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INTERMARRIAGE AND OUTREACH: FACING CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES
by
Irwin H. Fishbein, Rabbi, D.Min.
June 14, 1984 Marriott Inn, Buffalo, NY

Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot
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Let me begin with a personal note. I first read Judaism as a Civilization and Judaism in Transition during my high school years. These works effected a remarkable transformation of my understanding of Judaism and Mordecai Kaplan, zichrono liv'rachah, in fact, made it possible for me to become a rabbi. I am, therefore, particularly pleased that you have asked me to share with you my experiences with intermarried couples and delighted that you are willing to address intermarriage issues with such openness. Because of the kinship I have always felt with Reconstructionism, in a very real sense I experience being here as a coming home.

Over the years I have observed that the attitude of most rabbis toward intermarriage has not been representative of the attitude of the average Jew. This is not an unusual phenomenon. Just as parents are often too close to their own children to see clearly their children's problems, so rabbis are often too close to Jews and have too much invested in Judaism to understand what is happening.

As a rabbi, as a Jew and as a parent I would earnestly prefer that the phenomenon of intermarriage would disappear like the emperor's new clothes. But I am not willing, nor are you, to encourage the changes in our lives which would make this possible. I would not advocate, nor would you, the reestablishment of a ghettoized Jewish community in which contact between Jew and non-Jew was minimal or non-existent. To live in an open society means that intermarriage will be a reality for all of us. We can rail against it, we can ignore it, or we can respond to it in positive ways. Whether the challenge of intermarriage becomes for our generation an opportunity or a catastrophe depends upon us. Simplistic solutions to life's multitudinous problems may be deeply craved but are rarely possible. There is no simple solution to the problems presented by intermarriage, just as there is no limit to the number of Jews who will continue to intermarry regardless of what we do.

Clearly, not every intermarried couple offers promise for Judaism, but neither does every inmarried couple. Clearly, also, some of our great Jewish leaders like Theodore Herzl and some of our great Jewish thinkers like the late Ludwig Lewisohn, a professor of comparative literature at Brandeis University, were in early life on the assimilatory fringe, yet were able to make significant contributions to Jewish life. Since we do not know what the future holds for any couple that comes to us, it behooves us to welcome all intermarrying couples who approach a rabbi or synagogue. Here, my training as a pastoral psychotherapist -- a rabbi trained in psychotherapy -- has stood me in good stead, for the need to accept and affirm those whom I see in my practice is the sine qua non not only of the psychotherapeutic relationship but, indeed, of all relationships. If we truly want to work with intermarried couples we must recognize that, like our children, they will not always do what we want them to do, they will not always choose as we want them to choose. Insofar as possible, let our willingness to embrace them be unconditional, so that in time they may be able to respond to our overtures. When parents come to me very discouraged about how their children are turning out at age 8 or 16 or even 24, I say to them: "The evidence is not all in; the judgment is premature." We do not know what vicissitudes will befall any couple that comes to us. We never know how they will respond to us or how meaningful our response to them can be.

For the past fourteen years as director of the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling and rabbi of the Rabbinic Center Synagogue, I have interviewed over 2000 intermarrying or intermarried couples. Some want a rabbi to officiate at their ceremony; others have questions concerning raising children. Some want to talk about conversion; others are concerned about actual or anticipated conflicts over religion. In order to explore the many issues they bring to me, I have established a number of programs to satisfy the needs of intermarried couples. All programs have been designed for a minimum of three couples and a maximum of five in order to allow for more participation and feedback, as well as for encouraging the development of a deeper interpersonal relationship between rabbi and couple.

A class -- the first Class for Prospective Converts to Judaism in the State of New Jersey -- was established for couples who were interested in studying about Judaism. In addition to Jewish study, time is set aside for participants to express their concerns and anxieties about acceptance by family or the Jewish community or such personal issues as loss of identity. The class has been running continuously now for fourteen years and, at the time that it was established, there was no such class in New Jersey, a state with over 400,000 Jews. The prevailing attitude in the rabbinate then was that if anyone was sincerely interested in conversion, they could go to New York. It is this kind of attitude which conveys to intermarrying couples that they are not welcome.

When some couples requested a program to which they could come on a regular basis, I experimented with many ideas including creative Sabbath services, educational courses on Judaism, lectures on issues of social concern, book reviews, guest speakers and even programs on human sexuality. But not until I began the Sabbath Couples Group for marital enrichment, did I come upon an idea that seemed to satisfy the needs of the couples I worked with. I share with you now an attitude with which I have approached program development. If a program doesn't work, it is not necessarily because the program is bad, or the speaker inadequate, or the topic uninteresting. It may be because it addresses the needs of the program planners rather than the needs of those for whom the program is designed. When the Sabbath Couples Group was created, something clicked. Before too long there were 20 couples meeting on a monthly basis in four separate groups.

Although the form of this group has evolved over the years, one thing has been clear from the very beginning. It is not primarily a group for traditional worship. While each meeting begins with the lighting of the Sabbath candles and the Kiddush, the purpose of the group is to explore issues in the marriage relationship. The couples represent a wide range of attitudes towards Judaism. In some cases the non-Jewish mate has converted or is planning to convert. In other cases, the couple has a commitment to raise children as Jews. Sometimes, however, couples come into the group without having determined how children will be raised. While most of the couples are intermarried, basic relationship issues centering around such concerns as lack of communication and hurt feelings dominate the sessions. When religious issues are brought up, the couple is helped to understand them not only from a religious perspective but also in terms of their personal dynamics and the dynamics of their interrelationship. Sometimes religion is identified as the arena in which a power struggle is played out.

Another innovative program has been a Workshop on Raising Children in the Intermarried Home in which the feelings that each mate or prospective mate brings to childrearing are explored. What are their anxieties and their hopes, their fears and their dreams? I have found that these workshops are best held for an entire day rather than split over a period of time, since the emotional intensity which builds during the group process facilitates the unfolding of feelings. Without exception, all who sign up for this workshop or participate in the Sabbath Couples Group are interviewed at an initial conference. I permit no one to participate in any group without my having seen them first to make sure that they are suitable for the group and that the group will not be harmful to them. The conference also gives me some idea of what issues they are struggling with.

The workshop usually begins with couples asking what most other couples are doing. To which I usually respond, "Most other couples have decided to raise their children as Hindus. How does that help you?" The point is made that what other couples are doing is not really relevant to their coming to grips with their feelings and their conflicts. While we do explore a number of different practical possibilities for children, the primary focus is on helping couples explore their feelings and thereby gain new understandings. One common result of this workshop is a realization that, while they may want to raise their children as Jews, the non-Jew really doesn't know very much about Judaism and is afraid of the unknown. At the same time, the Jewish mate comes to realize that being tied to Judaism emotionally does not guarantee much knowledge about Judaism. Before their decision can be pursued further, some formal study of Jewish tradition is in order. Sometimes what is uncovered is a basic marital conflict rooted not in religion but in emotional ties to family or in other dynamics such as power and control. These couples are helped to understand that in a healthy marriage important decisions, like important aspects of the interpersonal relationship, have to be isolated from the usual conflictual struggle. In some cases the couple is encouraged to seek out a therapist with whom they can explore these issues on a more in-depth level.

Another recently developed program is the Demonstration Seder. I have called this a Demonstration Seder because the basic goal is not to invite couples to join in a so-called Model Seder where the usual foods are served and an abbreviated service conducted, but rather to talk about the preparations of the foods, the order of the Seder and the meaning of the various symbols. In addition, its purpose is to provide them with basic source material (in the process I discovered a delicious recipe for charoset from Surinam), to explore which haggadah would be best for them and also to discuss different approaches to the Seder when their children are young and as their children grow. This workshop met with such great success that we are planning to follow it up with other festival workshops.

The programs that have been developed by the Rabbinic Center are designed to take advantage of my training as a group psychotherapist and the fact that couples who come to the Couples Groups and the Workshops live in all parts of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. They do not ordinarily know each other and are, therefore, freer to exchange intimate details of their lives than they would be if they lived in the same community. Each rabbi and each group leader in every synagogue and every havurah will have certain strengths. The kind of group or groups a synagogue develops should evolve from the nature of the membership and the strengths of the rabbi or other lay leaders. Because those who participate in our special programs do not reside in the same community, we encourage them to find a niche in their local Jewish communities.

When looking at our ability to work with intermarried couples, the question of programming is, without doubt, a secondary issue. What has prevented us from doing more for our intermarried couples is not a lack of imaginative programming but rather an attitude that is judgmental and rejecting rather than supportive and affirming. To work effectively with them, we have to stop looking upon them as a catastrophe, as a threat to Jewish life, or as a menace to our children who have not intermarried or who are not yet of marriageable age. We also have to stop approaching them with the parental attitude that we know what is best for them. Often, in truth, we do not know what is best for them. Let us approach them with the same kind of attitude with which ideally a parent approaches a child, that of unconditional acceptance. This does not mean approval of whatever a couple does or wants to do but simply that we care for two human beings who have come to us, who seek our guidance, who yearn for our affirmation or who state that they want to join our congregation. Let us respond to them, not from where we are, but from where they are. If they are curious about Judaism, let us help them satisfy their curiosity. If they want to participate in our services, let us encourage them. If they want special programs for intermarried couples, let us respond to their needs. If they want to discuss having a Christmas tree in their home, let us facilitate such discussion. There is a difference in stating where we stand on an issue and in not being open to hear the conflicts and concerns of people who differ from us. It is possible to gain the confidence and the loyalty of couples with whom we disagree if our goal is to help them understand their issues from their perspective and not from our own. And, finally, let us encourage them to go from where they are to their next step, whatever that next step may be.

Quite frequently I have worked with many couples at whose ceremonies I have refused to officiate. I tell them clearly what I will and will not do. I say to them that my stand is determined by what I am comfortable with in terms of my understanding of Judaism and of my role as a rabbi. I explain that other rabbis differ from me. Some have more stringent conditions for officiating; others are comfortable with less restriction. If I cannot satisfy what they want, I help them find a rabbi who can in good conscience officiate at their ceremony. I sometimes recommend a secular ceremony but this is not a preferred option for most couples. In all cases I encourage them to explore their relationship as well as their options and I try to help them achieve what they consider, not what I consider, to be best for them. What is most destructive of their trust in us as religious leaders is lying to them by informing them that there are no rabbis who officiate at intermarriages or making them feel guilty by telling them that their intermarriage is destroying the Jewish people.

There is a tendency to limit our concern to those who are now or who may soon be willing to convert to Judaism. I would submit that this is a self-defeating approach. Those who want to convert to Judaism deserve our support but will in all likelihood find their way with or without us. The couples who desperately need us are those who have not yet made a firm decision or who are in search. Over the years, I have often read of the pain, the heartache and the embarrassment experienced by rabbis and Jewish parents. I have not heard as much about the pain, the heartache, the embarrassment, the anger and the feelings of rejection that intermarried couples experience. To be able to respond to them with openness is our best hope for helping them become part of the Jewish world. I would also think that the vitality of Judaism is sufficient that it can stand up very well in the marketplace of ideas.

Some of you may ask whether this endeavor is worth the effort, since there are so many other important issues in Jewish life. It seems to me that any efforts extended on behalf of intermarried couples will redound to the benefit of the entire Jewish community. For whatever programs are developed for intermarried couples can work and will work just as well for inmarrieds. What we basically need is a revolutionary reassessment of the attitudes with which we approach Jews as well as non-Jews. We have to be concerned about the intensity of Jewish feeling among inmarrieds as well as intermarrieds. Our Jewish young men and women need a Demonstration Seder. They could benefit from a program which explores some of the psychological and religious issues in raising children. And, generally speaking, they could also benefit from small havurot where the focus is on the holidays or other matters of Jewish concern or, as in the Sabbath Couples Groups which I have described, on relationship issues.

We must also consider another important factor in dealing with intermarried couples. As with anything in life, timing can be crucial. I believe that it is important to work with an intermarried couple as soon as possible. I would even encourage synagogues to establish affirming and non-judgmental programs for teenagers who are interdating, as controversial as that may sound, so that these children can also explore some of the issues involved in intermarriage in an open atmosphere. Whether a rabbi officiates or does not officiate or what conditions he puts upon his officiating, may be less critical for the couple than whether the rabbi can respond to them openly, distinguish between his values and theirs and help them evaluate decisions they are about to make in terms of individual, family and community.

Some of the programs that I have initiated and the ways that I have conducted them could only have been done by someone who had been trained in psychotherapy. However, it seems to me that most of these programs can be modified so that anyone with some group training and with sensitivity to the needs of others could serve as group leader and conduct the group in a warm and supportive atmosphere. But what it seems to point out is that there is need for every synagogue to have as part of its staff a mental health professional who is also concerned about Jewish life. There are only a few pastoral psychotherapists who are rabbis but there are many social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists who are committed to Jewish life, who are knowledgeable about Jewish tradition, and whose expertise could be called upon.

At a wedding the other day a woman came up to me after the ceremony and said, "If marriage is such a happy occasion, why am I crying?" I replied, "Because it is not only their marriage, but your marriage, your parents' marriage, your children's marriage, the life you lived as you grew up with your parents, the life you are living now and the future you see before you." She said simply, "Thank you." We need support groups in our synagogues and mental health professionals to assist in helping our congregants cope with the crises of life. We often forget that one of the purposes of religion is to help us negotiate each stage of life.

Prior to the birth of a baby, before a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or a wedding, and following the death of a loved one, each family should have the opportunity to meet with a synagogue-affiliated mental health professional to explore the feelings that the life cycle event has stirred up. If religion is to serve its basic purpose, it must facilitate the various phases of the life cycle rather than ignore the feelings evoked or, at worst, be a thorn in the family's side by creating conflict over requirements or ritual observance. In this way, the family will come to see Judaism as concerned about its welfare at all critical points in life. As a family therapist I have often observed that the bonds between couples are either cemented or come undone during times of crises. If our Jewish institutions would provide some "glue", the relevance of Judaism and loyalty to it would be much enhanced for so many more of our people.

The problems of intermarried couples are not significantly different from the problems of inmarried couples, but they constitute a new and significant group within the Jewish community. They deserve special treatment and have to be responded to with a special sensitivity.

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The Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling 
Telephone:  908-233-0419
A private, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research on intermarriage, counseling intermarried couples and serving as a mental health facility for area residents. 

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Email the Rabbinic Center: Rabbi Irwin H. Fishbein, D.Min, Director, at ihf@rcrconline.org


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Last modified: November 3, 2009