Intermarriage has long been an established fact in American Jewish life, but the debate over how best to address it goes on. On one side are those who would focus most communal resources on bolstering the education of the "in-married" and their families. On the other are those who advocate expanding outreach efforts to encourage intermarried couples to raise Jewish children.
Yet even the strongest proponents on each side are beginning to reach a consensus that it's not an either/or proposition.
Sociologist Steven Cohen, whose comment that intermarriage is "the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity" roiled the interfaith community, has since cited the importance of synthesizing two seemingly dissonant messages: "One is that Jews should marry Jews; and the other is that Jews who marry non-Jews should be fully welcomed in our communities."
The fact that 50 local congregations have signed on to this weekend's Interfaith Shabbat reflects the growing awareness among rabbis and the broader community that proactive outreach is an important step in bringing interfaith families in.
The weekend, playing out at various synagogues in different ways, is sponsored by InterFaithways, a local organization devoted to making our community a more welcoming one.
With a budget of $150,000, InterFaithways is funded half by private philanthropists and half by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The $75,000 Federation grant, which funds an outreach program geared toward rabbis, is the largest communal allocation to date for interfaith efforts.
And the funding for such programs is likely to grow. Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of Federation, says there is "no question" that outreach is going to become an increasing priority in the years to come. Rabbi Shira Stutman, who started this week as the new director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Federation, agrees. She says that the Federation needs to "dedicate a big portion" of its resources to engaging unaffiliated families, many but clearly not all of whom are intermarried.
But the Federation, along with area synagogues and other local institutions, still must grapple with the tough questions: How high a priority should outreach be? How much funding will it require? And what are its objectives?
Even how to divvy the pie among interfaith outreach and general outreach is a matter of debate. In this age of "every Jew is a Jew by choice," the challenge of engaging the intermarried is not dissimilar from the challenge of engaging unaffiliated families where both spouses are Jewish. For both populations, it's about providing a meaningful reason to connect.
This is our central task -- creating spiritually fulfilling Jewish journeys for anyone willing to embark. Let's build upon the successful programs that exist and create new models as well. Our Jewish future could well depend on it.