Speaker blasts Jews failure to reach interfaith couples

Only one in four Jewish interfaith couples belongs to a synagogue, keynote speaker Egon Mayer told a packed house last month at Lehrhaus Judaica's "Building Jewish Bridges" conference in Berkeley. While it may not be surprising that interfaith couples are less likely to join a synagogue than all-Jewish couples, the gap may be partially attributable to a communication problem, said Mayer, a sociology professor who directs the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. Even though many synagogues welcome interfaith couples, he said, such families may not be getting the message.

The director of City University of New York's Graduate School Center of Jewish Studies, Mayer stressed the need for the organized Jewish community to reach out further to interfaith couples and families, who might not otherwise realize that they are welcome.

"The fact that so many people remain disconnected from the community means…we are not doing a particularly good job of letting people know we exist," Mayer told the 150-some people in the conference hall on Feb. 13.

Citing a Jewish Outreach Institute survey of 550 interfaith families, Mayer said that 75 percent were not aware of any Jewish outreach program in their community.

"A great many families, who are potentially beneficiaries of these wonderful programs, still are under the illusion that the Jewish community is closed to them, that they are not welcome, and that if they try to come in, they will be made to feel uncomfortable," he said.

The Jewish community faces a great challenge in alerting interfaith families that "the climate has changed and that they are welcome," Mayer said.

"If you go to synagogues around the country…you go into Jewish community centers, you go to Jewish family service agencies…I am stunned by the tremendous amount of material that I see displayed on tables," he continued. "How is it that the people I interview and send my surveys to never get to see these materials? There is a communication gap that we have not addressed."

Another problem lies within the institution of marriage itself, he added. "We think that love is a kind of universal solvent that washes away everybody's past, and that we can go forward building nests, building families together, as if marriage were a kind of lobotomy, that wipes out all the memory cells."

But once the "founding myth" — that differences between loving partners are unimportant — dissolves, Mayer said, the initial euphoria of marriage gives way to mutual discovery of each partner's framework of values –and sometimes a fear that the whole relationship is threatened by such differences.

Mayer said that since interfaith couples must struggle with the inherent differences in each partner's spiritual and moral upbringing, the ability to share a dialogue about such "life force changes" within the context of the Jewish community is of particular importance.

One attendee asked Mayer if he thought the communication gap between the Jewish community and interfaith couples might also be attributed to structural institutions that do not support intermarriage.

Mayer responded that 40 percent of the Reform rabbis surveyed by the Jewish Outreach Institute indicated that they perform interfaith ceremonies, and that those who do not perform such ceremonies refer mixed couples to rabbis who do.

Mayer said interfaith couples may not be aware that the modern Jewish community is driven more by dialogue than by rigid instruction — as it has been in the past.

"We are witnessing the rebirth of a very different Jewish community than the one you married out of," he said.

The conference was attended by interfaith couples, as well as by rabbis and other clergy and professional counselors who work with interfaith couples.