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Encouraging In-Marriage Versus Welcoming Interfaith Families: The Great Debate

Encouraging In-Marriage Versus Welcoming Interfaith Families: The Great Debate

In the aftermath of his big debate with Steven "Greatest Single Threat" Cohen — “Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-Marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?” —’s Ed Case has posted some of his own remarks on the topic.

The two went head-to-head at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly earlier this week in New Orleans. (Incidentally, Ed did not make it to the Jewish Community Hero semifinalists, but the winner was Jay Feinberg of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. Congratulations to you Jay, even if you’re not intermarried — hard to begrudge the victory of someone who is doing important, life-saving work!)

Hopefully, I’ll be updating soon with info about the Ed Versus Steve video, which apparently will be broadcast on Shalom TV at some point. I also am eager to learn more about what Steve Cohen said, and how the audience responded.

In the meantime, for those of you too busy to read Ed’s full remarks on IFF, here are some highlights:

Steven M. Cohen has said that in-marriage is a Jewish norm like working to better the world. Norms change. Given the huge reality of intermarriage, and new non-exclusivist attitudes, I question whether in-marriage is still a Jewish norm. Steven has criticized Jewish leaders for not explicitly promoting that norm and says they shouldn’t hold back because some might be offended or insulted. There is a qualitative difference. Working for a better world is an ideal that people always fall short of; telling them they fell short does not push them away. Guilting young people that their choice of partner violated a Jewish norm does.

It doesn’t work to say we can promote the norm of in-marriage before marriage occurs, but welcome the intermarried after the fact …
Promoting in-marriage doesn’t stop people from intermarrying – but it risks leaving them feeling rejected and alienated from the Jewish community and its institutions. When we indicate that in-marriage is preferable, if we are not very, very careful not to demean intermarriage in any way, then we will communicate a message that you are bad if you marry out, and your partner is second-class.

And when that happens it’s not just interfaith couples who are pushed away from Judaism – their parents and Jewish relatives are, too.
… We need to embrace the potential for positive Jewish outcomes, and stop talking about intermarriage as bad … Our children’s partners do not have to be Jewish themselves to support our children and our grandchildren being Jews and living Jewishly … So when we talk to our young people about marriage, we should not promote in-marriage, we should promote engagement in Jewish life, with a supportive partner, whether or not that partner is a Jew.

Most Jews would say they want their children to marry Jews. But what we really want, is for our grandchildren to be Jewish. We will collectively have a better chance of having more Jewish grandchildren if the community’s message to our young people is this: living Jewishly has been a great source of meaning and value to us; we hope you will want it for yourself and your family and children; if you do we hope you will choose a partner who will support your family’s Jewish engagement; you, your partner and children will always be welcome, will always be part of our family, and we will always support the Jewish choices you decide to make.

In other news, check out my article this week on Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim and the mikveh movement. While not explicitly about intermarriage, the story quotes novelist/Mayyim Hayyim founder Anita Diamant saying that the increase in intermarriage, and with it conversion, has raised liberal Jews’ awareness of the mikveh (a critical component of the conversion process):

“When I’m fundraising I often hear that ‘I hate mikveh’ or ‘that’s not for me,’” she said. “But everybody’s related to someone who’s not Jewish, most extended families have a Jew by choice … A woman who said ‘that’s not for me’ 10 years ago, now has two daughters-in-law who converted at Mayyim Hayyim, and feels different now.”

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