Last week, during New York’s non-historic blizzard, I took a stroll through snowy Brooklyn and reminisced about the winters of my childhood, when my family would sled down the hills of our uncle’s yard. I recall once when my mom pointed out to me a solitary tree on the hill, warning me to steer clear of it for my own safety; inevitably I slammed into it or narrowly missed every time. Was I such a terribly uncoordinated navigator? Maybe. But it was just as likely that when the tree was identified to me as dangerous, I stopped thinking about the rest of the slope and became fixated on it. And with my eyes fearfully glued to the tree, where else would the sled take me?
USY’s recent decision to rescind a ban on interfaith dating is a wise move for similar reasons. Jewish youth, teens, students and young adults of all backgrounds, denominations, political beliefs, socio-economic standings, ethnicity and nationality are used to hearing one thing from the generations before us: “Don’t marry a non-Jew!” These warnings and the lamentations with which Jewish community leaders react towards rising rates of intermarriage miss the point.
On that slope, what my mom meant to say was, “Look at the great space you have on this hill; if you really want to swerve around, great! Just mind what is in front of you as you go.” What I believe the Jewish community really wants to say to young Jews is this: “Living, and growing a family within the Jewish community is a rewarding and fulfilling endeavor we hope you choose.”
One of the great American rabbis who understood this was Mordechai Kaplan, who in Judaism as a Civilization declared that trying to remain a closed religious community within an open society is as useless as fighting the tide, and that doing so is a waste of resources and vitality. Instead what we should do is create such a vibrant and inclusive community that when a Jew intermarries, his/her family is attracted and feels welcomed to join the Jewish community. If we create the right kind of community, intermarriage is not synonymous with assimilation and therefore not an existential threat.
Youth groups, Jewish summer camps, Birthright, Hillel, and day schools all create real identity-building experiences that inspire so many young Jews to continually rededicate themselves to their own Jewish journeys. USY’s move is significant, and it’s a part of a growing movement to lift the stigmatism of interfaith families. Increasingly, Jewish institutions are finding ways to welcome interfaith couples and families; prominent Conservative Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz is openly considering how to more warmly welcome interfaith couples and families into Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA. Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. offers classes to interfaith engaged couples leading up to their wedding. URJ offers special online resources for Jewish parents and grandparents to talk about Jewish identity with interfaith children.
We must have the confidence that we can and are doing this without creating an unnecessary and counterproductive distraction. Instead of expending our breath on the perils of dating non-Jews, let’s invest it in welcoming their non-Jewish partner into our community. Succeeding means helping young Jews keep their eyes trained on all we have to offer them and not the pitfalls we fear they may hit.
"Andrew Fretwell lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and works full time in the New York Jewish community around engaging millennials and young Jewish adults. Andrew is also pursuing an MBA in Organizational Behavior at CUNY Baruch College and dabbles in local political organizing."