“Nick”, a 35-year-old administrator, married a Toronto Jewish woman two years ago. His wife is expecting their first child. He has no plans to convert to Judaism.
Nick (he asked that his real name not be used) was born and confirmed as a Catholic but has “no problem” with the fact his children will be Jewish because his wife is.
He and his wife talked about him converting, but “I felt like for me, it would not be an honest move to make. I had already rejected Catholicism, and to make a commitment to another religion didn’t make sense,” he told The CJN.
However, he and his wife have agreed to raise their children as Jews and have even discussed sending them to day school.
“I have no problem with that. I feel it’s important there’s some faith in a child’s life.”
Nick is one example of a modern man who has married into Judaism – in his case, without converting. And he’s fully aware his future children’s religious status hinges on his wife’s bloodline.
In Judaism, matrilineal descent is still the rule within Orthodox Judaism, which holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has irrevocable Jewish status. Judaism passed through the mother is also the norm in the Conservative movement.
‘in slightly more than half of intermarried arrangements, the husband was Jewish and the wife was not’
Controversially, the Reform movement in the United States adopted patrilineal descent in 1983, but with many provisos. Canadian Reform rabbis never adopted it.
Does intermarriage present fewer hurdles for men than for women? Should it even matter if a gentile man becomes Jewish if he marries a Jewish woman?
At the same time, how are men coping with standard issues arising from interfaith coupledom, such as burial, synagogue membership and participating in their children’s life-cycle ceremonies?
There are more non-Jewish men marrying Jewish women today only because intermarriage overall has increased dramatically. When Canadian researchers Randal Schnoor and Charles Shahar analyzed the results of the 2011 National Household Survey for Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA, they found the intermarriage rate in Canada was 26 per cent. Twenty years earlier, it was 17 per cent.
The Canadian figures were still far below the U.S. intermarriage rate of 58 per cent, as reported in a 2013 Pew Research Centre survey.
The Canadian study described only those couples in which the non-Jewish spouse did not convert to Judaism. It found that 48,500 individuals were married or partnered to non-Jews.
Drilling down further showed that in slightly more than half of intermarried arrangements (54 per cent), the husband was Jewish and the wife was not. In 45 per cent of cases, it was the wife who was Jewish and the husband not.
“Jewish men are more inclined to intermarry than Jewish women,” the study showed.
This has “profound” implications for whether children of interfaith unions are Jewish. Schnoor and Shahar found that while 27 per cent of the youngest children of intermarried couples were identified by their parents as Jewish, the figure varied greatly depending on which partner was Jewish.
In cases where Jewish women intermarry, 38 per cent of the youngest children were identified as Jewish. That number plunged to 17 per cent when the husband was Jewish and the wife was not.
“Whether it is the husband or the wife who is of the Jewish faith has a significant bearing on the religious orientation of their children,” the study pointed out.
That’s no shock to Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal, the city with the lowest rate of intermarriage in Canada, at 15 per cent.
“There’s no question that women definitely set the tone of the household more than men. That should come as no surprise to anyone in all matters, not just religious,” he told The CJN.
That extends to a child’s education. “Generally speaking, women make these kind of decisions.”
He sees a “disproportionate” number of Jewish men with non-Jewish women, and the “overwhelming” cases of conversion he’s aware of are Jewish men who have married non-Jewish women.
But rabbis have noticed an increase in the incidents of non-Jewish men with Jewish women, he said.
One “impediment” to conversion for men might be circumcision, he pointed out. If a man is already circumcised, a conversion entails the symbolic drawing of a drop of blood, a procedure known as the hatafat dam brit.
But if a man is uncircumcised, a conversion requires full circumcision. That might give some men pause.
If they go through with it, “I don’t think anyone doubts their commitment,” said Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Toronto’s Temple Sinai, who agrees that “in a vast majority of families, the mother seems to be much more involved in child-rearing than the father. That’s a common trend socially. It has nothing to do with intermarriage.”
Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanuel-El in Victoria, the city with Canada’s highest rate of intermarriage – at 73.5 per cent – agreed.
It’s “a little bit sexist,” he said, “but it’s still how families seem to work: that most of the identity of the family is connected with the person driving the bus, which is often the mother.”
Technically, it’s “simpler” if a man is not Jewish when his wife is, Rabbi Brechner noted. “There’s no need for conversion.”
But if the husband is and his wife is not, and they want their children raised as Jews, “usually, that requires the Jewish dad to have a higher level of commitment. If it’s important for them to have a Jewish family, then the children have to be converted. You’re looking at a beit din [and] a mikvah,” Rabbi Brechner said.
There has long been an assumption that when Jewish men intermarry, they and their families are lost to Judaism. That’s not necessarily so, found U.S. author Keren McGinity, author of the 2014 book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood.
She found that these husbands mostly strive to bring up their children as Jews, arguing that the “gendered ethnicity” of intermarried Jewish men, growing out of their religious and cultural background, compels them to raise Jewish children.
In any event, it’s “a myth that intermarriage is going to destroy the Jewish People,” Rabbi Brechner said flatly. “I really don’t see that playing out.”
Indeed, not long ago, intermarriage was something to be prevented. Now, more and more synagogues are talking about accommodation, and even outreach.
On March 1, the umbrella body for Conservative synagogues in North America approved a resolution to allow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.
In the United States and Canada, “in virtually every case where a congregation would adopt this change, the target audience are intermarried couples in which the Jewish spouse would have been a member or potential member,” explained Rabbi Philip Scheim of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue and president of the 1,700-member Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella group for Conservative rabbis.
“Targeting gentiles with no Jewish partner would have rarely, if ever, been the intent [of the new policy],” he told The CJN. Domestically, Rabbi Scheim doesn’t anticipate a rush by Conservative shuls to adopt the policy, “but there may be an impulse to be more welcoming of intermarried couples and families into synagogue life.”
Feeling rejected from synagogue life has been the sole disappointment in Nick’s faith journey.
He’s enjoyed accompanying his wife to synagogue, where he’s encountered “a tight-knit community that is very loving and I enjoy being part of that.”
But without a conversion, he could not become a member at the synagogue, which he described as “egalitarian, Conservative-style.”
“That was a bit of a surprise to me,” Nick said. “I didn’t know there was such a thing. At first thought, I thought, ‘Well, too bad. I understand I have to make a larger commitment in order to join,’ but I guess it’s difficult. It made me feel a little bit like an outsider.”
Nick and his wife are too young to have considered burial. Current rules dictate that a non-Jewish spouse cannot be buried next to a Jewish one, at least not in community-owned cemeteries.
But two Canadian rabbis have found a way.
About a dozen years ago, after receiving inquiries from congregants, Temple Sinai in Toronto purchased a small section in Lambton Hills Cemetery on Royal York Road.
“We created a section whose bylaws allow for affiliated interfaith families – those who belong to a synagogue – to purchase plots to be buried side by side because these families are living a Jewishly affiliated life,” said Rabbi Dolgin. “We wanted to provide for this need in a way that parallels the commitment they have made in their own lives.”
For Rabbi Dolgin, it comes down to a couple “prioritizing the Jewish identity of their family and the Jewish identity of their children.”
In 2013, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg created that city’s first Jewish interfaith cemetery, where couples may be buried side by side.
“Naturally, the Jewish spouse receives a Jewish burial,” the Conservative shul’s Rabbi Alan Green explained. “The non-Jewish spouse receives a non-denominational burial.” The caskets and shrouds are identical, and the non-Jewish spouse receives a “kosher style” taharah (ritual preparation of the body). However, non-Jewish religious symbols and quotations are not allowed on headstones.
“We have come to understand that 50 per cent or more of marriages involving the next generation of young Winnipeg Jews are interfaith marriages,” Rabbi Green told The CJN.
So several years ago, the synagogue created a new category of membership for interfaith couples called “linked membership,” in which the non-Jewish spouse would become a synagogue member because they are married to a Jew.
More recently, it has allowed interfaith couples to have aliyot. The Jewish spouse chants the Torah blessings, while the non-Jewish spouse witnesses.
In short, “we have come to the conclusion that we cannot write off half or more of our Jewish young people, and that we only stand to benefit by making interfaith couples as welcome in our synagogue as we possibly can,” Rabbi Green said.
It’s the same sentiment sounded by Paul Leszner, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism. He said “the vast majority” of Reform congregations in Canada accept a non-Jewish spouse as a member, though temples set their own rules on which religious honours may be performed by a non-Jew.
“We want to be a welcoming community,” Leszner said. “It’s very hard to tell a couple, ‘You can’t join the synagogue, but five years from now, please bring us your children.’”
The degree to which interfaith marriages are embraced varies according to denomination. The most accepting end of the spectrum in Canada seems to be the unaffiliated Danforth Jewish Circle in Toronto, which recognizes that children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are Jewish.
Even in Reform Judaism, the term patrilineal descent is “a bit of a misnomer,” explains ReformJudaism.org.
“Reform Judaism considers a child of an interfaith couple to be Jewish if one parent is Jewish and the child is raised as a Jew and receives a Jewish education and celebrates appropriate life-cycle events, such as receiving a Hebrew name and becoming bar or bat mitzvah,” the site states. “This also assumes that the child is being raised exclusively as a Jew and not practising another religion.”
That policy “creates a different dynamic than we have here” in Canada, said Rabbi Dolgin.
But while non-Jewish fathers may, for example, bless their children on the bimah at a bar or bat mitzvah service at some Reform temples, other activities, such as directly interacting with the Torah, are prohibited to them, Leszner noted. That cuts across all denominations.
Rabbis consulted for this story agree that many non-Jewish men convert in the years leading up their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.
That was the case for Rick Ruston, a 58-year-old pharmacist in Peterborough, Ont., who married a Toronto Jewish woman. All three of his children had the life-cycle rite and he converted just before his daughter’s bat mitzvah when he was nearly 40.
“I wanted to participate. That was the major thing that made me convert. I realized there was a strong possibility, no matter how much I wanted to, that I wasn’t going to be able to participate in that part of their lives, and I wanted to be part of that,” said Ruston.
Now, the former Catholic leads his extended family’s seders.
Sometimes, though, he has to deal with friends and loved ones who reject his status because he converted through a Reform temple.
Ruston said he deals with that by saying to himself: “I’m doing this for me. I don’t really care what you think.”
“That’s the attitude I had, and that’s the attitude you need going into it,” he said. “As long as you go into it honestly – converting for yourself – it really doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about it.”
Even Orthodox synagogues can no longer turn a blind eye to intermarried couples, Rabbi Poupko said, “even if they have a stated policy in their constitution or bylaws.
“There’s a pervasive understanding that we gain nothing by pushing people away, and we have a lot to gain by bringing people closer,” he said.
“If we want those kids to be raised Jewish and if we want the non-Jews – man or woman – to consider conversion, our strategy is much better [and] our goals are more easily effected by a welcoming attitude rather than by pushing people away.”