Consider the case of Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who married Jewish investment banker Marc Mezvinsky in 2010. They signed a ketubah, and he wore a kippah and tallit, but the wedding was co-officiated by a Methodist minister and was held before sunset on Saturday.
Nearly six in 10 American Jews have married a non-Jew since 2005, up from 46 percent in 1990 and 17 percent before 1970. Of non-Orthodox Jews who have gotten married since 2000, 28 percent have a Jewish spouse, and 72 percent are intermarried. Intermarriage is more common among Jews who are the children of intermarriage. According to the Pew Research Center Survey of 2013, 17 percent of married Jews with one Jewish parent are married to a Jewish spouse, while 63 percent of married Jews with two Jewish parents have a Jewish spouse.
“Refusing to perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews does not stop [people] from marrying the person they have fallen in love with, but only pushes them out of the Jewish community, when, in many cases, they are in fact very interested in remaining in, or coming closer to, the Jewish community,” Rabbi Natan Margalit, a non-denominational rabbi who lives in Israel and runs the organization Organic Torah, said in a recent article (JNS.org, “Is Intermarriage the New Normal for American Jews?” January 9, 2014).
“Where discriminatory policies once limited the numbers of Jews on elite university campuses, in certain industries or neighborhoods, and at restrictive social and recreational clubs, today’s Jews gain easy entry into every sector of American society,” said Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history in another recent article (“Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?” Mosaic, September 2013. “Not surprisingly, some meet and fall in love with their non-Jewish neighbors, colleagues and social intimates.”
Then what? A lot of people are asking that question.
Judith Gottesman, who started matchmaking informally more than 20 years ago and is now celebrating the five-year anniversary of her business, Soul Mates Unlimited® Personalized Jewish Matchmaking, headquartered in San Diego, said, “It’s hard to find love, no matter what your religion is, and it’s even harder for a small minority. There are successful intermarriages, but religion can be a complicating factor. It’s nice to share values and religious practices, and Jewish identity matters.”
Gottesman added, “There are hard-core Republicans who won’t date Democrats and hard-core liberals who won’t date conservatives, but some people don’t even think of religion as an issue.”
Equally surprised is Rabbi Drew Kaplan, who has served as the rabbi and director for Southern California Jewish Student Services for three years, working with university students and young adults to enrich their Jewish identities. Kaplan, who recently held a program called “Bourbons and Boundaries” to explore the foundation of Jewish approaches to intermarriage in Biblical and rabbinic Judaism, said, “It blows my mind that people don’t discuss how they will raise their kids. Marriage is not a corporation merger. It involves raising a family, and couples need to be pragmatic about how they want to do that. Why date if you don’t discuss what’s coming afterwards?”
Kaplan noticed that there was an “explosion of initiatives targeting the 20s and 30s demographic,” which he believes is a result of the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey that showed a “startlingly high” rate of intermarriage. The idea was to bring people together to share their Jewish identity without focusing on marriage and/or to provide programming for those who had children.
While Kaplan, who is Orthodox, believes that “shared heritage, shared values and how the children are raised” are very important, he said that most of the organizations that address the younger crowd are “not pushy,” adding that the events attract a “self-selecting crowd.” He also noted that many of the people who come to the events are the children of mixed marriages who, nonetheless, consider themselves Jewish.
“This is not a numbers game,” he concluded. “These programs are about quality and vibrancy, not quantity. My role is to help enhance the quality of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University, is conducting the “Two Faiths, One Family” initiative funded by the Roslyn and Arthur Gilbert Foundation in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. “We are reaching out not to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ anybody, but to show that the Jewish community is a comfortable, safe place that cares about people,” he said.
The intergenerational program has involved couples from Congregation B’nai Israel. Two more will include couples from Temple Bat Yahm and Temple Beth El.
The pilot program takes place in living room salons. It involves “gathering in the homes of interfaith couples and inviting others to share stories about the challenges, build connections and give the Jewish community a chance to listen,” he said, adding, “The Jewish community spends time talking about or at interfaith couples but less time listening to them. Intermarriage is not going to go away, so we owe it to our families to make sure that communities are welcoming places.”
Greenwald was surprised to learn “how hungry people are to be seen and heard even in welcoming settings.” People who have felt marginalized have provided “emotional stories and wonderful insights,” he said. “For some people, this is about interfaith and for some, it’s about interfaithless.”
He concluded, “Jewish demography for the last 100 years has been more like Nostradamus than science. I don’t know what’s coming, but it will be fascinating to observe. The big question is what is the next step.”
Art Imitates Life — or Vice Versa
What is so enticing about getting involved with people of other faiths, and how do the movies see it? An Orange County Community Scholar Program called “Jewish-Non Jewish Romances: From Abie to Zohan” addressed the whys and wherefores of interfaith relationships as portrayed in movie history.
“From the silent era to the talkies, Jewish-Gentile movie romances have provided plotlines to promote vastly different agendas: the Melting Pot ideal (The Jazz Singer), traditional resistance to intermarriage (Tevye the Milkman), American support of Israel (Exodus), contrasts between Jewish and Christian culture and politics (The Way We Were), multiculturalism (Keeping the Faith) and the individual over the state (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan), according to the program. Professor Emeritus Lawrence Baron, who held the Nasatir Chair of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University from 1988 until 2012 and directed its Jewish Studies Program until 2006, provided his views on the subject.
“The reasons, at least in movies, change,” he said. “Even since Jews were emancipated, there has always been a conflict between individual choice (romantic love) and communal solidarity.”
“When Jews were still ghettoized, contact with Gentiles was limited to economic and not social interactions, and Jews were subject to rabbinical courts, not state courts,” Dr. Baron explained.
In modern times, there is the lure of the forbidden: Fedya in Aleichem’s The Tevye Stories takes no risk in marrying Chava because she converts, according to Dr. Baron. Tevye grudgingly accepts it in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), but not in the Yiddish film that came out in 1939. There, Chava realizes that Russians and Jews are incompatible; she divorces Fedya and returns to her father.
“In some of the earlier movies on intermarriage, Irish women marry Jewish men,” he added. “In that way the children of first generation immigrants Americanize.”
Now that Jews have achieved much acceptance and success in American society, “the stigma of intermarriage is far less for both Gentiles and Jews,” Dr. Baron said. In some movies, the attraction may be that marrying a Jew constitutes upward mobility (The Way We Were), but the multicultural model often encourages the spouses to retain their faith or even convert to Judaism (Keeping the Faith).