Thursday, September 20, 2012

Are you with us or against us?

(Alternately titled: "This is what's wrong with Jews in America" or "An open letter to 'that mean old lady.'")

Happy New Year! I had a pretty nice Rosh Hashana, right up until the end. Then an older woman at the synagogue invited a few of us back to her house for lunch after services Tuesday. Sure, I figured, it would make her happy to have guests. Maybe I had a dishwasher to empty and a tablecloth covered in wax to clean, or a million other things to do, but I could make time for a nice old lady who needed some company.

During lunch she and the other women commiserated about their wayward children- children who left home, who didn't call their mothers, who were no longer connected to their Judaism, who couldn't hold down jobs. They marveled that I was close to the same age as their children but so different, so much better...until I let it slip that I was marrying a non-Jew. Perhaps it wasn't so accidental. Maybe I felt like I shouldn't have to hide it (sometimes I think I should just for the sake of not getting into arguments), maybe I felt guilty for sitting there taking all their praise while knowing that I was secretly just as "bad" as all the other wayward children.Or maybe I wanted to stand up for my generation and to do so I had to take ownership of them and their "mistakes."

Whatever the reason, the reaction was predictable. It started innocently with "My fiancé lives in League City," and the usual chorus of "Mazel Tov!" at the news that I was engaged. They asked some questions about our wedding plans, and I spilled that he was Catholic. "Oy don't tell me that!" said our host. "Why not?" I replied, "it's not a secret."

No, he isn't converting, and yes, we are raising the kids Jewish. It's not like I think it's going to be easy, but it is what we're going to do. And there we get to what is wrong with Jews in America. You know who's making it hard for me? Not my own family, not my wonderfully understanding fiancé, not his family, not his church with the sweet Deacon who is helping us through pre-cana and coming to our wedding on the other side of town to bless the marriage. No. It's the Jewish community. It's the woman who proceeded to lecture me for a long time about how I'm making a mistake and the world has not changed and that I "can't" do this. I stayed as long as I could take, and then I left. I wish I could have put together a well reasoned response right then and there, but it wouldn't have helped my cause. She wouldn't even let me get much of a word in my own defense.

The world HAS changed. This study discusses that 1/3 of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jews, making 50% of recent non-Orthodox Jewish marriages (2006 to 2011) interfaith. Interfaith couples and their "half-breed" children are poised to become a huge part of the Conservative and Reform Jewish community in the next few years. It's interesting to note that this study focuses primarily on New York, still the largest concentration of Jews in this country. (If intermarriage rates are that high there, I imagine it must be higher in less-Jewish places! I would be interested to see a study done on that.)

You can't stop intermarriage. Well, you can, but you don't want to. Here's how: Don't allow your children to be professionals and go to secular college and participate in the wider community. Build walls, go back to the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the shtetls of Russia. Build a fence around yourselves and don't let Jews out or non-Jews in. Go back to Israel and huddle together on a tiny strip of holy ground. Jews in America, this is obviously not what you want. You want to be out there, in the world. You want your children to grow up and be anything they want, you want the American dream. Well, you've got it. Nobody said it would come cheap.

My generation, we are different from the last. It's not that we are color-blind or immune to religious differences or don't notice homosexuality. But many of us see (and G-d willing more and more of us will see) that black people, white people, Jewish people, Christian people, gay people, and straight people are all people. People you could be friends with, people you can learn from and teach to, people to share with, people to fly a space station with, people you could perhaps love and marry and build a family with. People are, first and foremost, just like us. Walls are coming down, and our differences no longer define us. Intermarriage is just one of many examples of that.

So you have a choice, Jewish community: You can write me off. You can tell me that no matter how hard I try, I can't raise Jewish children with a non-Jewish father. And if that's what you do, then you will probably be right. You'll be right for me and for the other of the 1/3 of Jews who will marry non-Jews this year. Or you could help me, welcome me, and let me stick around. Offer support- a rabbi to marry us (well, that ship has sailed for me, probably), a synagogue where we both can feel welcome, English in your services, education without pressure to convert. Do that, do all of that, and then we will succeed.

I have made my choice. I have chosen to marry a Catholic and raise Jewish children. Now you choose. It is not our own actions but the response of the Jews we encounter that will ultimately decide whether we succeed or fail... Are you with us or against us?


  1. Michelle (Gayer) ShockeySeptember 21, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    Stephanie, I am with you 100%. Drew embraced my Judaism above and beyond what I expected, and even his family has embraced it. We still keep the holidays, and for Rosh Hashanna I made dinner for friends (also non-Jews) complete with home-baked, round challahs. When we first started dating almost 7 years ago, I realized instantly that Drew had a connection with his religion and his beliefs on God and I would be selfish to take that away. We both agreed to not convert in either direction, and that was it; a decision made within months of dating that has never caused any issues, for us that is. I've fallen out of favor with going to shul because to find a community that is genuinely accepting of interfaith marriage is tough and discouraging. People are people and the world IS changing and Jews need to change with them. I wish your wedding to be beautiful and everything you ever want it to be! I miss you!

    1. "I realized instantly that Drew had a connection with his religion and his beliefs on God and I would be selfish to take that away."
      This to me is exactly the point. If he asked me to convert those mean old ladies would have his head on a platter. So then why would it be ok for me to ask the same of him? Ridiculous. I tried to explain to her that he doesn't actually need to convert for our children to be Jewish (100% true, even an orthodox Rabbi would- begrudgingly- tell you that) but she stuck to "you can't do this" and "it's a mistake."

      Oh well, I am going to do what I am going to do. I hope that Jews figure out that they are going to have to let me in, or else force me out. If my children grow up and leave Judaism, it's not because of my choices but because of theirs.

      Thanks for coming by Michelle! Miss you too!