by Gary A. Tobin
February 15, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — We keep producing studies that prove that children of intermarried families are less likely to be Jewish than children from two born Jews.
There's nothing wrong with the research; my studies show the same thing. However, our responses to the findings, which come from fear and suspicion, are troubling.
The Jewish community has centuries of fear and accumulated loss from discrimination, persecution and mass murder. Because Jewish population numbers are so small — only 16 million in a world of 5 billion, and only 6 million among America's 300 million — every individual is a precious resource.
Our fears and concerns also reflect personal loss. Will our own children and grandchildren be strangers within our families? Most Jews want their children and grandchildren to be Jewish.
The Holocaust, low birth rates, Israel's constant wars and the rise of Islamic anti-Semitism reinforce anxiety about Jewish survival. All of this anxiety is layered upon the communal response to intermarriage and assimilation, cementing the notion that Jews are alone and must keep out the stranger. Strangers bring sorrow, despair and, ultimately, destruction.
It's no wonder then that discussions of intermarriage often refer to the Holocaust, drawing analogies to the extermination of Jews by Nazis. The language captures the essence of Jewish fear. What difference does it make if Jewish survival is threatened by genocide or by the freedom to choose one's marriage partner if they both result in severe population loss?
Our fears create a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline. While other religious groups actively seek to grow their faith traditions by welcoming newcomers, Jews continue to be so afraid of decline that we have created ideologies and institutional responses which ensure that loss: We want to "prevent" intermarriage.
"Prevention" of intermarriage is the primary ideology and practice of the Jewish communal infrastructure. This approach is neither desirable nor workable beyond a minority of Jews.
"Prevention" is expressed ideologically through rabbinic and scholarly pronouncements that Jews should only marry Jews and through "identity-building" programs. These programs are designed to create a sense of commitment to Judaism that is somehow strong enough to make Jews reject intimate relationships with gentiles. This is wrong-headed.
Most Jews are part of the American mainstream and want to be. They will continue to work, go to school and live in the same neighborhoods as non-Jews. And they will continue to marry them. Most Jews reject the notion that a strong Jewish identity requires them to eliminate 98 percent of Americans from their pool of suitable partners.
Jews do not want to go back to a time when employment and education opportunities were restricted and the majority of Americans did not consider Jews acceptable marriage partners. We knew this was bigotry of the worst kind. Jews would be outraged if most Americans rejected them today as marriage partners because of their religion.
That is what prevention calls for and why it will fail: Can the organized Jewish community really rail against marrying non-Jews so vociferously while condemning racial and religious prejudice? Young Jews see prevention as an ideological hypocrisy in an open and free society.
Instead, the Jewish community should promote the joys, meaning and benefits of Jewish life. We should overcome being afraid of who will be lost to Judaism and instead work on who will join us. We should vigorously promote conversion to Judaism. Those who marry non-Jews are not defectors; rather they are emissaries, advocates and bridge builders.
Who wants to be part of a community that scolds its members as bad Jews for choosing the wrong partner? That tells them their behavior is responsible for the demise of the Jewish people? Guilt is as bad a strategy as blame.
In fact, Jewish leaders openly talk about groups of Jews who are not worth investing in. Who wants to be told they're not worth the money? In communal triage, some Jewish lives are not worth saving.
The message that Jews should marry only other born Jews tells potential converts that they are second-class citizens and a problem to be solved. In that disastrous paradigm, conversion is a backup plan only after prevention has failed.
And we wonder why the children of such couples are alienated from Judaism? Sociologists of religion tell us that religious groups grow most effectively through expanding circles of friends and family, not by knocking on doors and seeking converts. Involving people who are part of our own families and friendship groups is hardly "outreach." It's common sense.
Even the term "outreach" is outmoded. We need no less than a redefinition of our communal values and ethics to think about an expansive, growing Jewish community.
We have a huge population of interreligious households and expanding networks of Jewish-gentile peer groups and friendship circles. If we took half the time and energy we waste fretting about the curse of intermarriage and shifted it to proactive conversion, we could be a growing population instead of a stagnant one.
We should be far more concerned about how to help families to be Jewish than about how to keep gentiles away. What do we do to positively promote conversion? How do we advocate for Judaism? How do we attract and involve rather than warn, scorn and criticize?
Christians, Muslims, Scientologists and everyone else welcomes newcomers. Are Jews the only ones who want to stay locked in the 18th century trying to keep people out? If we do not open the gates, we will be part of history, but not an important part of the future.