It used to be that Jewish parents brought up Jewish children who grew up to marry the children of other Jewish parents, and then they went on to have Jewish children, whom they brought up to marry Jews and have Jewish children…
It seemed as if that would go on forever, in part because Jews wanted to marry other Jews, and at least in part because it was hard for Jews to find non-Jews who wanted to marry them anyway.
Things have changed.
By now, statistics show that more than half of American Jews intermarry. But we also know that at least some of those non-Jews are interested in Jewish life, are willing to be married by a rabbi, and bring their children up as Jews.
The organized Jewish world has been slow to figure out how to deal with this differently configured landscape, but many institutions have begun to try.
In the Conservative movement, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has taken the lead; now, individual synagogues also offer programs. In Orangeburg on December 4, the Orangetown Jewish Center gave what it called a “Recipe for Celebrating the December Holidays,” aimed at “interfaith couples, interfaith parents raising children, parents of interfaith adult children, and grandparents.” The ingredients necessary for the recipe, the invitation said, included, “Knowledge, acceptance, and love”; it is to be served “with a full heart.”
Laurie and Mitchell Liner of Tappan started the Orangetown program, fruit of about a year of work with the FJMC and its keruv program. (Keruv means “outreach,” and it often is used specifically to mean outreach to the intermarried.)
“But it really started five years ago, when our son Zachary brought home a nice Italian Catholic girl,” Mr. Liner said. “He said, ‘This is who I am going to marry,’ and we had to deal with it by ourselves.” This despite their strong ties to their shul community; “We have been members for about 20 years, we both sit on the board, and Laurie is a vice president,” he said. But still they felt alone.
Last year, the two went to an FJMC keruv conference in Chicago, where they were trained in how to talk about intermarriage. “We met so many people, from all walks of life,” Ms. Liner said. “There were people who had converted, and there were people who hadn’t converted but were raising Jewish children. And some of these people were the mainstays of Jewish life in their family.
“We also learned about what other synagogues were and weren’t doing, so when we went back to our synagogue, I was like, ‘Let’s get moving on this,’” she said.
They drew up a strategic management plan. This was not going to be a scattershot approach, they decided. The issue is too important and too emotional for that.
They took the first step in their advocacy work by putting bookmarks in the machzorim that congregants used on the High Holy Days. They used a template from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, but the phone number and email address on it was theirs.
Next, they wrote a personal piece about keruv in their shul newsletter, the Shaliach. “We had to be organized about this — about why we were doing it, and who we were going to reach,” Ms. Liner said.
Both Liners stressed that everything they have done has been with the enthusiastic support of their rabbis, Craig Scheff, Paula Mack Drill, and Ami Hersh. “None of this would be happening without them,” Ms. Liner said. “They are amazing people.”
“Rabbi Scheff helped us write our article,” Mr. Liner said. “It wasn’t about what you can’t do in the Conservative movement. Keruv is about drawing closer; it’s about interfaith families and interracial families and LGBT people. That’s what we’re trying to do here. It’s not just about interfaith.
“It’s really about drawing closer.”
The first meeting began with three panelists, the Liners reported. “The first speaker is Greek Orthodox, and he is raising Jewish kids,” Mr. Liner said. “He’s very involved in the nursery school and the school. The second speaker was raised Italian Catholic, married a Jewish man, the kids were converted when they were young, and later on she converted. And the final speaker was someone whose two daughters married non-Jewish men. One of the sons-in-law is in the process of converting, and the other is not.”
“The son-in-law who is converting is doing it because he felt so welcomed into the synagogue,” Ms. Liner added. “He said that if it hadn’t been for keruv, and the rabbis and the synagogue being like that, he might not have done it. It would have turned him off.”
“In the absence of a welcoming synagogue, people drift,” Mr. Liner said. “They often end up with no religion.”
After the panel, the group broke up into breakout sessions, and it became clear that most of the attendees were the parents of adult children in interfaith relationships, with or without children. There were not many intermarried people.
“We started by asking people to identify themselves, and to talk about why they were here,” Ms. Liner said. “The more they talked, the more they realized that many people are going through this.”
At Orangetown, interfaith families can be shul members. Children can be in Hebrew school but they can’t become bar or bat mitzvah. Non-Jewish parents of Jewish children cannot have an aliyah, but they can come up to the bimah. “Even though there are restrictions, the rabbis do everything they can to have the family involved, and be an integral part of the event,” Mr. Liner said. “They are not sitting in the audience.
“I don’t know where the Conservative movement will go in the future, but we are so happy that these people want to be part of the shul.”
And remember, both Liners said, that like it or not, intermarriage now is part of Jewish life. “We go to our rabbi’s class, and at one class we talked about intermarriage,” Ms. Liner said.
“The rabbi asked everyone to raise their hands if they have someone interfaith in their family, and almost everyone raised their hands. And then the rabbi asked about having someone interfaith in the immediate family, and almost everybody raised their hands again.
“Almost everybody has that close connection.”