Rena Mello grew up Catholic, but she and her Jewish husband, Eric Lippman, are raising their son and daughter as Jews.
Before marrying, the Cambridge, Mass., pair joined an interfaith couples group at an area Reform synagogue and attended High Holiday services at Harvard’s Hillel.
Today they send their 3-year-old son, Evan, to a local Jewish Community Center preschool, celebrate only the Jewish holidays and light Shabbat candles on Friday nights.
Though the 33-year-old Mello is committed to living a Jewish life, she isn’t considering conversion.
“I don’t feel Judaism has become enough part of my identity — yet,” she says.
But for a new loosely knit group of influential Jewish lay leaders, rabbis and academics, Mello would be among the prime — and highly controversial — targets of a campaign to stem the intermarriage tide engulfing American Jewry.
The group aims to:
advocate Jewish endogamy, or inmarriage;
urge non-Jewish partners of interfaith couples to convert to Judaism; and
ensure interfaith couples raise their children in “unambiguously Jewish” homes.
“Just as we want to welcome those who want to be Jewishly involved but are married to non-Jews, we must also send out a parallel message that Jews should marry Jews,” says Steven M. Cohen, a professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is affiliated with the effort.
That dual message may not sound revolutionary. At one time Jewish parents and communal leaders expected young Jews to marry within the faith, or urged conversion if Jews married non-Jews.
But those taboos eroded among all but the Orthodox in the past few decades as intermarriage rates soared, those behind this effort contend.
The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that more than 50 percent of Jews who had married in the five previous years had married out.
Now, the much-anticipated NJPS 2001-2002 is widely expected to reveal little change when the new data is revealed later this month in Philadelphia at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.
This growing acceptance of interfaith unions was born out of American Jewry’s increasing assimilation into mainstream society, and by a desire not to alienate the intermarried or their families, group members say.
“Almost every American Jewish family has been touched either directly or indirectly by intermarriage, so the tendency to not offend” interfaith couples and their families is “extra strong,” says Robert Lappin, a developer and former president of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore of Boston.
That reluctance is “coupled with the unfortunate truth that many Jews consider encouragement” of inmarriage bigoted, Lappin says.
Indeed, an American Jewish Committee survey released in November 2001 found that half of the American Jews polled called it “racist” to oppose intermarriage, while 78 percent backed rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings.
Under Lappin’s presidency, the North Shore federation became one of the few in the country to back a strong inmarriage stance while devoting resources to Jewish education and outreach.
In 1998, the federation approved a resolution urging Jewish parents to encourage their children to “marry Jewish,” while also supporting interfaith couples’ efforts to raise Jewish children and “encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert.”
Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, who says he “sympathizes” with the new group’s goals, says he fears that “the Jewish community is rapidly approaching a point of communal neutrality towards mixed marriage rather than its historical stance of promoting inmarriage.”
This indifference has also reshaped the agenda for rabbis in the more liberal movements, where intermarriage runs deep, and for lay leaders in Jewish organizations, group members say.
Rabbis in the Conservative and Reform movements, which claim the majority of affiliated Jews, say they have found it impossible to publicly urge inmarriage or conversion without suffering a congregational backlash.
“Rabbis are not free, communal leaders are not completely free, to say what we think about everything,” says Rabbi Avis Miller, of Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative congregation in Washington, and a group member.
Now this coalition hopes to remove the barriers to inmarriage by placing these issues atop the national communal agenda.
“There are people who share these concerns, but they usually say it privately,” says Shoshana Cardin, the former chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who is leading the coalition.
“I would like to remove that sense of rebuke.”
Cardin, the Baltimore-based honorary vice president of the AJCommittee, and chair of JTA’s board of directors, has organized several meetings with about 20 activists to advance the initiative.
The coalition, which also includes Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y.,
hopes to compile educational materials and programs promoting its goals, she says, and is seeking funding for such efforts.
Already Lappin has agreed to add $100,000 in matching funds over the next two years.
These calls for cultural change toward inmarriage and conversion first grew out of a private conference many of the group’s members held at the AJCommittee’s New York offices in March 2001.
That session produced a call for Jewish leaders to renew support for inmarriage, conversion of non-Jewish members of interfaith couples and clearly Jewish homes, says Lynn Korda-Kroll, chairwoman of the AJCommittee’s commission on contemporary Jewish life, who organized the event and is involved in the new group.
While many of those at the meeting say the group’s initial statement virtually mirrored the AJCommittee’s platform, the organization did not sign on.
“This particular initiative is not the right fit at this time,” says David Harris, AJCommittee’s executive director.
Mimi Alperin, a member of the AJCommittee’s executive committee who is involved in the new group, remains critical of the organization’s hesitancy.
The executive committee “didn’t want to be front and center on this issue,” she says.
That reluctance is shaped partly because many members of Jewish organizations are “personally involved” with intermarriage, she says.
“It’s like policy by anecdote,” she says. “Someone would say that their daughter-in-law isn’t Jewish, but she’s raising her kids Jewish, so everything is hunky-dory.”
Alperin said the AJCommittee first approached the issue by looking at a study conducted by Sylvia Barack Fishman, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University.
The study, titled “Jewish and Something Else: A Study of Mixed-Marriage Families,” surveyed 254 couples nationwide, two thirds of whom were in mixed marriages.
Of those couples, 63 percent maintained they were raising their children as Jews.
But Barack Fishman, who is writing a book about the study, contends these couples were doing little that was Jewish and were following some Christian traditions.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade, the Reform and Conservative movements have led outreach efforts for interfaith couples, often in the shape of introduction to Judaism classes and support groups.
Dru Greenwood, director of the outreach for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says the Reform group shares the new coalition’s desire to promote Jewish family life.
Yet the UAHC also aims to “welcome people into the Jewish community and honor diversity,” she says, with the motto of “inviting Jewish choices.”
“What we don’t find to be helpful in having the message heard is to proclaim it from the rooftops.”
Egon Mayer, founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, agrees.
“The minute you say you’re promoting inmarriage, you already, by implication, say what you’re not promoting,” he says.
Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, which promotes Jewish life among interfaith families, said the coalition was “out of touch” with interfaith families interested in Jewish life.
These people would “not respond well to this kind of message,” he said. “The standard by which any action should be judged is, will it increase the likelihood that the children of interfaith marriages are raised as Jews?”
Cardin and others discount such criticism. Members sees their central challenge as shaping the messages in an effective but straightforward way.
The coalition does not intend to issue “thou shalt nots,” Cardin says, but to encourage people “to live a Jewish life, to make it joyous and comfortable.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.