For an article I wrote this week on a recent flare-up in the intermarriage debate, I did two interviews with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twice I asked him whether there was any value in articulating a communal preference for in-marriage over intermarriage, and the second time I followed up by asking, “Is it something you encourage or prefer?” Neither time did he give a direct answer.
Clearly, Jacobs is walking a sort-of tightrope in a movement that, while more accepting of intermarriage than its more traditional counterparts, still has its divisions: A significant minority of Reform rabbis don’t officiate at intermarriages, and there has been some debate recently about whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s policy barring intermarried rabbis should be rescinded.
Nonetheless, it it is worth noting that we have reached a landmark moment in American Jewry’s lengthy and highly ambivalent obsession with intermarriage when the head of the country’s largest Jewish denomination will not say outright that marrying a Jew, a core tradition, is better than intermarrying.
The first time I asked Jacobs the endogamy question, he said: “I think it’s important to be encouraging Jewish commitment, Jewish learning and Jewish life, and what we do is instead of talking about it, we think, ‘How do you bring more Jewish people, particularly young people in more direct ways into Jewish life so they can’t imagine living their life without Judaism, without a commitment to Jewish tradition and values?’ That’s where I’d put the emphasis. You can have two Jews who have connection to Judaism and an interfaith couple that’s deeply committed.”
“Endogamy as an abstract concept is not the way to address” Jewish continuity, he added. “If you put more Jewish people in settings like camps, travel to Israel, Jewish learning and practice, they’re going to by definition find partners who share a commitment.”
The next day, I spoke with Jacobs again. And again, he avoided a direct answer, instead talking about the college supplement Reform Judaism magazine publishes each year in hopes that students and their parents will choose colleges with extensive Jewish programming, Jewish studies courses and a “Jewish density that allows them the chance to grow as intellectuals and people while encouraging them to make choices that affirm those Jewish social possibilities.”
When I interrupted to remind him of the question — Is there a value in encouraging in-marriage? — he said, “After years of being a parent and rabbi, I don’t think the finger wag or sermon on this subject is entering the decision making of young people … The more powerful way to do it is to talk about how incredibly beautiful Jewish tradition is when lived in a family and that I as a parent and rabbi would love to see as much Jewish commitment as possible. It’s possible if you marry someone Jewish, it’s possible if you marry someone not Jewish.”