Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tone Deaf much?

So the Jewish Agency and MASA have a new ad campaign designed to combat intermarriage. Haaretz newspaper calls it a 'scare' tactic working to prevent the 'loss' of assimilated Jews by having Israelis work on their friends from other countries.

Now, I appreciate the idea of getting Israeli Jews to think about what's going on in the greater Jewish world and engage in the work of preserving a strong diaspora, but with a roughly 50% intermarried rate in the United States (at least according to the Jewish Population Survey and subsequent surveys), doesn't the idea of describing intermarried Jews as 'abducted' (again, from the Haaretz article) seem a bit...harsh?

No doubt, the realities of intermarriage are challenging, both on the micro level (how does a nuclear family navigate issues of holidays, life cycle, values, etc. without offending the extended families) and the macro (how do we as a Jewish community engage interfaith couples and families meaningfully and sensitively?). Steven Cohen, in a paper he wrote a few years ago (and presented at the CCAR just before publication) makes it clear that the normal tools used to encourage Jewish affiliation simply don't work for this cohort, but we as rabbis have a very clear opportunity to be 'gateways' into Jewish practice for both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners. These are not 'lost' Jews (as Cohen reports toward the end, most of those who intermarry report positive feelings about being Jewish), and need not only appreciation and attention from the Jewish community but also to be steered toward the resources and tools that will help them to make good choices.

Perhaps I'm making too much out of nothing and this is a good campaign that understands its (largely Israeli) audience, but it seems to me that it's better to engage interfaith families (or as one woman described it to me, "Jewish famililes with a non-Jewish parent"), find points of contact and expanding from there, all the while (as Cohen argues) making sure our youth take advantage of all the resources available to them (day school, camp, Israel trips, youth group, etc.). Yes, it would be fantastic to have Israeli Jewish society engaging in this conversation as well, but I'm not sure I want this to be their starting point.

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