Jews struggle to keep the faith in an era of rising interfaith marriage

December 24, 1990|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

THE FIRST time Tom Davidson wore a yarmulke was at his wedding.

Davidson, a Roman Catholic, and his wife, Jodi, who is Jewish, were married last September at the Pikesville Holiday Inn. It was a Jewish ceremony performed by a cantor. At their reception, they served gefilte fish. Tom, 32, smiles recalling how his Italian and German relatives wouldn't go near the stuff.

His smile fades when he recounts the second time he wore the traditional Jewish skullcap. Days after the wedding, he and Jodi, 25, went to her Conservative synagogue for a Rosh Hashanah observance. He had never been in a synagogue before. He was "lost," he says, trying to follow the Hebrew-language service.

"I just felt uneasy," says Tom, who doesn't plan to convert to Judaism but has agreed to raise as Jews any children he and Jodi have. "It was a real culture clash."

Such clashes are becoming more common as Jews and non-Jews intermarry in increasing numbers.

A study released in August 1989 by the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York found that the intermarriage rate for Jewish men in a first marriage was 37 percent in 1987, up from 7 percent in 1955. For Jewish women in a first marriage, the intermarriage rate in 1987 was 25 percent, up from the 1955 rate of 2 percent.

The study examined the marital histories of 6,500 Jewish adults in nine U.S. cities with a total of 1.2 million Jews.

There are about 5 1/2 million Jews in the United States, or 2 1/2 percent of the population. Some Jews claim that intermarriage could cause these already relatively meager numbers to decrease further.

Generally, the climbing intermarriage rate is linked to the assimilation of Jews into social, professional and academic circles that once excluded them.

"Young people today have so much more in common than they used to: the same schools, the same interests, similar jobs," says Roslyn Zinner, the coordinator of the Project on Intermarriage, a series of support and educational programs begun in 1987 by the Jewish Family Services agency of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. "The question might be, 'Why aren't we seeing more intermarriages?' "

As the intermarriage rate rises, so does the sense of alarm in the Jewish community. Many Jews worry that their religious and cultural traditions will die off because of interfaith families mingling Jewish and non-Jewish beliefs or, even worse, ignoring Jewish customs. This mingling is especially evident in December, the month of Hanukkah and Christmas, as interfaith families decide whether to observe one or both holidays, or neither.

"It's very painful to Jewish parents to think that their traditions may not be continued by their children," says Rabbi James Rosen, who counsels interfaith couples for the Project on Intermarriage. "The transmission of Jewish practices happens through the family. But if the young family is not doing this, then the practices may be lost. The fear is more young people intermarry, time advances, things slip away."

Jewish religious law has forbidden intermarriage since the 5th century B.C., when the priest and scholar Ezra established many of the regulations that guide observant Jews to this day. In the biblical book named for him, Ezra says that when he heard about Israelites marrying people of other lands, "I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled."

Intermarriage is still appalling to many Jews, but some concessions seem possible. Recent national surveys by B'nai B'rith Women and the Jewish Outreach Institute show that most Jewish lay people would rather see single 35-year-old Jews marry gentiles than remain unwed. Yet, the majority of respondents said they would discourage intermarriage between younger adults.

Zinner explains that the Jewish attitude toward intermarriaghas softened in the past two decades largely out of necessity.

"You see intermarriage now affecting almost every Jewish family," she says. "The Jewish community is forced to confront it. The phrase I hear from parents is, 'I don't want to lose my children.' They're afraid that if they shun or disapprove of an intermarriage, they may never see their children again, or they may never see the grandchildren that come along. A lot of Jewish parents are trying to be as positive and accommodating as they can."

While both the B'nai B'rith Women and Jewish Outreach Institute surveys found Jewish lay people more accepting of intermarriage, rabbis were revealed to be staunchly opposed to it. Nearly all Orthodox and Conservative rabbis polled said they would not perform an interfaith wedding, a sentiment shared by 60 percent of the rabbis in the more liberal Reform movement.

"The rabbis I know and have contact with are all opposed to intermarriage," says Rosen, who sits on the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, a group of about 30 rabbis of all movements. "They see it as detrimental. It's their role as religious leaders to preserve the traditions of Judaism."

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