Alicia Chandler talks about interfaith marriage in the Jewish community.
Several years ago, I was sitting in a nondescript room in a nondescript hotel at conference for a national Jewish organization. I cannot recall what the session was supposed to be about, but the speaker turned to the subject of intermarriage. I braced myself for the litany of tropes that would follow. Those that intermarry are choosing to opt out of the Jewish community. Those that intermarry are destroying the Jewish future. Intermarriage is the end to the experiment that was liberal Judaism. In frustration, I caught eyes with intermarried friends in the room — Jewish professionals and lay leaders dedicating their lives to strengthening the Jewish community while simultaneously being told that we are the downfall of the community that we love.
I am thankful to the Jewish News for giving me an opportunity to write a monthly column about the experiences and realities of interfaith marriage in the Jewish community today. I come to this issue both personally and professionally. I have spent the last 22 years either dating, engaged or married to my Catholic husband. Professionally, in 2019 I chose to leave my career as a health care attorney to pursue the academic study of interfaith families, first at Hebrew College and now as a graduate student in Wayne State University’s Sociology department. The question I am researching is simple: How will the ever-increasing amounts of intermarriage impact the American Jewish community?
In a matter of weeks, it is expected that Pew Research Center will publish its follow-up study to 2013’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” That study found that 44% of all current married Jews who responded to the survey were married to non-Jews. When the study narrowed its focus to only those Jews that had married since 2005, the number rose to 58%. If Orthodox Jews were removed from the analysis, 71% of Jews married since 2005 married non-Jews.
But these marriage statistics are only part of the story. As we know from history — or Fiddler on the Roof for those who are inclined to learn their history through Broadway musicals — there was a time that marrying outside of the community meant that one was forced to leave the Jewish community. This is no longer true in most parts of the Jewish world. Pew Research Center found that if an American over 65 had one Jewish parent, the overwhelming likelihood was that they did not identify as Jewish. However, for those under 30 with one Jewish parent, the majority (59%) identified as Jewish.
As Pew asked, “Does intermarriage lead to assimilation and weaken the Jewish community? Or is it a way for a religion that traditionally does not seek converts to bring new people into the fold and, thereby, strengthen as well as diversify the Jewish community?”
While the academic in me may long to debate these questions, the Jew in me rejects the premise entirely. While I cannot speak for all 71% of liberal Jews that have married non-Jews in the past 15 years, I can say that I did not get married as a religious statement. I met a boy, discovered he was my bashert and chose to spend the rest of my life with him.
For those who believe that this choice precludes me — or my children — from living a Jewish life, I would simply ask them to look around this community. Intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish spouses are praying in synagogues, sitting on the boards of Jewish organizations, writing checks to Jewish charities, driving carpool to Sunday schools and day schools, and living Jewish lives every single day.
This year I hope to explore alongside the readers the myths and facts about intermarriage in the Jewish community, the joy and the pain that can accompany these choices, and what intermarriage can teach us about creating a more engaged, more inclusive, more welcoming Jewish community.
Alicia is the founder of Multifaith Life LLC, a consulting firm helping Jewish institutions and the Jewish community adapt to the increase in interfaith families, and a graduate student studying sociology at Wayne State University.