Jewish intermarriage likened to Holocaust Congregations discuss issue at assembly here.

November 21, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

With the solemn slogan "Never again," Jews have sworn to prevent the kind of mass extermination that befell European Jewry during World War II.

But many American Jews fear that a silent Holocaust has been under way for more than 20 years.

They say this gradual assault on the Jewish population has been perpetrated not by a mad dictator, but by young Jews who marry gentiles and dilute the Jewish faith and culture.

A variety of speakers offered the same grim analogy during a symposium on Jewish intermarriage yesterday at the Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel.

The event was part of the 60th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, which opened Tuesday and continues through Sunday at the Convention Center downtown and nearby hotels.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was to speak on the Middle East peace process to the 3,000 assembly participants today at the Convention Center.

"If we don't do anything about [the growing rate of Jewish intermarriage], then our grandchildren will say to us the same things we said to [non-European] Jews of the 1930s: 'How could hTC you stand by and let that happen?' " said David Sacks, a United Jewish Appeal official from New York and a co-chairman of the symposium.

The most intensive examination of the intermarriage issue ever conducted at a General Assembly, the 7 1/2 -hour conference was prompted by the CJF's 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

According to the study, 52 percent of the Jews who were married from 1985 to 1990 married a non-Jew. By way of contrast, only 9 percent of Jews intermarried in 1964.

About 5 1/2 million Jews live in the United States, or about 2 percent of the population. Some Jews worry that intermarriage could cause those relatively meager numbers to dwindle even further.

Egon Mayer, a sociologist and a leading national authority on intermarriage, whispered "52 percent" in only half-mocking horror he addressed the symposium's 200 participants.

"No number has become so indelibly printed on the collective mind of the American Jewish community as . . . 52 percent," said Mayer, one of several speakers at the symposium.

But the speakers and participants seemed even more alarmed by the survey finding that only 28 percent of the 770,000 children in intermarried families are being raised as Jews.

"For years, we've been shaking our heads about intermarriage and saying, 'Ain't it awful!' Now we have the hard statistics to help move us into action," said Helene Berger, the chairman of the CJF's Committee on Community Planning, which organized the gathering.

Most speakers blamed the grim child-rearing figures on a dearth of formal outreach programs for intermarried couples.

Many of the programs that exist are operated by synagogues, whose rabbis tend to see conversion of non-Jewish spouses as the goal of outreach. That approach often angers interfaith couples and makes them feel they are being chided for a lack of religious belief, Mayer said. As a result, they turn their backs on Judaism.

Those couples "are not looking to us to sanction their relationships. They already have their relationship," said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a New York-based intermarriage expert and a former Unitarian who converted to Judaism when her late husband Paul became a more observant Jew late in his life.

The solutions to the intermarriage problem, said Cowan, would include the inviting kind of outreach that "made me fall in love with Judaism."

"I came to the faith not because people were saying to me, 'You're not Jewish enough,' but because they said, 'Come in, learn more,' " she said.

Outreach can't be handled singly by synagogues or federations, said Sacks. He then called for the creation of an independent national agency for intermarriage. The agency's sole purpose would be to serve as a "clearinghouse" of information and referrals for synagogues and federations.

"Programs of outreach to all our intermarried couples would not cost megabucks -- high six figures or low millions at most," said Sacks. "It can be done. Our goal should be to raise that 28 percent figure to 51 percent. By doing so, we would produce 250,000 more Jews."

Outreach emphasizing Jewish culture more than religion "may offend the Orthodox community," Sacks acknowledged. "We have to be sensitive to that."

Rabbi Martin Siegel of Columbia Jewish Congregation attended the symposium and criticized it for ignoring Judaism's spirituality as a potential lure for interfaith couples.

"Rather than worry about trying to make people comply with specific laws of the Torah, we ought to look at the basic meaning of the Torah, which involves developing a closeness with God and helping each individual bring out the essence of himself," said Siegel. "From the religious perspective, there is something we can offer to the intermarried."

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