We should drop the intermarriage debate as it is both the wrong debate and a misleading substitute for talking about Jewish engagement. Intermarriage and self-identified Jews of mixed heritage are our reality, and we must remember that conversations about intermarriage are not about theoretical questions but about people in our families and communities and some of the readers of this piece.
The conversation about intermarriage tends to be about demographics: Does intermarriage bring Jews into the Jewish community or take Jews out? How does intermarriage impact Jewish practice and affiliation? Demography is not how we should make Jewish decisions and face our community’s challenges. We should be guided by our tradition and our values when it comes to living Judaism and making Jewish decisions.
The conversation about intermarriage links Jewish practice to relationship status, ignoring those members of our community who are not married and implies one’s Judaism and Jewish choices are more important in the context of marriage. I encourage us to strengthen Jewish lives at every age, stage, and relationship status. It is easier to maintain Jewish practice when you have a network of people close to you who share this commitment, including partners, friends, neighbors, and community members. Kids and adults alike benefit from having friends and community to share in Jewish practice. We should focus on creating webs of communities, relationships, and friendships that will encourage, nourish, and deepen Jewish practice. Our Jewish communities should be welcoming, compelling, deep, and full of integrity, meaning, and sanctity. Our conversation should be how to best share the richness of a life where Judaism is essential. We should strive to encourage individuals, couples, and families to build lives rich in Judaism, including choosing partners, friends, and families interested in sharing these values and commitments.
Rabbi Jill Borodin is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, where she has been since 2005. She lives with her husband and twin daughters in the North End and enjoys rollerblading and working with clay.
My two great-aunts refused to attend my brother’s wedding because he married a woman who is Catholic. This created a rift in the extended family as well as a bitter taste in my brother’s mouth toward Judaism. Whereas he and his wife might have found ways to weave in Jewish traditions and encourage Jewish identity as his children got older, he pulled away even further, disgusted and hurt by his aunts’ actions. I believe that rejecting a couple’s choice to marry from different religions can lead to further alienation of generations of Jews. Is this really what we want?
Rather than debate or protest intermarriage, I would encourage a conversation in the community and in families that is free from judgment. I invite us to step back and start asking ourselves, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of intermarriage?” By looking honestly and mindfully at the answers, we might find that there are ways to mitigate some of the disadvantages and to celebrate the advantages. Through that conversation, one can decide what makes the most sense.
I received some great advice from a rabbi who said something like this: “You can’t help who you fall in love with — but you can help who you date.” If I actively sought out dating opportunities to meet someone Jewish, I would be more likely to meet and fall in love with someone who is Jewish. I took this advice to heart, and I did ultimately meet and marry within the Jewish faith. An advantage is that my husband and I don’t have to argue about bat mitzvahs or Jewish summer camp (yes) or Christmas trees (no). Surprise: We still don’t agree on everything. I have many friends and family members who married their best friend, someone not Jewish, and they have beautiful and complicated lives, just like ours. So, yes, I encourage us all to drop the debate and start the conversation.
Stefanie Robbins, MA, LMHC, has a private practice as an associate with Seattle Psychology and is the clinical counselor at Hillel at the University of Washington in partnership with Jewish Family Service.