The high rate of intermarriage among American Jews is often cited as an indicator of the ill health and dismal future of the American Jewish community. In her book, Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism, Jennifer A. Thompson takes a different view. Rather than using “number-driven” rates of intermarriage as an indicator of the degree of assimilation in the community, Thompson looks instead at the complexity and diversity of the lives of “intermarrieds” and their participation in American Jewish life — concluding that intermarriage does not necessarily imply assimilation.
Thompson’s analysis is based on her in-depth ethnographic research and lengthy interviews with intermarried couples, communal leaders, and rabbis of all denominations. She was also a participant-observer of intermarried groups and national conferences on the topic.
American Judaism is being challenged by the globalization of culture, secularism, the disruption of communal bonds, and other factors. Thompson argues that the inordinate attention directed at the high rates of intermarriage deflects the Jewish community from addressing the real issues, in her words, the “nature of Jewishness itself.” In-marrieds also need help to enrich their religious practice and Jewish identity and strengthen their connections to Jewish communal organizations. Simplistic and judgmental notions of “good” and “bad” Jews are not appropriate: a more nuanced analytical view of Jewish life and experiences among intermarrieds and in-marrieds is needed.
Thompson seeks recognition for the programs that seem to work to keep intermarrieds integrated into the larger Jewish community, like The Mother’s Circle, a trans-denominational education program developed by the Jewish Outreach Institute geared to reach out to intermarrieds, in which Jewish educators and rabbis serve as non-judgmental experts at meetings of small groups of non- Jewish women who are married to Jewish men. The meetings provide the women with knowledge and support to encourage them to choose Judaism for their families.
Jewish on Their Own Terms is a significant new book that provides fresh insights into the social world of intermarrieds and the forces shaping today’s Jewish community. Its intent is to “speak directly to intermarried couples and their families;” to enable them to see an “accurate portrayal of their concerns and experiences.” But the book does much more: it calls to the whole Jewish community. Index, notes, references.
- Intermarriage & Interfaith Families reading list
- Essays on Interfaith Complexities
- Internal Dialogue: Portraits of Intermarriage