On a November evening in 1937, 200 young adults packed into Herzl Synagogue for a dynamic conversation about intermarriage. “Too many Jewish boy friends are bad-mannered, stuck-up, and obnoxiously choosy, out of proportion to status in life but merely they know most Jewish girls are limited to their company,” went one complaint recorded in The Jewish Transcript.
Boys, on the other hand, said they didn’t want to date Jewish girls because the girls would just gossip about them, and their parents would start to pry about their intentions to marry.
At the time, one in 10 American Jews married a non-Jew, a phenomenon that threatened Jewish continuity but which, the presiding Rabbi Langh urged, should be faced “sanely.” After all, he pointed out, Moses intermarried.
When the Greater Seattle Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, was released last fall, those fears were not abated. The study found that 61 percent of Jewish adults here are married, and 56 percent of those couples are intermarried. Forty-five percent of households with children are intermarried. Of those, only 21 percent are raising the children Jewish. So, is the end really nigh this time?
“A couple generations ago, intermarriage was seen as a disaster for a variety of reasons,” says Paul Burstein, professor emeritus of sociology and political science at the University of Washington. “Back then it was a statement of someone leaving the community. It was simply a loss, period. More recently, as the number of intermarriages has gone up, it’s a lot less clear what it means.”
Burstein, who initially wrote about his reactions to the study on the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies blog, calls for perspective.
“As far as we can tell, the proportion of children in intermarried couples being raised Jewish in some meaningful way are staying Jewish,” he says.
According to Matthew Boxer, an author of the study, a “disease narrative” has grown around intermarried couples. We have to “inoculate” our children or risk cultural death. But Boxer, like Rabbi Langh, points out that Esther saved the Jewish people because of her “intermarriage” to King Ahasuerus.
“People are going to marry people who aren’t Jewish,” he says. “But they still want to be part of the Jewish community. This is the tachlis [bottom line] of all of this. They’re raising their children as Jewish.”
Over the past few decades the Jewish community hasn’t gone extinct; it’s evolved to accommodate change. Outreach to multifaith families and improved quality of Jewish experiences and education have created stronger inroads to Judaism than in decades past. That’s not to say everything’s coming up roses, but the sky isn’t falling quite yet.
“You have a lot to be optimistic about,” Boxer says. “The Jewish community in Seattle is so dynamic.”
The biggest challenge? Traffic, he says. “But there are things you can do about that,” he says. “There’s literally something for everyone. You just have to find it, which could be a challenge.”