Intermarriage Is Not a Threat to Jewish Continuity

The anxiety over what it means for more Jews to marry non-Jews has, ironically, pushed even more people away.

When I was a teenager, I attended a talk about Judaism, or so I thought. Instead of talking about what Judaism is, or sharing some of the beauty and power of our texts and practices, the rabbi spoke all about how the rising rates of intermarriage posed a greater threat to “Jewish continuity” than any other threat Jews have faced, including the Holocaust. 

I left that event feeling really turned off — not just turned off to that talk or that rabbi, but to Judaism in general. The talk was awfully fear-based, terribly lacking in substance, and didn’t seem true to me. I was someone for whom Judaism was important but for whom marrying a Jew was not. I was desperate to learn more about Judaism, but instead of learning about it in a positive way, all I heard was negativity. 

I believe that the anxiety over Jewish continuity, a fear that the Jewish people and Judaism itself will die out, comes from a good-hearted place. People who love Jews and Judaism want to know that there is a strong Jewish future. However, intermarriage is not a threat to Jewish continuity. We might find, instead, that it helps ensure it. 

Not only did that constant anti-intermarriage diatribe fail to prevent me from marrying someone who isn’t Jewish, it pushed me away from Jewish spaces for a long time. I’m one of the ones who chose to return, but I know so many people like me who never have. I am proudly intermarried. I am also a rabbi. I am also deeply Jewish with a practice that informs and influences many of my life choices, values and behaviors. I am a “success” in any meaningful terms by which one could measure “Jewish engagement.” I am part of “Jewish continuity.” But this is very much in spite of the anti-intermarriage talk, not because of it. 

I was reflecting on all this recently when a news story came out about a child of intermarriage being denied access to an Israel-based program on the grounds that her mother isn’t Jewish. I thought back to my own Birthright Israel trip, taken almost 20 years ago, when one of the people in my group was “found out” to be the child of intermarriage. While that was allowed according to the official rules, many of the people in our group said hateful things to him about his validity as a Jew and as a participant on the trip. It was disgusting. It also laid bare for me how destructive the anti-intermarriage talk has really been, even to those born to two Jewish parents; it empowers people to be exclusionary and downright rude. It gives those who are born to two Jews a sense of superiority, not based on their values, attitudes or behavior, but on the one thing — who you’re born to — that you can’t even control. 

I still know people whose main expression of Judaism is feeling “more Jewish” than others. It is ridiculous in itself but, in particular, from the perspective of Jewish continuity. Jewish continuity is not an end in itself. My whole life I have rarely heard a compelling argument for this so-called continuity. What is the work Jews and Judaism are to do in the world? To me it is a two-directional goodness. Judaism enriches our lives and, in turn, we can become forces for goodness and justice in the world. That’s the job of Judaism. 

Somehow that got all turned around, with too many people thinking the sole job of Judaism is to marry someone Jewish, have Jewish kids and compel them to do the same. Having educated several generations into thinking that the point of Judaism is Judaism itself, the anxiety over “Jewish continuity” has, ironically, threatened Jewish continuity. 

I know so many people who left Judaism because there was simply nothing compelling offered to them. I know so many people who left because the fears over “Jewish continuity” caused them, their parent or their partner to feel excluded. In the name of “Jewish continuity,” there has been so much harm done to Jews and those who love us. How sad. How absurd. 

The newly released Pew Survey on Jewish Americans confirms that intermarriage continues to be on the rise. Despite the fact that they headline their findings on the raising of Jewish children as “Intermarried Jewish parents much less likely to be raising their children Jewish,” this is compared with all Jews, including the Orthodox. What their numbers actually tell us is that over two thirds (69%) of intermarried folks are raising their kids as “Jewish by religion,” “Jewish but not by religion,” “partly Jewish by religion,” or “some mix.” 

When the 2013 Pew report came out with similar findings, much of the organized Jewish world started to panic. All that “crisis” talk. All that “continuity” talk. This year, I’m hoping that panic finally stops. According to the report, “… the share of intermarried Jewish parents who pass on their Jewish identity to their children may have increased over time. Or, put somewhat differently, the share of the offspring of intermarriages who choose to be Jewish in adulthood seems to be rising.” This is directly in contradiction to the “crisis” narrative. Could it be now that the Jewish world has more options for intermarried and diverse families to connect, folks are choosing to do just that? Might the “crisis” have been the anti-intermarriage narrative in the first place, which caused Jews and their loved ones to leave? I believe so. The statistical evidence as well as my own lived experience bear that out. 

When I look around the Jewish landscape right now, I see dynamic, creative, beautiful Judaism being practiced in so many amazing forms. I am inspired. I am delighted. I am not scared about the continuity of all this. I am, however, scared that there are so many Jews who will never find out about all of these great expressions of Judaism because they too will be turned off by the “crisis” talk and never bother to explore further. 

I am intermarried. So are the majority of the people I serve via my Jewish community. We are doing Judaism in an alive, authentic, amazing way. We are unapologetic about who we are and who we love. We have transcended the crisis/continuity talk and focus instead on engaging and enacting a kind of Judaism that improves our lives and improves our world. I have no anxiety about Jewish continuity because I know what we are doing matters. I believe this kind of Judaism will indeed continue long into the future.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Rabbi Denise Handlarski is the founder and spiritual leader of the global, online community Secular Synagogue, is an 18Doors Rukin Rabbinic Fellow, and is the author of the recent book The A-Z of Intermarriage.

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