Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families

According to the released portions of the 2000-2001 National
Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How
should the community respond to them?

Against the backdrop of a Jewish population that the NJPS
describes as declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make
about the religious identity of their children are critical to the future
vitality of the community. I believe that every attitude, every practice, every
policy should be evaluated primarily by this standard: Will it increase the
likelihood that the children of interfaith families will be raised as Jews?

About 30 percent of interfaith families are sadly lost to
the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life and instead to
raise their children exclusively in a different faith. But the majority of
interfaith families — up to 30 percent who are engaged in Jewish life and say
they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, and the roughly 40 percent
who say they are doing “both” or “neither” — offer fertile ground in which to
grow the American Jewish community.

If we want interfaith families to raise their children as
Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation
has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are
intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative — “bad for the
Jewish people,” “communal suicide” and the like — they are made to feel worse
than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews.

If we want interfaith families to come into our community,
we shouldn’t stand at the door saying, “You can’t come in unless you convert.”
Conversion is a wonderful personal choice that should be encouraged, but
promoting it too aggressively and too early pushes away people who might
otherwise come in, resulting in fewer children raised as Jews. The less
aggressively we promote conversion, the more likely that people who are
intermarried will choose it.

Non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews should
be more than just welcomed, they should be the object of profound gratitude
from the Jewish community. Instead of barring a non-Jewish parent from the bima
at his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah, we should be honoring that parent for
the contribution to Jewish continuity.

As the intermarriage debate reopens, I am deeply concerned
about arguments that question the quality of the Jewish life of interfaith
families. After all, we don’t make in-married Jewish families pass an
observance test before we include them without reservation in our community.

A child of intermarried parents who exclusively attends a
synagogue school and becomes bar or bat mitzvahed should be presumed by all to
have an unambiguous Jewish identity. We should do everything we can to get more
interfaith families to raise their children like that.

Telling intermarried parents that even if they raise their
children Jewishly, their children won’t really be Jews — they will be “Jewish
and something else” — will discourage them from even trying. The result will be
fewer children raised as Jews.

Yes, the nature of Jewish life in interfaith families
involves intimate exposure to other religious and cultural expression.
Thousands of children raised as Jews have Christian relatives and participate
in their holiday celebrations.

This may not “compute” as Jewish life when viewed from the
perspective of a traditionally observant Jew, but it doesn’t make a child
raised as a Jew “something else.” Jewish leaders who think otherwise are out of
touch with the thousands of interfaith families raising their children as Jews,
while honoring their non-Jewish relatives.

In the words of Barry Shrage, president of the Combined
Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, we need to make Jewish life so vibrant, so
magnetic, so attractive that people will want to get involved. Continuity programs
aimed at doing so should be strengthened and expanded.

We can simultaneously invite interfaith families to
participate in those programs, as well as provide programs specially aimed at
welcoming interfaith families themselves. Every evaluation of intermarried-outreach
programs shows that the Jewish involvement of participants increases, whether
measured by self-assessed degree of involvement, decisions to join synagogues,
decisions to raise children as Jews or decisions to convert. But outside of Boston,
San Francisco, Metrowest New Jersey and a few other areas, there is almost no
federation support for outreach programs.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) has not included
outreach to the intermarried in the program for the pre-General Assembly “Hadesh”
conference, at which participants learn about successful continuity programs in
various communities. We need not only to provide programs but to publicize
their existence — and the message that the Jewish community welcomes the
involvement of interfaith families.

When the UJC announces the NJPS’ intermarriage rate at the
General Assembly in a few weeks, the American Jewish community will once again
be confronted with the reality of intermarriage — regardless of whether the
rate is somewhat higher or lower than the 1990 survey’s published figure of 52
percent. It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counterproductive
and self-defeating strategies or to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich
our community by doing what is necessary to increase the numbers of interfaith
families who raise their children as Jews.

This article originally appeared in The Forward. Â

Edmund Case is president of the and co-editor of “The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life” (Jewish Lights, 2001).