The Upside of Intermarriage

Interfaith families live the day-to-day coexistence that the rest of the Jewish community strives for.

I recently discovered the missing piece to the Jewish community’s dialogue on intermarriage. Beyond the hostile (and essentially fearful) attitude American Jews tend to espouse, lies in mixed marriages a special lesson in coexistence. I learned this on a recent trip to Jordan from a Muslim Palestinian of Jewish descent who has committed his life to combating anti-Semitism.

The global Jewish community is obsessed with intermarriage. In this past week alone, there has been uproar over rumors that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son is dating a Norwegian non-Jew, and an upbeat report saying actress Natalie Portman’s husband is converting to Judaism.

These reactions are par for the course. Historically, polls showing the prevalence of intermarriage have sent Jewish leaders into “apoplexy and panic.” Intermarriage has even been compared to a “silent Holocaust.”

Detractors of intermarriage adhere to the wealth of evidence that demonstrates the relative unlikelihood of children from interfaith families retaining a connection to their Judaism. This tendency has driven many in the Jewish community – including leading institutions – to pour millions of dollars into stemming it.

But efforts to stem intermarriage are hardly universal. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish denomination, compared intermarriage to gravity, claiming that being against a fact of modern life was simply a waste of time.

The data supports Jacobs’ claim. The most recent survey results, by the Pew Research Center, show that 58 percent of Jews who married between the years 2005 and 2013 married non-Jews. Of the Jews who married between 1990 and 1994, 46 percent are wedded to non-Jews and for those who married prior to 1970, the figure is 17 percent.

Rabbi Jacobs represents a realization among American Jews that the attitudes our community displays toward interfaith families are alienating. For that reason alone, it’s hardly a surprise that interfaith families distance themselves from the Jewish community. Nobody would cling to a group of people that is hostile to and intolerant of their life-choices.

One solution - though it remains controversial - is to welcome interfaith families into the fold with open arms. If these families already constitute a substantial - and growing - segment of American Jewry, and the community is concerned about its numbers, then families with any and all connection to Judaism should be encouraged to partake in some aspect of the community.

Then there is another layer to the interfaith equation – one that hardly ever gets mentioned. While the importance of accepting interfaith Jews is dawning on the American Jewish community, many Jewish leaders are still loath to suggest that intermarriage has an upside.

The Forward recently featured a photography exhibition conducted by a Jewish woman from New York who is married to a Christian man. The photos showed the “day-to-day” lives of interfaith couples, who not only deal with the “regular” trials and tribulations of married life, but also with the added element of reconciling disparate faiths and backgrounds. The results depicted in these images were challenging but also incredible, highlighting the cultural compromises necessary for building an interfaith family.

Those compromises breed a unique kind of tolerance, one that I witnessed during a recent trip to Jordan. There, I met this activist – long persecuted by extremists and opponents in the government – who dedicates his life to promoting religious, political and sexual coexistence in the Hashemite Kingdom. His diverse background underscored his call to activism: as a Palestinian born in Kuwait, and educated as an architect in the United States, he has always known he comes from varied stock.

One afternoon, while visiting his grandmother’s old home in Jenin, he decided to examine the architectural makeup of her front doorframe. He was startled to discover a mezuzah on the wall, and that his grandmother, mother, and he himself were in fact Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law).

He is by no means a practicing Jew. In fact, he is a proud Muslim. But by advocating for Jewish interests, in part due to his background, he is a towering example of the good that intermarriage can do for the Jewish people

Of course intermarried families will “practice” Judaism at a lower rate than their “in-married” counterparts, as the recent Pew Survey has shown; the presence of a competing religion (or absence thereof) is bound to lead to a lower level of involvement in Judaism. But why must less involvement necessarily mean less good?

Interfaith families bring an entirely new perspective to the table. They actively live co-existence in their day-to-day lives. They tear down the walls between Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans, atheists and people of all spiritual stripes. Their children may not keep the Sabbath, pray daily or even belong to a synagogue; but they understand and practice coexistence firsthand in a way that other Jews do not. Of course, perpetrating Jewish tradition is important, but as we Jews know better than most, promoting attitudes of coexistence are just as crucial to our survival.

That is not to say that American Jewry ought to exclusively promote interfaith marriage. But when we talk about intermarried friends, community members and their children, we shouldn’t refer to them as abstract statistics that are “bad for the Jews.” Nor should we tacitly accept a reality where the majority of Jews marry non-Jews. Rather, we should recognize the contributions intermarried families make to cultural understanding, and the role their children play in creating a world that is far more accepting of the Judaism we want so desperately to thrive.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at benjycannon@gmail.com 

AP