Bridging gap between two ways of life: Religious-secular intramarriages on the rise in Israel

Hana met Benny when they were both students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both were Jewish. But while Hana grew up in a religious home, was active in B'nei Akiva and attended a prestigious all-girl religious high school, Benny grew up eating bacon for breakfast.

"I liked Benny," Hana says, remembering her early impressions of the man who would become her husband. "But it was clear to me that I would never marry a boy like him."

Yet Hana and Benny continued to be friends. "You know how it is," Hana reflects. "When you don't think it's serious, you feel more free to deepen the relationship."

Although they came from different worlds and now faced their families' harsh objections, the pair eventually decided to wed.

Theirs is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli marriages in which one spouse is religious while the other is not.Rabbi Daniel Tropper calls such matches "intramarriages." He directs Gesher, one of several Israel organizations dedicated to bridging the gap between religious and secular communities.

"I've seen a lot of mixed couples come out of Gesher," the rabbi observes.

He sees the positive aspects of those unions. "If two people fall in love and find a way to live a meaningful Jewish life together, it's wonderful," he says. "If they are mature, there are ways to work it out."

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva and the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, takes a less sanguine view.

"It's a sensitive matter but clearly a very problematic one," he declares. "In a marriage, values and world views are central to the relationship and should be shared. The religious and secular world views are completely different.

"Even where there is love and understanding, building a home and educating the children toward worshipping God will be done out of compromise and not out of mutual enthusiasm," Lichtenstein adds. "And that is problematic."

By all accounts, religious-secular unions are often fraught with tensions and difficulties. According to a recent study conducted by Bar-Ilan University sociologist Leonard Weller and his wife, Sonia, some spouses are bitter, resenting compromises they feel they were forced to make. Yet others report that the challenges and struggles enrich not only their relationships but also their commitment to Judaism.

"The fact that Benny doesn't come from a religious background forces me to explain things, to give them meaning," says wife Hana. "That keeps them from being automatic."

Hana's father had a hard time accepting the match. "He was very angry with me," Hana recalls. "He asked, `How could this possibly work?' I don't think he believed it would be possible for things to be like they are today with us. But the moment we decided to marry, that was it. [Benny] was accepted as part of the family."

According to the Wellers' study of 30 couples, all partners in intramarriages make some accommodations, which fall into three general types.

Five couples reported "separate but equal" lifestyles in which both spouses continue to behave in public and at home exactly as they did before marriage. Thirteen couples reported "compromise," with the non-religious spouse observing religious laws in public but having greater freedom at home. Among 11 couples, one spouse adopted the partner's lifestyle. In that group, five religious spouses became secular and six secular partners became religious.

Hana and Benny grappled with several issues.

"When it became clear to us that we would marry, I put forward very clear conditions," Hana recalls. She made a list of what had to be done daily, weekly, monthly and for every holiday. The list included putting on tefillin every morning and going to the synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. Benny — who declined to be interviewed — agreed. However, he would not let Hana cover her hair.

"Today, there are things that even if, God forbid, I were to die today, Benny would continue to do," says Hana. "Something like tefillin, for example, he started because I wanted it and he continues because he wants to. He likes the self-discipline inherent in observance.

"Other things, like going to the synagogue, he would stop. Public prayer is very hard for him."

While marrying a secular man who was open to religion has deepened Hana's appreciation of her own practice, the process has not been painless.

"There are things that hurt me," she admits. "I have a husband who goes without tzitzit [ritual fringes], and tzitzit are very important to me. If my children grow up to become nonobservant, I'll feel like I failed."

That feeling of failure is something that haunts Sidra Ezrahi, who also married a secular man. Her grown children are no longer observant.

"As our children grew up, religion in this country started changing its appearance," Ezrahi says. "The religious schools became more right-wing in all ways — in the ways the teachers were dressing, in the separation of boys and girls, in political attitudes."

Ezrahi, a senior lecturer in comparative Jewish literature at the Hebrew University, adds that "my children look around and see no role models. Instead they see religious leaders who behave in ways we consider reprehensible. When they see a rabbi stand up and [rule] that a Jew can't rent an apartment to an Arab or [a nonbeliever], I can't blame them for having a certain amount of scorn for the religious community."

Ezrahi thinks her husband, who initially showed an interest in religion and even studied with Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, also was put off by these changes.

"The religious community, for the most part, represents xenophobic, fundamentalist attitudes that we can't identify with. It seems closer to forms of idolatry or paganism than what I see as truly religious Judaism."

Sidra met Yaron at the Hebrew University. When they married, it was very important to her that they maintain a religious home. Yaron came from a family of socialists but agreed to a kosher, Sabbath-observant home. Sidra recognizes the sacrifices involved, especially in a country with a one-day weekend.

In the Wellers' study, it was found that most of the evident resentment centered around Shabbat. Secular spouses wanted to go to the beach, watch a Friday-night movie, drive to relatives' and friends' homes on Shabbat. Compromises in those areas often made them feel deprived and lonely.

The Wellers found some people acted out this resentment. Their research also showed that family purity laws, which require abstaining from sexual relations at least 12 days a month, caused great strain in some marriages.

In one case, a couple almost got divorced after a newly religious husband demanded his secular wife comply with these laws. Another couple in the study abstained from sex for three years because of the wife's refusal to go to the ritual bath. They eventually divorced.

The Wellers also found that mixed couples, especially ones in which the man wasn't Orthodox, were not accepted by the religious community.

In a country where religious and secular people almost exclusively socialize separately, mixed couples, by their very existence, challenge current mores. Sidra Ezrahi believes she might have more successfully raised observant children in a more open society.

"The sad thing is, I think I could have succeeded in Minnesota. In Israel, people like [the late] Yeshayahu Leibowitz — people who combine human values with a pious religious commitment — hardly exist. And in the world of identified religious Jews, they are becoming more and more scarce."