), we can welcome these families to Jewish life. Or repel them.
Therefore, instead of accusing American Jews of committing genocide by marrying outside the faith, instead of grotesquely appropriating the memory of the Shoah in this manner, a more reflective educator might ask:
How do we transmit a Jewish way of life so beautiful and meaningful that our intermarried children will want to perpetuate it in their own families?
Most of all, how do we create an inclusive space for the remarkable people who marry Jews, do not convert to Judaism themselves, but commit to raising Jewish children?
I knew of one such family when our kids were little. Now? There are two of these young families among our cousins and I can think of at least four among our friends’ children. Our kids know many more. Last weekend, at our granddaughter’s birthday party I chatted with a young mom who spoke in glowing terms of her non-Jewish husband’s dedication to raising their daughter Jewish. “He knows more about Judaism now than many Jews,” she said.
These days, when the fastest growing group in America are the ‘nones’ – people who do not follow any faith – raising children in a religious tradition is a counter-cultural act.
Even when both parents are Jews, creating a Jewish home and Jewish family life requires intention, planning, and dedication (not to mention the cost). Now add in the challenges faced by interfaith families.
What can we do to help families of all configurations keep Judaism on the table?
That’s the question that should preoccupy every communal Jewish leader, clergy, teacher, program planner, and funder. Inclusivity and creativity, joyfulness and welcome must be part of the answer.
One terrific example of this innovative thinking is PJ Library, which sends free, award-winning books that celebrate Jewish values and culture to families with children 6 months through 8 years old. PJ Library also partners with local communities that host events to help young families meet each other. Another example of creative, inclusive programming comes from our local Minnesota Mammalehs group. Every summer they organize a number of Shabbat Picnics in the Park, bringing young families together to connect with Judaism and each other.
Every program that lowers the barriers to entry, that makes Jewish life accessible and meaningful, benefits all families. In a world that clamors for our attention 24/7, in a marketplace of many competing ideas, Judaism must also compete for our time and attention. That was not the case for most of our history, when being Jewish was an immutable fact of life. Now it’s a choice. That choice will not be more appealing if intermarried couples are accused of creating another Holocaust.
In the Book of Ruth we read Ruth’s declaration of faithfulness to the Jewish people: “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God,” she says to her mother-in-law, Naomi. The story teaches us to welcome and love the convert. When a non-Jewish parent casts his or her fate with the Jewish people by saying, “Your people will be my child’s people; your God will be my child’s God,” we owe these parents no less.
With thanks to my daughter, Leigh Waterman, for her help in thinking through this issue.