“A Portrait of American Jews,” a major study due out soon from The Pew Research Center, is said to show that more than 60 percent of the children of intermarriage are raised as Jews.

It also notes that only 22 percent are given a Jewish education.

What, then, does it mean to be raised Jewish if it doesn’t include a Jewish education?

That’s just one question certain to be brought up in a renewed discussion, prompted by the report, over the nature, sustainability and future of American Jewish life in the 21st century. Already in recent days a lively debate has emerged about whether intermarriage is the inevitable sociological result of a more open society and is offering new opportunities to enrich the Jewish community, or if it is a grave danger to Jewish continuity that should be countered more aggressively.

The latter view is articulated forcefully in a new article in Mosaic, an online Jewish magazine, headlined “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?” It was written by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and frequent contributor to Jewish publications, who has in recent years taken on the mantle of a modern-day prophet.

He doesn’t preach to or rant at his fellow Jews as we imagine Jeremiah, Isaiah and their biblical colleagues did. But in some circles he is viewed as old-school, and is about as unpopular as they were, predicting great tragedies fated for the Jewish people unless they recognize and change their wrongful ways.

Wertheimer’s prose may not be as stirring as Jeremiah’s “words of fire,” like “a hammer that shatters rock.” Rather, supporters say his forthright essays are anchored in academic research, statistical surveys and compelling logic, often confronting American Jewish society with hard truths they’d prefer to ignore or interpret more positively.

Though Wertheimer is a professional in the Conservative movement, his writings on Jewish education and ritual observance have frequently cast a critical light on liberal Judaism, underscored the strength of the Orthodox and stirred discussion and discomfort.

His latest piece is sure to hit a raw nerve in much of the community. Wertheimer asserts that the religious wars over intermarriage have not so much been lost as forfeited by rabbis, congregations and Jewish organizations too timid to buck the trend of accommodation. The result, he claims, threatens the future of American Jewish life.

This “embrace of the status quo,” argues Wertheimer, has Jewish leaders not only eschewing their traditional role of encouraging in-marriage, but either remaining silent as the barriers of tradition crumble, or openly accepting the belief that intermarriage will strengthen, not weaken, Judaism and the Jewish people.

He harnesses a number of surveys and anecdotal information to show otherwise, asserting that “intermarried families have considerably lower chances of raising committed Jews.” Further, he says that congregations and the community in general have adopted a “defeatist” attitude and become so accepting of non-Jews in our families that we make little or no effort to ask them to convert.

If the goal is to avoid alienating intermarried families, so as not to turn them away or appear ungracious, why should these families take upon themselves the burdens and responsibilities of living serious Jewish lives?

‘Intermarriage Is The Third Rail’

Outreach efforts have largely failed, Wertheimer says, “but the bad news does not appear to have resulted in any rethinking of the formula.” Instead, some advocates of outreach blame the low numbers of Jewishly engaged intermarrieds on congregations being unwelcome to them or on insufficient efforts to attract them. But according to Wertheimer, synagogues and rabbis have gone out of their way to be accepting, partly for fear of being described as unfriendly, which could lead to loss of membership of intermarrieds and financial support from Jewish parents.

“Many rabbis feel constrained in what they can say or do,” Wertheimer told me this week. “Intermarriage is a ‘third rail’ issue for them.” But he said that privately, many of those engaged in American Jewish life are “deeply concerned about this drift. They see the data of the consequences.”

Proponents of outreach disagree with both his statistics and approach. They view intermarriage as an opportunity rather than a challenge or problem, and believe that Wertheimer is applying outdated solutions to a modern-day reality.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), which promotes Jewish continuity to interfaith couples, families and their children, initially was reluctant to respond to Wertheimer’s essay, saying readers could make up their own minds about “the lack of wisdom contained in some people’s words.”

He added that the stop-intermarriage argument is not new, and that he himself would not “succumb” to letting Wertheimer set the communal agenda. “I refuse to respond in terms of ‘war,’” Rabbi Olitzky said. “The real question is ‘why be Jewish?’ and the response is about the benefits [of being Jewish], not war cries.

“I’d rather continue [JOI’s] work,” which, now in its 25th year, he described as more successful than ever, “and let the public decide.”

But he went on to note that whereas five years ago, the big issue in the community was intermarriage, “today it’s about engagement.” He cited as an example of JOI’s success its Mothers Circle program for non-Jewish moms raising Jewish children in an intermarried family.

Once seen as a “pariahs,” according to Rabbi Olitzky, these women “are tasked with the biggest challenge [of raising Jewish children Jewishly], and 97 percent of them are doing so,” he said.

“We are moving the conversation from who you are marrying to how you are raising your children.”

Jewish Community’s ‘Defeatist’ Attitude

Wertheimer says his article is intended to shift the conversation in a different direction — from “the already intermarried to the not-yet intermarried, and their families” who don’t want them to marry out.

He says there are large numbers of people seeking support from their religious and communal leaders. “So why do we undermine them by saying it’s too late,” that the effort to counter the increasing intermarriage rate is over? “To what extent are we helping families interested in endogamy and its values?”

He faults mainstream Jewish organizations for not enforcing traditional boundaries, declaring that theirs is “a decidedly abnormal if not a preposterous response” at odds with, if not “subversive of the view held by the more engaged sectors of the American Jewish community today.”

Wertheimer’s practical suggestions are focused on prevention and helping young Jews find Jewish mates. In his article and in conversation he calls for deeper Jewish education and more creative programming and social media for Jews in their high school, college and post-college years, increasing their engagement in Jewish life and providing reasons and opportunities for them to find each other.

Rabbi Olitzky, though, says programs sponsored to foster Jewish dating have “a hidden agenda” and that singles should be reached to engage them as individuals, not in “participating in a meet market, pun intended.” He also points out that Jews are marrying 10 to 15 years later than they did a generation ago, and that Jewish organizations need “to understand the difference and drastically change their approach.”

Weighing in on the discussion, Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor of Jewish and contemporary life, says the bigger problem facing American Jewish continuity is not intermarriage as much as it is marriage — that is to say, Jews, like other Americans, are marrying later, and the later they marry, the more likely they will marry non-Jews. And have fewer children.

As a result, she writes in “The Larger Battle,” also published in this month’s Mosaic, parents of today’s young American Jews, desiring grandchildren, “understandably come to view intermarriage as a lesser evil, and will more readily pressure their rabbis and the community to accept their (finally) marrying children with open arms.”

She concludes: “The word ‘intermarriage’, after all, contains the word ‘marriage,’ and that is enough for them.”

Fishman agrees with Wertheimer’s assertion that intermarried families are raising fewer Jews, and says he “rightly demands that we focus on policy implications.” But her attention to the sociological pull of postponed marriage, and its own implications, suggest an awareness that yesterday’s programming won’t resolve today’s problems.

Part of what this ongoing debate underscores is the divide between the affiliated, highly identified American Jewish population and the rest of the Jewish community. And then there is the very rationale for Jewish continuity. For those to whom Judaism is primarily a religion with its own set of obligations, the positive command to “teach your children” and raise them in the faith, and transmit it in turn, is sufficient cause to promote in-marriage. For others, the sense of whether — and how — our long history of insuring that Jewish life goes on remains an open question. 

In the meantime, Wertheimer’s challenge to the community deserves a thoughtful, robust and public airing. The stakes could not be higher.

Gary@jewishweek.org