October 3, 1988
The Intermarriage Quandary

Can U.S. Judaism afford to say yes? Can it afford not to?

Last week Kitty Dukakis interrupted her hectic campaign schedule to travel back to Boston for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism's yearly calendar There she joined 1,000 worshipers to participate in the age-old evening prayers of repentance in the modern sanctuary at Temple Israel, her Reform synagogue. Then, without making any public comment, she went home to quietly observe the traditional sundown-to-sundown fast.

The woman who could soon become the first Jewish First Lady naturally stirs pride within her religious community. But she also personifies American Judaism's most vexing and divisive issue: intermarriage. When Kitty wed Michael Dukakis(who is Greek Orthodox) in a 1963 civil ceremony, she was part of a growing trend. During the past three decades, says Brooklyn College sociologist Egon Mayer the incidence of intermarriage among Jewish young adults has nearly tripled. A study for the American Jewish Committee puts the rate at around 30%; in Denver and Phoenix it runs to 60%.

Most faiths frown on mixed marriage but in Judaism it has long been seen as a particularly severe violation of religious tradition. Since the Holocaust, America's Jewish community of 5.9 million has become sensitized to its erosion through intermarriage and assimilation. Emotions run high. Rabbis who agree to officiate at interfaith marriages-and some 75% refuse-are sometimes viewed as traitors and spurned by synagogues. Parents and grandparents worry about the future of their families and faith. "They fear that '5,000 years of Jewish lineage is going to end with my child,' " says Rabbi Robert Alper of Wyncote, Pa.

Officially, opposition to mixed marriage is one issue on which all wings of U.S. Judaism agree. But in practice there are distinctions. If the Gentile spouse converts to Judaism, as happens 30% of the time, the union is treated as one between Jews; requirements for conversion are toughest among the Orthodox. In addition, Reform and Conservative congregations welcome unconverted Gentile spouses into temple life; Orthodox synagogues are less accommodating. And while the Reform rabbinical conference in 1973 formally denounced the participation of rabbis in mixed-marriage ceremonies, rabbis in the most liberal of Judaism's major branches generally do as they please. Reform Rabbi Irwin Fishbein of Westfield, N.J., last year printed a national directory of 200 members of the Reform clergy who are willing to conduct intermarriages. Moment, a feisty Jewish monthly, caused a stir earlier this year when, it estimated that half of Reform rabbis perform such ceremonies.

Most rabbis who are willing to help Jewish-Gentile couples demand certain conditions. Rabbi Robert Schreibman of suburban Chicago is typical: he performs mixed-marriage ceremonies only if the partners promise to rear their children as Jews. Rabbi Burton Padoll of Peabody, Mass., exacts no promises, but will not preside jointly with a Christian minister or within a church. A handful of rabbis are untroubled by Christian involvement. Chicago's Rabbi Howard Berman will conduct a ceremony if the partners simply agree to spend more than a year in his outreach program for the intermarried, one of the biggest in the Midwest.

Why are rabbis willing to bypass tradition? Some cite humanitarian reasons. Rabbi Fredric Dworkin of Leonia, N.J., first broke ranks 20 years ago, when an obese Jewish woman who had experienced difficulty finding a mate pleaded. "This might be my only chance at happiness." A more common argument is presented by Rabbi Richard Schachet, whose Chatsworth, Calif, synagogue consists almost entirely of the intermarried. "Every Jew who is turned away is a potential loss," he says. While opponents see intermarriages as a threat to Jewish survival, rabbis who perform them reason that the couples will wed anyway and a friendly approach is more likely to result in Jewish children.

That is the subject of intense debate. Sociologist Mayer surveyed children of mixed marriages between ages 16 and 40 and found that a mere 24% considered themselves Jewish. Others, however, insist that the situation is not so bleak. The Dukakis daughters, Andrea and Kara, are probably typical. Kitty says they "think of themselves as half Greek and half Jewish."

Jewish strategy aside, Jack Frank, a Chicago Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate in pastoral counseling, questions the wisdom of intermarriages: "It's difficult enough to merge two individuals in a good marriage when their values and customs are the same. "Often, he says, couples refuse to face the reality that when the first child is born, in effect one member of the couple has to give up his religion."

In a secular society, many are willing to make that sacrifice, and Judaism must learn to live with it, in the view of many liberal rabbis. "Any way you look at it, intermarriage is an inevitable consequence of an open society," says Eugene Mihaly, vice president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. "A very high percentage of Jewish young people go to college and at a marriageable age come in contact with non-Jewish students. It's only natural that some of them should fall in love." The best course, he maintains, is to welcome the influx, through marriage, of seekers, some of whom may ultimately broaden and enrich the faith.

By Richard N. Ostling.
Reported by Natalie P. Byfield /New York and Lynn Emmerman /Chicago


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