Behind the Headlines: Agencies Discussing New Strategies to Address Reality of Intermarriage

Until recently, American Jewish communal institutions had one approach to intermarriage: Try to discourage it.

But about a year ago, the Council of Jewish Federations made public the findings of its 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, and the results stunned many Jewish communal professionals.

Even those Jewish leaders who had confronted intermarriage in their own families were shocked to learn that, according to the CJF study, 52 percent of Jews married in recent years had chosen spouses who were not born Jewish.

That means that for every marriage between two Jews in the United States today, two marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew take place.

The findings of the CJF survey have now convinced many in the Jewish communal world that the long-favored tactics of persuading people to seek Jewish mates through admonition and guilt, supplemented by efforts to strengthen Jewish identity, have failed to stem the tide of intermarriage.

“Any effort to stop intermarriage has essentially failed,” according to sociologist Egon Mayer of Brooklyn College. He believes the Jewish community must now accept the reality of intermarriage and learn to adapt to it.

Indeed, Jewish leaders are beginning to realize that they must accept the intermarried and include them in their planning, if they hope to meet the needs of the Jewishly affiliated community of the 21st century.

But current programmatic outreach in that direction is sparse and fragmented.

FEW FEDERATION PROGRAMS

According to Mayer, just a handful of the 189 federations in North America have implemented programs to reach out to the intermarried — notably Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, MetroWest, N.J., and, most recently, Boston.

And a recent survey of the major federations revealed that only two have put outreach to the intermarried on their agenda, according to David Sacks, president of the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

In other places, the outreach is conducted by federation-funded Jewish family and children’s service agencies and Jewish community centers. But few of these efforts are coordinated nationally, and in most places, programs are scheduled only sporadically.

Likewise, synagogue efforts have generally been planned and executed independent of direction from their national coordinating bodies.

The exception is the Reform movement, which has made outreach to the intermarried a priority, through comprehensive programming.

The Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, which was established in 1979 and has an annual budget of about $500,000, employs two full-time and 13 part-time professionals around the country to deal with intermarriage.

One reason why there is not more programming of this kind is that Jewish individuals and organizations alike — particularly consensus bodies, such as federations — find intermarriage a difficult issue to contend with.

Facing the reality of intermarriage “triggers a tremendous amount of anxiety about survival and a tremendous amount of guilt about where we have failed,” according to Mayer, the sociologist.

Nevertheless, Jewish communal leaders are beginning to acknowledge that the reality of intermarriage demands a comprehensive response from the American Jewish community.

The CJF took a major step toward that response at its recent General Assembly in Baltimore by conducting a day-long symposium on “Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.”

A HUNGER FOR GUIDANCE

The symposium drew “a large number of people with varying points of interest,” said Martin Kraar, CJF’s executive vice president. “We were able to agree action was necessary and that federations and CJF should take a leadership position in this. Our primary goal was to see where the consensus lay.”

But CJF is still grappling with “the whole question of where our focus should be” on the issue, said Donald Feldstein, CJF associate executive vice president.

At the symposium itself, the hunger for guidance was clear. Some 220 participants crowded into sessions to which only 150 federation lay and professional leaders had been invited. They came from every size community and spanned a wide range of religious positions.

Almost without exception and despite their concerns, they agreed that the national Jewish community’s approach to intermarriage must be updated, and updated now.

“We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best,” Linda Cornell Weinstein, vice president of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and symposium co-chair, said in her opening remarks.

Speakers at the symposium urged that communal response be carried out in a variety of ways, but all be directed to bring intermarrieds closer to the core of more active, more committed Jewry for the sake of “Jewish continuity.”

Rabbi Lavey Derby, director of the Council on Jewish Life of the Jewish Federation Council in Los Angeles, suggested that federations and synagogues work together on community strategies in “a new cooperative partnership,” combining the “ritual, emotional and spiritual content that synagogues have to offer, and the resources and personnel of federations.”

A NEED FOR MORE RESOURCES

Education and enrichment of the “core” Jewish population need not be sacrificed in order to devote more attention and resources to outreach, stressed Rabbi Rachel Cowan, herself a convert to Judaism and a prominent spokesperson for “Jews by choice.”

“There’s a false dichotomy between ‘inreach’ and outreach,” she said at the symposium. “We cannot do one without the other.”

David Belin, a lawyer and investment adviser who is president of the Jewish Outreach Institute, urged the Jewish community to earmark more resources for reaching the intermarried.

“It is essential that federations make a major commitment of funds and people” for outreach, he said in an interview from Des Moines.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the exodus of Russian Jews, one-third or one-fourth of whom are intermarried. I call upon the Jewish community to spend a few percent of that, perhaps $6 million, for stemming the exodus of our own daughters and sons from Judaism.”

NEXT STORY