We don't 'marry out'. We are made to

The JC Essay


By Ben Rich, May 23, 2013
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"Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God." - Ruth 1:16

About 15 years ago, my wife leapt on to a Routemaster bus as it was moving away. She was followed by a woman in a hijab, who tripped. My wife grabbed her arm and pulled her on. And as the woman straightened up, she noticed my wife's Chai, which I had bought her on a visit to Jerusalem, and cried: "Get your hands off me, you dirty Jew." Rather than be upset, my wife - Rachael - responded by deciding that the time had come to convert to Judaism.

It was another step on a long journey from a Catholic upbringing via Quakerism and half a dozen years attending shul with me. It would take her a further two years to complete her conversion through the Liberal Beit Din.

If conversion were as simple as in the Book of Ruth, which we read last week on Shavuot, then her journey may have been completed sooner and there might be many more "new Jews", but I support conversion processes that challenge and educate proselytes just as I support Jewish education for those who are genetic Jews. Nevertheless, our attitude there still has a very long way to go.

For some, these children are at best Jews from non-Jewish homes and at worst not Jews at all, dependent on which parent is kosher

When my wife and I decided to get married, we spoke to a rabbi. That rabbi - to whom I will be forever grateful - asked whether Rachael wanted to convert. When she said "not really", the rabbi encouraged us to press ahead and let events take their course.

Of course, that was not what we should have been told. Dependent on our affiliations, it might have ranged from ripping cloth to a gentle encouragement to conversion and a sigh. But it was what we needed to hear at the time.

Now our Jewish family includes our two children, who attend Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue cheder and RSY-Netzer summer camps. When my daughter switched schools, she made a friend who turned out to have a Jewish father and an incredibly supportive but non-Jewish mother. Now that child also attends cheder with my daughter, as a matter of choice.

Four new Jews, but how different it might have been. An estimated four out of every ten Jewish children in the UK will marry a non-Jew. If only a third of their kids grow up to regard themselves as Jewish then our small community will shrink by a further quarter in a generation.

The recent census masked a steady decline in mainstream Jewish communities offset by a massive growth in strictly Orthodox numbers. In reality, the intermarriage rate above is an under-estimate for the mainstream, whether Orthodox, Masorti or progressive. Within a few generations Anglo-Judaism, as it has been known for 300 years, will vanish, and we will be represented almost solely by exclusivist fundamentalists and cultural secularists.

Yet it is not intermarriage that is the existential threat, but our approach to it. Let's consider if the number of children of intermarried couples who grow up to identify as Jewish is not one-third, but two thirds. Within a generation, the community grows by a sixth. Shuls flourish. Youth movements grow. Mainstream Judaism thrives.

For some this misses the point. These children are at best Jews from non-Jewish homes and at worst not Jews at all, dependent on which parent is kosher. To accept them fully is to divide the K'lal Yisrael, between those who believe in traditional matrilineality and those with more "flaky" [sic] definitions. Disregarding the fact that, in the Torah, it is patrilineal descent that matters - that's another essay - this approach is reminiscent of that of the Jews of Kerala: that ancient Indian community that, in its striving for purity, is now on the verge of extinction.

A strategy based on exclusivity might have its merits in the ghettos of the Pale or today in Stamford Hill, but it is repeatedly failing from Edgware to Essex, let alone in those far-flung corners of Liverpool, Sheffield and Southend. Jews in these areas inevitably spend much of their time with non-Jews and, of course, fall in love with them. It is the inevitable consequence of tearing down the ghetto walls. A blinkered approach, which sees every mixed-faith marriage as a failure and never as an opportunity, is a one way ticket down an ethnic cul-de-sac to extinction.

Yet there is another way: to ensure that, whatever decisions our kids take, we continue to include them in our community, always looking to provide them with pathways back to Judaism, rather than pushing them away.

In my previous role, I frequently visited small Reform communities, for example, in Harlow and Hull. The pattern was clear: in every case the majority of members were in mixed-faith relationships. It is unlikely that any of these communities would exist without these couples - the contrast with the closure of Orthodox shuls in Bradford and Blackpool is testament to this. Economically, closing these shuls makes perfect sense. Long term, it condemns mainstream Judaism to a handful of enclaves in north London, Hertfordshire and Manchester, and seals our community's decline.

Yet this is not a smug congratulation of progressive Judaism. Indeed, I saw the same complacency and narrow-mindedness in some Reform shuls: chederim that exclude the children of non-Jewish mothers for fear that they will be disappointed they cannot go on to Bnei Mitzvot (indeed, the universal rejection of the Bnei Mitzvot for such children) and convoluted burial arrangements. Even the "associate membership" and "friends" schemes on offer, ensure that - however welcoming the warden - mixed-faith families will see themselves as outsiders.

And then there is marriage. As one Reform rabbi put it to me: "Most of our synagogues do now make the right noises when it comes to non-Jewish partners. We welcome them into our services, allow them to participate in our events, bury them, bless their children, but the one time when such couples most often approach us - marriage - is the one time we unambiguously turn them away." Hardly surprising, then, that many choose not to come back.

The Assembly of Reform Rabbis recently took a small but key pigeon-step, ruling that "involvement in a mixed-faith marriage ceremony, would no longer be viewed as incompatible with membership of the Assembly". It will, no doubt, enable those who in the past have quietly participated in private blessings to do so openly.

Why is this a disaster? How does it threaten our community's integrity? My wife and I wrote and conducted our own service, a mixture of our two traditions. We built in elements that worked for our families and explained to guests the significance of each of these traditions. It was a public declaration of our commitment to our heritages, and our determination that they would be part of our married life. But why should that rabbi who provided us with such sound advice not have been able to be part of our celebration - as would still be the case today, whether the service was Reform or Liberal - because of our determination to include the ritual elements of a Jewish ceremony? What is the red line that we, as a community, are attempting to draw, and to what end?

Are we in search of the holy grail of common acceptance of Jewish status across all communities? If so, we have failed. Orthodox communities are no nearer to accepting the validity of progressive conversions. Are we attempting to defend some kind of racial purity? Surely not, not after the Holocaust when patrilineal Jews died alongside the matrilineal and neither was judged by their circumcision?

Are we concerned by the ability of mixed-faith couples to create a Jewish home for their children? If so why - in this day and age - have we such confidence in Jewish mothers but not in Jewish fathers? And why - even within the Liberal tradition - do we make the pretence of asking mixed-faith couples to sign up to providing a Jewish upbringing for children who do not yet exist? We seem to have such little faith in the integral value of our beliefs and customs, let alone the powers of a Jewish education, that we are constantly erecting barriers to prevent back-sliding, rather than tearing them down to welcome all those who wish to join us.

During my time at the Movement for Reform Judaism, people were often surprised to discover that my wife had not been born Jewish. Outside those smaller communities, some tactlessly wondered aloud that someone who "married out" was still so involved.

In fact, I never married out. My Judaism remained as strong as ever. Indeed, my relationship with my wife and the opportunity to re-engage with my identity through her eyes only enhanced my personal commitment.

We only "marry out" if that's what we choose for ourselves, or how our community judges us. Every part of the mainstream community needs urgently to re-evaluate its attitude and approach to intermarriage and seize the opportunity arising from hundreds and thousands of wives and husbands who are only too willing to marry in.

The clock is already ticking towards midnight. Pigeon-steps will never be enough to travel the road we must journey together if we are to survive.

Ben Rich was chief executive of Reform Judaism from 2011-13 and is a member of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue

Last updated: 4:17pm, May 23 2013