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There is a solution to 70% intermarriage among US Jews

New immigrants from North America arrive on a special "Aliyah Flight" on behalf of Nefesh B'Nefesh, at Ben Gurion International Airport, Aug. 14, 2019. (Photo: Flash90)

Was anyone shocked to read recent headlines that read, “70% of secular Jews in the US and 50% in Europe are married to non-Jews”

No one should have been, because this trend has been steadily growing over the last 50 years and even before that. Since Jews make up only 2.2% of the American population, and even less in European countries, it stands to reason that the pool of available Jewish spouses is exceedingly minimized. Add to that, the likelihood of meeting a potential mate in college or at the workplace, where Jews are also the minority, and it’s almost certain that most Jews will end up marrying someone from a different culture and background.

Of course, another contributing factor is the low number of religious affiliations, especially among young people. Up until the 1960s, many families attended congregations together, whether that was a synagogue or church, but once the 70s came along, that attendance saw an ever-increasing drop. Many, from that generation, consequently, grew up without any type of spiritual connection, making it less important to them to “marry in the faith,” something that, years before, was expected and even demanded by parents.

Once they intermarried, the question of how their children would be raised, often ended up being irrelevant or, in many cases, being nominally raised in another faith. The sad reality was the concern that the continuity of the Jewish people was at risk. After all, the children of mixed marriages are probably more likely, themselves, to not marry Jews.  This means that the third generation would be completely lost to the Jewish people – both on an ethnic and religious basis.

Although the solution is so obvious, it is also one which has been continuously rejected by leaders in Israel, who have the means to effect change in a way that would not only salvage that second generation, who were the product of intermarriage but also assure that a third generation would be completely connected to their people and their culture.

The answer is to make immigration easy, attractive and compelling for families who have intermarried. By doing so, the marriage pool is automatically widened for the children of such couples who, once in Israel, would likely marry someone they met in the army or among their peers at an Israeli university. 

Part of easing the burden, placed on the children of intermarried Jews, would also be allowing them a Jewish wedding in their homeland. At the moment, only having a Jewish mother, grants you the right to be married by the rabbinate in Israel. Those with Jewish fathers are not eligible. Consequently, they must leave the country to marry elsewhere.

This contributes to the feeling that there is an unfair distinction of who is “Jewish enough” to be married in their new country, because one Jewish parent, regardless of which, should be sufficient. It is only rabbinical law that recognizes the mother’s bloodline to be stronger than that of the father.  

Of course, this contradicts the Jewish scriptures, which recognize the patriarchal lineage as being the deciding factor, as seen in the case of Ephraim, Joseph’s son or Moses’ sons, Gershom and Eliezer, all of whom did not have Jewish mothers.  

Another helpful solution is found in programs, designed for Jewish youth, which attempt to connect these kids to their homeland, their culture, the Hebrew language and the many beautiful traditions of our people. These can go a long way by accepting such children of intermarried couples.  

Sadly, a few of my friends have told me that, although their children expressed an interest in joining these groups, which travel to Israel for a couple of weeks, their applications were refused, due to a policy that rejects anyone who has been raised in another faith. What a pity and a missed opportunity!

These kids could have enthusiastically decided that this was the direction for them, changing whatever plans they had, in favor of wanting to delve much deeper into their Jewish roots and a country that places family, tradition and heritage over materialism, wokeness and meaningless pursuits.

In some ways, we have only to blame ourselves for the diminishing of our numbers, as a people, because having a pure bloodline is apparently more important, to some, than saving future generations from being lost to us.

Yet, is there even such a thing as a pure bloodline, when it comes to the Jewish people?  For students of history, intermarriage was commonplace throughout the scriptures. One well-known example is the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, who ended up marrying a kinsman of her deceased Jewish husband. Through her line came King David. Once Sarah died, Abraham married a non-Jewish woman. As previously mentioned, both Joseph and Moses married Gentiles. Samson followed in the same footsteps with Delilah, and so it went throughout the history of the Tanach (Old Testament), to the point where sages had to constantly remind Israelites not to intermarry with pagans who would, undoubtedly, lead them away from their faith.

In the cases of intermarried couples, whose children display a desire to become part and parcel of their people, however, there is an opposite effect. Instead of straying from the faith, they are, rather, choosing to embrace their national identity and heritage. Isn’t that what we should be encouraging? So why aren’t we?

It is because the “keepers of the gate,” better known as the bureaucratic zealots who work at the Interior Ministry are too busy trying to keep out “undesirables,” who are looked upon as those who will dilute the Jewish blood of the nation, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Unlike some Israeli children, who were born of two Jewish parents, but who anxiously wait for the moment they can leave and take up residence in cool cities such as Berlin, London or even the U.S., not only is the consideration of marrying a Jew not a high priority on their list but often, neither is the thought of returning to live in Israel.  

Their country is taken for granted because it’s always been a natural extension of who they are. But for those who never knew what it was to grow up with Friday night Shabbat dinners, celebrating the holidays and feeling connected to their people, the fact that they would still like a second chance at doing so, should already speak volumes to those who have been tasked with granting entrance to outsiders who desire Israeli citizenship.

There is a simple solution to this growing dilemma of our dwindling numbers, but it first needs to come from a generous spirit of welcoming and embracing those who choose to move in our direction. If we remain unwilling to accept them, despite their desire to become part of us, then we will have chosen to weaken our ranks by our own exclusivity.

It’s time to tenderly welcome these individuals by doing all we can to extend a path to them in the very same way that King David’s great-grandmother, Ruth was warmly received as she chose to throw in her lot with the Jewish people.    

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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