It’s been a hell of a week – Jewish reactions to the PEW study

PEW Jewishsurvey

This has been… hm, let’s say an interesting week. On Monday the PEW Research Study on the American Jewish community came out. Great! But then the reactions began and my blood began to boil.

So I did what many 21st century Americans do, I went on Facebook and posted the link to an absurd article that proposed we solve intermarriage by encouraging conversion and said this:
“You’re going to need to do some deep breathing while you read this article but I need for you to read it. The Jewish Daily Forward offers 4 suggestions regarding the PEW findings. Number 3 is an idea to respond to intermarriage… invite conversion. Hello Jewish Forward, 1950s are calling. Yes, pick up that cone shaped receiver and speak into the cone voice piece on the wall.

Intermarriage and conversion
My question was: Should conversion be made more accessible? Yes. Is it the ‘solution’ to intermarriage, NO! Should we celebrate the unique beauties of Judaism? Yes! Should we expect that to be sufficient to MAKE people decide to become Jewish? NO! In 1990 there was a huge effort to respond to intermarriage in the Jewish community. In 2003 it ground slowly to a halt. I watched my professional colleagues around the US have their programs eliminated one by one. What ever couple needs and deserves is a human being who is in their own community to guide them through the resources, the lifecycle events, the ups and downs of their own unique marriage and life story! No, a website, an email list, an online class doesn’t give people the focused and individual guidance that every human being deserves! Yes, it sure is cheaper to fund a website or someone to send out emails. How would you like for your children’s doctor to handle you online? How would you like that odd rash looked at via skype? or you could just google ‘odd rash’ and see what comes up.
If you are a person or a couple who has benefited by my program, Building Jewish Bridges, would you please make a statement here? Do interfaith couples deserve support?

Here are some replies.
(Got a response? email it to me at

I don’t understand why they are trying to take the one-on-one out of the equation! I felt that if I could talk to someone that had gone through what I was going through, I would be able to sort through my feelings, and experiences and integrate them better. Who wants to talk to a machine? I benefited best by interacting with people, not doing things online. Each person’s experience is unique and can add to the next person’s. And yes, Dawn, Building Jewish Bridges helped me greatly along the way. — Gabriella J

We definitely deserve support. It’s an odd path as to where each family needs to figure out their needs but also need to able to speak to someone. To be able to see what other families are doing. It’s basically the new inter-racial type issues. – Jamie F

Dawn, you and Building Jewish Bridges have helped us immensely. It is so important to feel like you have someone in your corner, and to see that you aren’t an island, that there are lots of families who have similar challenges to yours, and to know you are welcome in the Jewish community as an interfaith couple. A website doesn’t do that, people welcoming you does. One thing which I strongly disagree with in this article is that conversion is the only answer to the problem of intermarried families not raising their kids Jewish. I think, in fact, that that message does particular harm to the Jewish community. Many non-Jews who intermarry with Jews would, for various personal reasons not consider conversion, but would consider raising their children Jewish knowing they were welcome. I think the real issue, deserving of much thought, is not “how do we stop these fools from intermarrying?”, but how do we need to shift and change and continue the reinterpreting of tradition which has always happened to respond to a changing, increasingly secular world? And I think the answers are out there, and they are the same answers to “What do we do about intermarriage?” We stop focusing on Jewish life looking exactly like it did in some fantasized about idyllic past, a la American 50’s nuclear family nostalgia, and instead focus on what is working really well. Synagogues like Netivot Shalom which are thriving and bursting with young people as well as older people. Minyans like Mission Minyan and East Bay Minyan which bring Jews together across denomination lines, and which are very popular. We fund Jewish experiences and organizations on campus, where young Jews are flocking to Chabad dinners as the only Jewish option on campus. They should have access to a variety of Jewish communities. We stop worrying that a potential demise or shrinkage of the USJC means the end of conservative Judaism, and think instead about other creative ways to support the institutions which are less immediately relevant to young people but still vital (like rabbinical schools and summer camps). When intermarried couples find Judaism interesting and relevant, and find communities which speak to them, respect them, and truly, truly welcome them, there isn’t so much need to worry about intermarriage. In admittedly anecdotal experience, when Jews are deeply involved in the community, they are likely to either marry in, or marry out but remain in the community and have Jewish families and homes, bringing their non-Jewish partner into the community, even if not halachicly. It is when Jews are ambivalent about Judaism that they are more likely to marry out and not participate in Jewish life. Which to me indicates the issue truly rests not in the intermarriage, but in the appeal of 20th c. Jewish institutions to 21st c. young adults, especially secular young Jews. Which is not a crisis either. It’s just a shift. –Caroline T

First, YES, as a child of intermarriage, as an intermarried Jew, and as a member of my synagogue’s board of directors, I’m very appreciative for Building Jewish Bridges.
Second, I understand that there’s a strong *correlation* between intermarriage and lack of Jewish participation, but I strongly suspect they’re missing the boat to say it’s *causation*. My experience is that there are plenty of Jews out there who haven’t found a spiritual home or community that’s meaningful to them. THAT’S what we need to change. To the extent that we create open, meaningful, spiritually vibrant homes for today’s Jews (of all ages, single, intermarried, or married to a Jew) the rest will be much easier to sort out…either because it makes folks more motivated to find Jewish partners or because it makes non-Jewish partners more interested in conversion or — very likely — because it makes a wonderful spiritual home for happily intermarried couples to raise Jewish kids in. –Jeff F

Kudos, JF. I think mixing up causation and correlation is exactly the issue in this article, and in many Jews’ minds. –Caroline T

All of these excellent points bring us back to the importance of in-person outreach to couples who want to be involved in Jewish community and need help figuring out how to go about finding a place that fits their specific family. We had decided what to do before we came to Building Jewish Bridges, but we didn’t know HOW to do it yet. More than a decade later we are up to our elbows in synagogue activities, and I’m happy to say that no one is pressuring me to convert because they recognize that it’s not something anyone should be pressured into doing. (I’ve never belonged to a congregation–Jewish or Christian–that wouldn’t fill the hands of anyone who said, “how can I help?”) — Pam C

Interfaith outreach is the only reason that my children are easily being raised Jewish! My husband and I wrestled with this issue for years prior to taking your class and within weeks, we came to a solution that made us both happy and that included raising our children Jewish. Life would be easier if my husband were Jewish and even perhaps had he converted but there is no way I would have become a Christian for anyone. Our family works for us and if it weren’t for the opportunity and support of an interfaith community, I have no doubt that our children would be celebrating Christmas and having a vague idea that their mother is something called Jewish. –Sylvia K

If joining a synagogue had included my husband being pressured to convert, we would not have joined. I think it would have caused more stress in our family and may have resulted in our daughter getting less–or no–Jewish training, which would have been very hard for me (not to mention my family). So I think leaning on conversion as a solution would be entirely counterproductive. You make a Jewish community attractive and welcoming to families with varying needs, and they will come. And, yes, having professionals who can help families navigate the sometimes surprising difficulties of interfaith families is important. My parents were interfaith and were confronted with different issues than my interfaith husband and I are—having Dawn to ask questions to and talk to is enormously helpful. A website would have been largely useless in such instances. –JS

That article presumes that intermarriage is akin to “rejecting” or “discarding” Judaism, which is unsubstantiated within the article and certainly not my experience. My parents were interfaith and we had a Jewish household; my husband and I are interfaith and are raising a Jewish kid and building a Jewish home; I have many friends and relatives in similar circumstances. To assume that intermarriage equates to leaving Judaism is, I think, plainly wrong, but also contains a whole set of assumptions about why a Jew might choose to marry a non-Jew. I am sure that for every three Jews who are in interfaith marriages there are at least four reasons for it.

I have a non-Jewish friend with a Jewish boyfriend who fasted this year on Yom Kippur, but didn’t know about any community resources to access a service. Friends who are about, G!d willing, to have a lovely jewish daughter, one a jew and one not, hosted me for break-the-fast in their jewish home! In my generation (30-somethings), I think the feeling is that we have to do this kind of creative jewish-community building with non-jewish partners OUTSIDE of a synagogue or jewish community, have to “figure it out” on our own and then show up at shul with our ducks in a row. BJB and Dawn help people feel connected WITHIN the right community for them – i’ve seen her recruit buddies for people who want to attend services, and talk with couples about the options in their area. Online resources are another way of telling people to sit at home and “figure it out” – that’s not the way to build community. And with other doors that seem open wider, if we feel shut out, my generation might choose other ways of identifying, and forge our jewishness apart from the community that would really benefit from our presence. — Sarah C

Dawn’s interfaith couples classes were important to our growth as a couple before our engagement. They were helpful in accelerating my understanding of interfaith/intercultural issues and ways to ameliorate them. As a Catholic, it provided a more well-rounded sense of Stefanie’s Jewish heritage and opened my eyes to ways in which Jews can be made to feel, well, bad. I learned the importance of language. Don’t say, “Catholics and non-Catholics”, Jim! That said, I politely ask not to be called a Gentile. (Goy boy toy is fine.) Symbols are also powerful. Crucifixes are not only symbols of Catholicism but to some can be reminders of forced conversions and the centuries-old myth of who killed Jesus. (FWIW, this myth was actually a surprise to me. When Catholics recite the Passion on Palm Sunday, it is made quite clear that WE the sinful called for Jesus’s death. Anyhoo…)

Dawn was a coach, a minister, and teacher rolled into one. One of Dawn’s reflections was quite wise, something like, “Do you believe God keeps the promises he makes? (Yes.) Do you believe he can make different promises to different people? (Sure.) Can you believe he made different promises to Jews and Christians, amongst others? (Whoa.)” Since there is always more to learn, I still follow Dawn’s posts and emails. Here I am learning again.

>>Caroline: Many non-Jews who intermarry with Jews would, for various personal reasons not consider conversion, but would consider raising their children Jewish knowing they were welcome.

Definitely. On a related note, I have never felt unwelcome at a Jewish event. Heck, I’m the one who wants to throw big seders because they’ve been such positive experiences for me.

>> Caroline: the issue truly rests not in the intermarriage, but in the appeal of 20th c. Jewish institutions to 21st c. young adults
>> Jeff: My experience is that there are plenty of Jews out there who haven’t found a spiritual home or community that’s meaningful to them.

Yes. Making one’s communities/institutions more welcoming for young adults can only help make them more welcoming for young couples and families, regardless of whether they’re interfaith. Why push them out when you can bring them in?

It is the same with Catholic young adults. I found a desert of Church-related activities in my twenties and early thirties. I am happy to say that has changed in the last few years at a new church and my local Knights of Columbus council. Notably, I have even more of an appreciation for community – beyond just Mass and the sacraments — given what I have learned of the importance of Synagogue communities.

Some interfaith asides:
– Please try to see the movie, “Gentleman’s Agreement.” It is easy to watch “Schindler’s List,” hate those who murdered Jews, and love those who saved them. It is more challenging to grapple with the subtler forms of bigotry.
– My Jewish family & friends seem even more delighted with our new pope, Francis, than my Catholic ones. Maybe it’s natural that some more liberal Jews are aligned with a less conservative pope… or maybe they’re just more active on FB.
– The book, “Judaism and Christianity: The Differences,” by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin is a VERY challenging one for Christians. It could set off arguments in an interfaith couple. I certainly had my criticisms but am glad to have read it. — Jim W