As Steve and Cokie Roberts, the journalists and authors, have crisscrossed the country promoting their new interfaith Haggadah and celebrating interfaith marriage as “the new normal,” I’ve been thinking back on my encounter with Steve in 2008.
I was then the executive director of the Jewish Federation in Springfield, Mass., and Steve was our speaker for our annual fundraising event. He was bright, warm and knowledgeable, and as a result of his careful analysis he predicted, at the start of the presidential primaries, that Hilary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani would emerge as the Democratic and Republican candidates and that, in a close election, Hilary would win.
It was a reasoned approach, but the real factors in the election were happening elsewhere, perhaps right under our nose but beyond our field of vision.
And so it is with Steve and Cokie and Jewish intermarriage. From one perspective, things look just as they describe them. Intermarriage is the trend, and the Jewish community needs to welcome interfaith couples no matter what, even those raising their children in two religions.
From another perspective, just like those political predictions of 2008, it’s not that way at all.
When it comes to interfaith marriage, Steve Roberts and I have much in common. Like Steve, I am Jewish, but met and married a Christian woman committed to her faith. Like Steve, my wedding reflected both traditions. Like Steve, my wife made a Passover seder, and even decided to light Shabbat candles and fast on Yom Kippur. And like Steve, our two faiths happily coexisted in our home for many years.
But at a certain point, we took a different turn. I discovered Judaism was much more than a seder and a generic sense of Jewish identity. And my wife discovered that practicing Judaism in a serious way called to her — that she wanted more than to do a few Jewish things, but to be Jewish, to be part of the Jewish people.
And so we are no longer an interfaith couple, but a traditional Jewish family. Like Steve and Cokie, our children have Christian relatives whom they love. But they know exactly who they are. As my daughter said to me recently, “I’m so glad we’re Jewish.”
One can surely have two faiths in their home and live to tell about it, as Steve and Cokie have. Some readers, no doubt, know a few interfaith families who are more involved than some Jewish families. They may know interfaith children who have chosen Judaism, while other children, brought up with a day school education, are now divorced from the tradition.
I know those families too, people who have bucked the trend. And that’s the point — bucking the trend is hardly a sound foundation on which to build the Jewish people’s future. That the exception proves the rule does not mean that the rules have changed.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be welcoming to interfaith families. I passionately believe we should. Had people not been welcoming to us as an interfaith family, we may never have made the journey to become a Jewish one. The question, though, is not whether to welcome, but how. We can’t truly welcome people without first defining what exactly we are welcoming them into, what it is we stand for.
And yes, if we are a community, then by definition we have boundaries. What are they? Many of us have answered these questions by equating Judaism with “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Whatever you do is fine as long as we can include you in the headcount.
But Judaism is anything but “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Rather, it’s about commitment, values, being a light to the nations and ultimately transforming ourselves and our world. My wife and I may have first entered the doors of the Jewish community because we were made to feel welcome. But we stayed and learned and grew and became a Jewish family because we were given substance we couldn’t find anywhere else.
This notion of transformation is sorely lacking from the prevailing Jewish communal approach to intermarried families. We err when we assume that a couple’s collective religious bearings will stay pretty much the same as they were when they met. In fact, we ultimately let down intermarried families because instead of offering a Judaism that is life-transforming, we give them Judaism-lite in the hope that everyone will be happy and no one will be offended.
We don’t offer them enough. As a community, we should have the confidence to believe that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.
It’s time for us, as a Jewish community to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.
Harold Berman was the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts before moving to Israel with his family in 2008. He and his wife are currently co-writing a book about their journey to becoming a Jewish family.