Jewish congregation discusses interfaith marriages 'Many . . . agonize over this,' rabbi says

June 10, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

With repercussions from interfaith marriages rippling throug the Jewish community, members of Beth Shalom congregation want "to serve as a stimulus to those in the county interested in the issue," said Rabbi Seymour Essrog, religious leader of the South Carroll congregation.

They invited Beth Land Hecht, coordinator for the Project on Intermarriage, to speak at recent services.

Ms. Hecht, a licensed social worker, listed statistics that show more than 50 percent of the Jewish population are marrying non-Jews, a trend with far-reaching implications for the family and the extended community.

Often, children of those marriages are lost from Judaism.

"Children of interreligious marriages are often left with no sense of identity or belonging," she said. "Only 28 percent of the adult children of intermarriage identify themselves as Jewish. The loss to our community is tremendous."

Before she continued, a young boy asked, "What is intermarriage?"

"When one partner is Jewish and one is not," she patiently explained for the child. "Everyone in this room is affected by intermarriage in one way or another."

Rabbi Essrog said that while other faiths are worried and sensitive to Jewish concerns surrounding intermarriage, "for them, this is not a matter of survival. We must fight for every precious person."

The rabbi said he remains "committed to the survival and perpetuation of the Jewish community."

From the initial wedding plans, interfaith couples face hurdles.

"Maryland law requires marriage by a member of the clergy or at the courthouse," she said. "Many rabbis will not perform an interfaith ceremony."

Rabbi Essrog said he finds no simple solution for the dilemma.

"Many of us agonize over this," he said. "I always ask couples to come in and talk."

Frequently, the engagement announcement causes the couple problems with their parents, who feel angry and betrayed, said Ms. Hecht.

"They want grandchildren to be a reflection of themselves," she said. "With intermarriage, that doesn't happen."

Parents' reaction and the ceremony are "just the tip of the iceberg" for interreligious couples committed to their own faiths, she said.

"All life cycle events are challenges for the couple," she said. "The issue of difference is always with them, and they are never able to make everyone comfortable with it."

She said she always encourages her clients to seek the counsel of their rabbis, ministers and priests. She recommends a couple adopt one religious identity.

"Religion provides a place of belonging," she said. "Couples who try to practice both religions may avoid the conflict of choice but cause conflicts for their children."

Ms. Hecht encouraged the congregation to "reach out" and encourage intermarried couples to participate in the Jewish life. She also offered assistance through the Project on Intermarriage, a joint program of Jewish Family Services and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

"Spread the word about the new ideas this congregation is spreading in Carroll County," said Rabbi Essrog.

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