Among the sea of statistics and personal stories, the message at a recent conference in Seattle on interfaith relationships was that it’s time to move on from debating the impact of interfaith relationships on Judaism and embrace and encourage those families who want to become involved in the Jewish community.
The conference — co-sponsored by Jewish Family Service, the Community Outreach Project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City — welcomed local interfaith couples to hear national speakers discuss the numbers, cite the trends and confront the obstacles that alienate interfaith couples all over the country.
While each organization is clearly committed to encouraging Jewish choices within these marriages, they are all equally clear that the phenomenon is compounded by the experience of rejection for these families by the larger Jewish community, which is, they contend, tenaciously resistant to the facts.
“There is a fantasy Jewish community like when I was born in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Today, most families have Jews and non-Jews and it’s much different than the Jewish family that used to exist. When you’re 5 million Jews living in a world of 270 million Christians, Jews are going to fall in love with non-Jews,” said Ken Weinberg, executive director of Jewish Family Service. “Let’s make this a high priority and let them see a caring, welcoming community. Let’s spend one-tenth of the money we’ve spent on programs for Soviet Jews on the American Jewish community or else we’re going to lose a lot of them.”
According to Weinberg, 60 percent of Jews nationwide marry non-Jews and the couples attending the conference are indicative of the vast majority of them.
“They feel quite shunned,” said Natalie Merkur Rose, director of outreach and education for Jewish Family Service, “but there are many couples who are willing to celebrate Jewish holidays and be a part of the community. We have a chance to include them, strengthen Judaism and help them find what works and what doesn’t. If we decide that this is an opportunity for the open society that we’ve hoped for, than intermarriage is a result of that. The Jewish community has an opportunity to not lose them and to welcome those Jews who have intermarried. We have a chance here to open our arms. Let’s have the discussion.”
Conference leaders also agree that at risk in a conflicted union between a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner are the children, the grandchildren, relationships with in-laws, affiliation with the Jewish community and the potential for the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. And also at risk is what many observers have long suspected is the most potent factor in a child’s Jewish life — growing up in the ambiance, ethics and practices of a Jewish home.
Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate School of the City University of New York, is director of research at the Jewish Outreach Institute and author of the book Love and Tradition: Marriage Between Christians and Jews. He would like to see the Jewish community go even further in any efforts to reconcile what he sees as an egregious wrong. Out of the 5 million Jews currently living in America, says Mayer, half are unaffiliated and half of the unaffiliated involve interfaith couples.
“Every interfaith family has been hurt and we need to apologize,” said Mayer. “Based on their experience of rejection, their reaction (of non-affiliation) is precisely what the Jewish community fears the most. My position is to stop the cycle of rejection because it doesn’t advance any one’s position. Left untreated, intermarriage results in assimilation and by leaving it untreated, we’ve seeded the ground. We’re trying to save the (Jewish) community by salvaging the community they have rejected.”
This outcast community seems to be finding acceptance and support at a Web site called www.InterFaithfamily.com, a bi-weekly Internet magazine that is reaching out and establishing a dialogue from within the forlorn virtual interfaith demographic. Funded by the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, both in San Francisco, in addition to a grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, and individual donors, InterfaithFamily.com is a project of a non-profit corporation called Jewish Family & Life!, Inc.
Using figures from its own online October 2000 survey, the 2-year-old magazine claims that more than 70 percent of its readers are 40-years old or younger and that 64 percent do not belong to a synagogue. They post information, resources and articles that include personal stories and successful solutions that have worked for some.
According to the Web site’s publisher, Edmund Case, InterfaithFamily.com is helping to mend family relationships, connect unaffiliated interfaith Jews back to the Jewish community and help families navigate their way through critical decisions such as adoption, divorce and family events.
“We encourage Jewish choices but we respect the faiths of individuals from all backgrounds,” said Case, who addressed the conference and confirmed what the other groups are seeing in the interfaith population.
“Intermarriage is common and is going to be common. People are looking for connection and community. People are looking for acceptance. If they are not accepted in synagogues they will surely be accepted in church.”
According to Case, 19,500 visitors log on to his Web site monthly to read personal stories written by members of interfaith families, use discussion boards, read professional articles and opinions and participate in online dialogues.
And this fall, Jewish Lights Publishing is releasing an anthology of their best articles called The Guide To Jewish Interfaith Family Life.