|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.
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
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
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
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.
Gary A. Tobin is president of the Institute for Jewish &