New anti-intermarriage coalition formed

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The results were out, and Steve Bayme was shocked.

Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, couldn't believe the findings of a survey sponsored by his own organization. It revealed a majority of American Jews regard marriage between a Jew and non-Jew as neutral, or even positive, rather than as something negative — a radical break from the traditional Jewish point of view.

So Bayme convened a group of 25 Jewish intellectuals, rabbis, lay leaders and communal affairs professionals to talk about the most effective ways to combat it.

After an initial, closed-to-the-press meeting Feb. 20 at the national offices of the AJCommittee, they are now asking Jewish communal leaders to boldly and loudly state support for what has been the Jewish norm of Jews marrying Jews.

Last month, the nascent group issued a statement declaring members intend "to work together to help restore the ideals of in-marriage, and to promote its importance to the future of the Jewish community, and to the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people."

The statement also declared that "we believe that there exists a leadership responsibility to shape the communal climate and set norms."

Enthusiasm did not come from all quarters, though.

Demographer Gary Tobin, president of the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, called the formation of the committee "absurd," because "they're using old paradigms. Whether you say that intermarriage is an inevitability or whether you're going to prevent it, you're locked in the 1950s. This has nothing to do with the reality of religion in America."

Saying that millions of Americans do not practice the religion they were born into, Tobin said, "I'm much more interested in who chooses to be a Jew and who doesn't than those who marry a Jew and who doesn't."

Bayme, however, said their goal is no less than "to change the culture" around intermarriage in American Jewish life.

His as-yet-unnamed coalition — which includes three Reform rabbis and two Conservative rabbis who work in congregations, Modern Orthodox sociologists, the head of an influential foundation, and author Elliott Abrams — has not yet determined how it will programmatically address its mission.

But it is a mission members are taking seriously. There is no doubt marriage between Jews and non-Jews is a fact of American life, whether one buys the 52 percent rate of marriage between Jews and non-Jews found by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study or the somewhat lower number argued by some demographers.

In the Bay Area, where the intermarriage rate is higher than the national average, Ernest Weiner, director of the AJCommittee's San Francisco office, noted that "certainly intermarriage is an issue which is of major concern, and certainly it is one that is being given a lot of thought by the Jewish community at large, not just AJCommittee."

On those grounds, he said, while the local chapter will be involved in implementing the coalition's plan, "there may be creative touches adapted for the local scene."

But New York sociologist Egon Mayer, who recently wrote that fighting intermarriage is like "arguing against the weather," agreed with Tobin, calling the new endeavor "ludicrous" and "comical."

Mayer, founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which promotes outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried families, said, "They're going to make speeches to people who in every other aspect are integrated into American life, and expect those people to listen?

"It doesn't cost anything to pontificate, but the American Jewish Committee could use its collective intelligence in better ways than this."

In response to that dismissal, Abrams, who attended the February meeting, bristled. "It almost amounts to censorship, if he's saying that people should shut up rather than try to change things."

The president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Abrams added, "Defeatism isn't a useful tactic. The rate of intermarriage isn't fixed, and can be affected."

Abrams, who authored the 1997 book "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America," also said, "I'm afraid that we're reaching a place where intermarriage can't even be discussed. We've already reached that in some synagogues, where people get angry at the rabbi, whose contract might not be renewed [if he or she discusses the subject]."

Bayme and other coalition members say that while intermarriage may be inevitable, the Jewish community does not have to accept it as normative.

"We're not deluding ourselves into thinking that intermarriage will go away, but we're not powerless when it comes to affecting the climate in which the Jewish community perceives it," said Bayme.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who teaches at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a speaker at the February meeting. Afterward, he said: "Beyond our concern with behavior, we are concerned with publicly articulated norms and attitudes. It's not only what Jews do that matters, it's also important what Jews think, and what their leaders and organized agencies state officially.

"To say that intermarriage is indeed an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of life as a minority in an open, democratic and pluralist society is not to say that we must endorse the acceptance of intermarriage.

"We cannot abandon one of the most critical and fundamental norms of Jewish life, one which is the linchpin of so much else that we hold dear and value about being Jewish."

The AJCommittee study found that 56 percent of respondents said they would not be pained if their child married a non-Jew, and 50 percent said they view Jewish opposition to intermarriage as racist. In addition, 57 percent said rabbis should co-officiate with Christian clergy at interfaith weddings.

The study also found that support for the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism has collapsed. Only one-fourth agreed that the best response to mixed marriage is to encourage the non-Jewish partner's conversion to Judaism.

One of the new group's goals is to make conversion a positive aim in interfaith marriages.

The complicated and emotionally charged issues around the needs of interfaith families are felt particularly acutely in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues, where intermarried congregants and their children feel excluded if the subject of interfaith marriage is even broached, say rabbis.

"We call it 'the I word,'" said Rabbi Avis Miller, half-jokingly. Miller, who spoke at the AJCommittee meeting, is rabbi of Conservative congregation Adas Israel, in Washington, D.C.

Miller said it is hard to maintain boundaries by defining legitimate roles in synagogue for non-Jewish spouses without having them perceived as barriers. And, she confessed, "we do lose people in the act of defining who we are."

Reform rabbis face particularly acute challenges because, unlike their Conservative colleagues, they can choose to officiate at interfaith marriages.

Their willingness to do so has been a litmus test for many Reform rabbis being interviewed for jobs at congregations.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of The Community Synagogue on Long Island, N.Y., who spoke at the meeting, does not officiate at intermarriages but says that the pressure on his colleagues to do so "can be very intense."

Salkin, one of three Reform pulpit rabbis to participate in the new working group, said he hopes "we will come up with a way of communicating to the Jewish public that in-marriage is the way to go, that we can teach our young people to focus their romantic choices on Jewish partners."

Though officiation at intermarriages is a contentious issue within the Reform rabbinate, Salkin said he didn't think his involvement in the coalition would be controversial because a growing number of those entering the Reform rabbinate now seem inclined to take the traditional position.

Salkin said he is involved with the group because he wants the Jewish community to better articulate the message that "there's only one reason for Jews to marry Jews — because we want Judaism to continue.

"There has to be a 'what for' in the message that we give people to marry Jews.

"The 'what for' is that Judaism is worth struggling for."