I recently read about an Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry initiative to strengthen the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of Diaspora Jews. The program, overseen by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious party Jewish Home, aims to fight “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide.
“The weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit,” sounded like code for intermarriage. As I read more, it became clear that the initiative was designed to save Judaism from Jews like me, Jews that intermarry.
Right-wing and right-leaning religious and community leaders in America and Israel, assume that Jews who marry outside the faith are or will soon become distant from their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. They believe that the high rate of intermarriage among Jews in the United States is evidence of an ongoing erosion of Jewish identity.
But the overall rate of intermarriage in the US has remained in the mid-40 percent range for about 30 years. Even with almost half of American Jews marrying outside the faith for approximately three decades, Judaism still stands. It’s clear that something other than endogamy holds the key to our survival.
Community, education, Jewish values, and engagement in Jewish life including ritual practice and spirituality have enabled the Jewish people to survive despite generations of intermixing with other faiths. This is evidenced by the fact that many intermarried Jews have retained some connection to their Judaism and maintained their Jewish identity, even becoming more engaged in the faith.
Yet rather than acknowledging that intermarriage might not be as bad for the Jews as people think or using lessons learned from Jewishly engaged intermarrieds to bring more interfaith families into the Jewish tent, intermarriage is used as a scapegoat by those seeking to explain loosening Jewish engagement and the disruption that the American Jewish community is experiencing.
But as Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, writes in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, “the demise of some institutions and the reordering of the value and meaning of others,” the reclassification of Jewish identity, and the rethinking of what it means to belong are not failure. Rather, they are part of survival and evolution.
And Judaism has been surviving and evolving throughout its history. Since ancient times, there have been zealots and reformers. There have been Jews who view assimilation and intermarriage as a sure path to destruction and those that embrace the culture of the majority population without totally giving up their Jewish identity or connection to Judaism. Periods of great tension and transition have produced the creative energy that has led the Jewish people into periods of renewal and growth.
The current state of flux within the Jewish community can, like previous ones, move the Jewish people forward. But to emerge stronger we must recognize that we can’t control the future, we can only influence it. If we are to make Israel and being Jewish relevant to more people, we need ideologies that recognize the richness of diversity, and open and inviting experiences. We need less fear mongering and fewer politics. We need to move away from exclusion, demonization, and the continued promotion of agendas that alienate the very people we hope to connect.