Rabbi Corner

From Our Rabbi: Rabbi Richard Harkavy harkavyr@earthlink.net 206-962-1436

Before I was ordained, our entire rabbinical class met and discussed the Jewish influences within our lives that encouraged us to become rabbis. My colleagues spoke about the positive difference Jewish camps and Jewish youth groups and trips to Israel made upon their Jewish identity. When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned that I wish I had those experiences, but I could not since I was raised as a Unitarian by assimilated Jewish parents. Sadly, I have no Jewish memories from my childhood.

Since I grew up in an assimilated household, I know from personal experience the dilemma of losing one’s Jewish identity. Raising one’s child without a religion is akin to raising a child without a surname since it disconnects a child from his or her past. I was the only person in my rabbinical class who was not raised a Jew. At that time, I represented a minority population within the American Jewish community.

Today, I represent a significant percentage of the American Jewish community. An increasing number of Jews no longer identify as Jews. The majority of these Jews, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, are children of intermarried Jews. Tens of thousands of these children are not being raised as Jews.

In the non-Orthodox community, interfaith marriages have essentially become the norm. More American Jews under age thirty have intermarried than in-married. The fact that this is happening should not surprise anyone.

What is the most important value in the vast majority of Jewish homes? Without a doubt, it is the need to be well-educated. Jews have and will always be the People of the Book. However, the Torah is now being replaced with secular books. Jews ranging from the very secular to the very Orthodox encourage their children to study, study and study. Jewish children are told repeatedly to do their best academically. Jewish children are good learners. Due to their parents’ emphasis on education, Jewish children make the logical conclusion that their families want them to socialize with other educated people. Consequently, many of these friendships lead to marriage.

Am I advocating intermarriage? Of course, not. I am advocating that we do not condemn intermarried couples. Telling a Jew that his or her non-Jewish spouse is a “problem” is insulting. The Jewish community should not focus on convincing Jews to marry other Jews. Rather our focus should be about making Judaism more relevant to our fellow Jews. Too many Jews have a limited understanding of the basic principles of Judaism.

Accepting intermarriage as a fact of life does not necessarily mean “watering-down” Judaism. We can be inclusive and still believe in Jewish standards.

I want to reach out to intermarried Jews because I want more practicing Jews. As a rabbi, I want to teach my fellow Jews to learn Hebrew, keep kosher, observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, join a synagogue, give tzedakah, study Torah and support and visit Israel.

Yes, I realize that many intermarried Jews are not interested in Judaism. The fact that their grandchildren will probably not be Jewish saddens me. However, I have met many intermarried Jews who want to live meaningful Jewish lives. I know several rabbis and Jewish communal leaders whose parents are intermarried. Also I have discovered that many non-Jewish spouses are interested in learning about Judaism.

I applaud the efforts of many synagogues and Jewish organizations that reach out to interfaith couples. However, we must do more to address the Jewish needs of intermarried Jews. We must involve intermarried Jews in our conversation so that we do not talk about “them,” but rather about “us.” Our efforts may not reduce the number of intermarriages, but it may increase the number of intermarried Jews raising their children as Jews.

Hoping that Jews will only marry other Jews is unrealistic. Telling a Jew not to marry a person whom they love because of religion is a non-starter. Denouncing intermarried Jews and their parents will only alienate many Jews. Blaming other Jewish denominations for intermarriage will only polarize the Jewish community.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted: “The pressing question is, how do we respond? High intermarriage rates require a thoughtful response. Delivering endless sermons about the importance of endogamy — or making apocalyptic arguments — is not going to dissuade a young person from falling in love with someone who is not Jewish. If that were the case, we would not be where we are today….

Many in the “endogamy camp” argue that outreach to interfaith families is not an effective communal investment. At the heart of this debate is the allocation of communal resources. But the impact of outreach to interfaith families — when thoughtfully and effectively deployed — matters.

Consider Boston, where Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, has made outreach to interfaith families a communal norm across all Jewish institutions, including synagogues. The number of interfaith families raising Jewish children has doubled.”

Instead of condemning intermarriage, we must recognize interfaith marriages as a challenge that could either undermine or enhance the Jewish experience within America. I look forward to the day when an increasing number of practicing Jews will say, “I was raised as a Jew by interfaith parents.”

Rabbi Rick Harkavy

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