As marrying outside the faith becomes more prevalent and less taboo, the conversation is quickly changing from prevention to outreach.
The way much of the Jewish community in Canada and the United States talks and thinks about intermarriage has shifted quite dramatically in less than a generation, driven by the increasing numbers of young Jews who marry non-Jews, say researchers and rabbis who have been observing the trend.
“The language of war and battles and prevention has basically disappeared from the North American community,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism, a New York-based national organization that targets unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples.
In its place is a campaign of outreach to intermarried families, with an emphasis on acceptance and the hope that interfaith couples find their place somewhere in the diverse Jewish community.
“Fifteen years ago, federations were debating whether to reach out to intermarried families. Now the issue is how to reach out to them,” Rabbi Olitzky said.
“The conversations that happen in the community now are different than they were a generation or a half a generation ago,” said Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Toronto’s Reform Temple Sinai. “The biggest difference is the notion that we’re in the welcoming business more than the judging business.”
The shift has been pragmatic, driven by demographics. While Jewish Canadians, especially in central Canada, like to think the intermarriage rate is much lower than the well over 50 per cent figure cited in the United States, a closer look at the numbers reveals it is higher than is commonly believed.
When researchers Randal Schnoor and Charles Shahar analyzed the 2011 census, then known as the National Household Survey, for Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA, they found the intermarriage rate was 26 per cent. Twenty years ago, the intermarriage rate was 16 per cent.
But more telling is the rate of intermarriage among younger Jews, the very people who are currently getting married. For Jews under 39 years old, the intermarriage rate ranges between 38 per cent and 43 per cent, depending on the age combination of the spouses.
This high rate of intermarriage has profound implications for Jewish children. Nearly one in three, or 29 per cent, of children under five live in an intermarried home, Schnoor and Shahar found, but this underestimates the actual number of children, since only those identified as being Jewish are included. In fact, in homes where only one parent is Jewish, between 61 and 82 per cent of the children are not identified as Jewish.
The rising rate of intermarriage has forced the Jewish community to swing the pendulum from inreach – preventing intermarriage by emphasizing Jewish education, summer camps and free trips to Israel – to outreach and encouraging intermarried couples to raise Jewish families, Schnoor said in an interview.
“This is the fundamental debate in the Jewish world. Toronto is now in the process of a shift from inreach only to thinking about outreach to interfaith couples,” Schnoor said. “It’s been a gradual process… as the realities are becoming more apparent.”
Intermarriage is gradually losing its taboo as it becomes more prevalent, Rabbi Olitzky believes. What has hastened the trend is that the stigma for non-Jews considering whether to marry Jews has disappeared.
“The Jewish community was isolationist historically because non-Jews isolated us. Those barriers have come down,” he said. “Once the Jewish community entered barrier-free, it meant that more non-Jews were willing to cast their lot with what was once a persecuted minority.”
The shift has changed the way Jewish organizations do business. Low-pressure events, such as baking matzah in a public park, away from religious institutions that are seen as intimidating, are typically the type of outreach that is being promoted. PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish books to young children, is widely known as being available to any family raising Jewish children, without specifying the makeup of the family.
The degree to which interfaith marriages are embraced varies according to the denomination.
At the most accepting end of the spectrum is the unaffiliated Danforth Jewish Circle (DJC) in Toronto’s east end, which started in 1996 as a grassroots community effort by a few dozen families, some of whom were intermarried, and now has about 500 members.
Interfaith families make up between one-third and one-half of the membership, but whether someone is Jewish or not rarely comes up in conversation, said Elisabeth Marks, former chair of the DJC.
Most importantly, especially for families, “there isn’t the assumption that kids growing up in an interfaith home will be less likely to practise their Judaism or to be at a disadvantage,” she said.
The DJC is one of the few religious organizations in the city that recognizes that children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are Jewish. Its rabbi, Miriam Margles, does not officiate at interfaith marriages, but the community is working on having its cantor be licensed to perform marriages, including interfaith ones. Starting last year, in what it called a “Year of Wrestling Together,” the DJC community studied and discussed what roles non-Jews could play in the congregation and concluded that ritual leadership roles, such as having an aliyah to the Torah, would be open to both Jews and non-Jews, provided individuals “first engage in a process of Jewish learning, deepening their Jewish knowledge, understanding and commitment.”
For Marks, who was born Jewish and whose partner converted to Judaism last month, the DJC has made her Jewish life more vibrant. Her son was named in a Jewish ceremony and the family celebrates Shabbat every week. “It’s not something I expected to be a priority, and it’s because of the DJC,” she said.
Rabbi Dolgin sees the shifting reality every day in his office. Reform rabbis in Canada, unlike those in the United States, do not officiate at interfaith weddings, although Rabbi Dolgin sometimes is still asked by parents who are longtime members to officiate at the weddings of their kids.
A Jewish marriage ceremony, like an aliyah to the Torah, is a ritual reserved for Jews, he said. But he also tells parents that a wedding day, while significant, is only one day. Instead he encourages newly married couples to focus on the rest of the days.
“There are a number of different ways to be a Jewish family,” he said. While conversion to Judaism is encouraged, it’s not the answer for everyone. Even in families where there is no conversion, “that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in raising a Jewish child.”
For younger rabbis, there’s been no shift in attitudes. Those who have come to the pulpit in the last 10 or 15 years, especially if they move to Canada from the United States, have only known Jewish communities where intermarriage is a significant presence.
Rabbi Boris Dolin has only been in Montreal for a few weeks, taking on the post of spiritual leader at the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet, but he wants to re-open the discussion about officiating at interfaith marriages.
“If we’re thinking about being truly welcoming, this discussion needs to happen,” he believes. But even if the synagogue’s stance on officiating at interfaith weddings doesn’t change, he believes interfaith couples can add to the diversity of the congregation.
“I hope my children, and other Jewish children, will marry other Jews. I still believe that for a Jewish person to marry a Jewish person is good for the Jewish People.”
But sometimes non-Jewish spouses who are committed to raising Jewish children can help the Jewish partner find new meaning in religion. “This creativity and fresh outlook should be seen as a positive thing,” he said.
In Vancouver, at the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation, Rabbi Jonathan Infeld lives in the city with the highest rate of intermarriage in Canada, at 43 per cent.
“It’s the reality since I’ve begun my career. It’s the reality of the city,” he said.
The high rate of intermarriage arises, he believes, in part because with a Jewish community of 25,000 people, it can be frustrating even for those who wish to marry Jewish to find a Jewish mate in Vancouver.
As a result, both the Reform and the Conservative movements have very active conversion programs, probably busier than in other parts of the country, he said.
“We do our best to reach out to the Jewish community. That means people who have one Jewish parent and people who have two Jewish parents.”
In that spirit, his synagogue recently adopted a new siddur that uses more English in part to accommodate worshippers who may not read Hebrew.
But Rabbi Elie Karfunkel, senior rabbi at the Orthodox Albert and Temmy Latner Forest Hill Jewish Centre in Toronto, is not as sanguine. For him, marrying out of the faith remains “a great disappointment. It’s the end of an amazing and glorious chain.”
He, too, has noticed the rising trend of interfaith families raising their children as Jews. “At our centre, we always try to remind the Jewish partner that they’re still Jewish and very possibly their child is Jewish, too, and if they want to engage with us, then we’re willing to engage with them.”
But he’s not convinced that interfaith marriage is a recipe for success.
“The best scenario is when both parents have a unified message of passion,” he said. “You need to be passionate about Judaism and you need to marry someone passionate about Judaism, or else you’re really rolling the dice.”