In 1972, the sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie,” which had at its nexus a Jewish husband and a Gentile wife, was cancelled after one season because the intermarriage theme was considered too controversial. Evidently immune to the fuss, the stars of the show, Meredith Baxter (Gentile) and David Birney (Jewish) caused quite a stir when they married in real life in 1973.
Fast forward to 2005. Being Jewish and intermarried is now the norm in American Jewish life. Since 1985, just over half of all Jewish people married in the United States took non-Jewish spouses. The intermarriage rate increased since 1960 to the point that almost one third of American Jewish spouses are Gentiles.
Jewish cultural attitudes towards intermarriage have changed. The 2000 Annual Jewish Opinion Survey of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) revealed that a majority of American Jewish families were no longer pained at the prospect of family members marrying a Gentile. Analysis of the AJC survey concluded that the taboo against intermarriage has collapsed. Furthermore, as Jack Wertheimer writes in a Commentary magazine article titled “Surrendering to Intermarriage”: “…exogamy is now not only commonplace but widely…accommodated.”
Upon hearing significant news, my parents used to ask, “So is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” As Jewish believers in Jesus, not only should we consider whether intermarriage is good or bad for the Jews, but we must also consider the serious implications for spiritual ministry to our Jewish people that the increasing intermarriage rate presents.
Jewish intermarriage used to be considered a family shame. It threatened the bedrock concern for Jewish survival. Previously, to keep peace in the family, it was common for Gentile spouses to convert to Judaism. However, American Jewry is secularizing, assimilating and disassociating from formal synagogue life. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), sponsored by the Council of Jewish Federations, noted Jewish birthrates declining (only 1.8 children per couple), 63% disaffiliation from committed Jewish life, and the now infamous 52% intermarriage rate since 1985.
Subsequent surveys confirmed the pattern. The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey and the 2000-01 NJPS also found in the case of cohabiting Jewish people 81% were living with Gentiles. The children of Jewish-Gentile couples also intermarry 75% of the time.
At the same time sociological studies show a pattern of increased marital dissatisfaction and dissolution among intermarried couples. Studies indicate greater challenges in the experience of Jewish-Gentile pairings, where couples tend to divorce twice as often as Jewish-Jewish couples. Conflicts related to religion contribute the most significant set of tensions. What spiritual ministry is most appropriate in the midst of a monumental culture change in the American Jewish community?
Traditional Jewish responses
American Jewish leaders start from the idea that intermarriage is bad because it undermines Jewish survival and Judaism. They currently advocate two approaches. The “blended family tradition,” sometimes called the “interfaith option,” is one response. The second is the “one-faith family” identity. The first advocates a family identity that embraces cultural input from both partners. Proponents stress the values of tolerance, acceptance and diversity. But critics warn that blended faith traditions confuse and shortchange partners and children of any real religious vitality.
As an alternative, one-faith identity advocates suggest that only Judaism provides an “authentic” experience of Jewish life. The obvious conclusion is a demand that the Gentile spouse convert to Judaism. Yet, at a time when, as studies show, intermarried couples seek a connection to Judaism that is often ambiguous at best, what would motivate Gentile spouses to embrace a faith that Jews are spurning?
For more than a decade, intense public policy debate about a proper Jewish response to intermarriage has dominated Federation and local synagogue spending discussions. Jewish leaders are motivated in part by the selfinterest to preserve Judaism. So millions of dollars have been spent to get Jewish-Gentile couples reconnected to Jewish life within Judaism. However, that solution might not meet the real needs of Jewish-Gentile couples. Their greatest need is for spiritual harmony. Therefore, survival-based motivation is not going to address the spiritual needs of Jewish- Gentile partners.
How can both partners find spiritual satisfaction without abandoning their core identities? What do Jewish-Gentile couples say about the challenges that they face? That might provide insight for how best to minister to them spiritually.
I studied the challenges of dating, cohabiting and married Jewish-Gentile couples. I wanted to know how the gospel message of the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) could be appropriately applied to their situations and in a manner that both partners might appreciate. A complex phenomenon surfaced through which five key challenges became evident.
First, couples described confusion over identity differences. Often they didn’t understand the simple words used to describe their cultures. Gentiles were confused by the indiscriminate way that Jews interchanged terms like Jewish and Judaism or Gentile and Christian. Cultural differences created a perceptual chasm between them.
Second, they described tension over religious differences. One challenge for Jewish partners was the name and person of Jesus. At the same time, Gentile partners were more willing to learn about Judaism than Jewish partners were to find out the beliefs and practices of Christian faith. Problems surfaced at life cycle events, with in-laws, and most vehemently when they began to have children.
Third, life-cycle events presented couples with a wide gamut of choices and mutually conflicting interests. Navigating plans for an interfaith wedding ceremony was only the introduction to the difficulties they would face with every family celebration, holiday, rite of passage or favorite ritual.
A fourth challenge was the failure to find family harmony. Tensions might occur with in-laws over different cultural practices or expectations for holidays. Partners encountered strife as they tried to work through their identity as a couple or as a family when children came along. The greatest longing came from the sense of loneliness at not being able to share spiritually with one another.
The fifth challenge centered on discord over training children. Personal dreams and desires to fulfill family expectations collided. Questions about what to teach the children were often overshadowed by the choice of who would do the instructing. The challenge of enculturating children is one of the greatest potential threats to family harmony and stability.
Finding Spiritual Harmony
Now that the challenges of Jewish-Gentile couples are understood better, we can see how the gospel presents the best hope for Jewish-Gentile spiritual harmony. It allows both partners to maintain their cultural integrity while presenting a means to share spiritual intimacy through a mutually satisfying faith in God.
According to the Bible, marriage was intended to be a relationship of intimacy (Genesis 2:24). Yet spiritual unity is not possible in any human relationship apart from Messiah Yeshua (John 17:23 and Romans 15:5). Jewish-Gentile couples that share a common faith in Yeshua found wonderful, creative ways to incorporate cultural traditions from both of their backgrounds. They could pray, worship and live together with the one God at the center of the marriage or family. Marital satisfaction increased and threats to marital stability significantly reduced when both partners shared a common faith in Yeshua. We need to minister that message of hope.
Lots of books are available from traditional Jewish sources about culturally blended family life. Most of them urge the choice of one family faith…so long as it is Judaism. Many traditional “how to” resources mean well, like the Dovetail Institute’s website. However, they omit the hope of spiritual vitality in Yeshua. The community of Jewish believers in Yeshua has some unique resources that are genuinely helpful.
The Son of David Messianic Congregation in Rockville, Maryland is one of several that embraces Jewish-Gentile couples. They address their challenge of finding spiritual harmony with the good news of Yeshua (www.sonofdavid.org). They approach the subject without embarrassment over their commitment to find direct, sensitive means for commending faith in Yeshua for Jewish and Gentile people.
Their spiritual leader, Scott Brown, collaborated with producer Nikki H. on the Chosen People video “Joined Together.” It depicts in documentary style the testimonies of couples that found spiritual harmony through Yeshua.
David Rudolph focused on Messianic Judaism as the answer for interfaith couples in Growing Your Olive Tree Marriage: A Guide For Couples From Two Traditions (Baltimore: Lederer Books, 2003). He maintains that Messianic congregations are a bi-cultural setting for ministry to intermarried couples. Rudolph’s emphasis on Judaism, though clearly presented as Messianic Judaism, risks rejection for the same reasons that Jewish-Gentile couples largely avoid rabbinic outreaches to draw “straying” Jews into an unambiguous affiliation with Judaism.
The 2004 publication Jewish-Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes, which I wrote with Enoch Wan, is a fuller discussion of this material. [See book at Purple Pomegranate Productions.] We expect to have further resources on our web site within the next year.
Ideas for immediate response
Jewish-Gentile couples are a fact of Jewish life today. They are ready to be reached with the loving hope in Jesus. We can help them find together the intimacy of spiritual harmony in Him. Yeshua said that a living relationship with God is only possible through Him, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but through me” (John 14:6). Following are some simple ideas for spiritual ministry, centered on faith in Jesus, to address the challenges of Jewish-Gentile couples.
Discussion groups: Try bringing together a small group of Jewish-Gentile couples in your home for an open discussion. The purpose is to share about the challenges of and resources for intermarried life. Create a safe environment for group members to formulate and discuss their own agenda. Let everyone benefit in the learning process. Jewish-Gentile couples tend to assume that they are on the margins of both Jewish and Christian communities. Intentional gatherings for these couples provide opportunities for unique ministry to them and their children, especially around various Jewish and Christian holidays. The havurah format provides for a small group discussion focused on the mutual interests of the participants. With Jewish-Gentile couples, discussions easily stumble on so many cross-cultural mines, so a havurah can facilitate a “safe” atmosphere where group members can explore new thoughts. In this environment, the agenda to “convince” others of the Gospel might be left aside, but not your conviction that the Gospel is the best answer to the challenge of spiritual harmony. Trust the Lord to guide the discussion as He opens hearts to the truth.
Community outreach: Urge your church or congregation to take the initiative and be more strategic about welcoming intermarried couples, especially if you are located where Jewish people live. Even a brief note in the local newspaper will help to offer a welcome to intermarried or Jewish-Gentile couples. Encourage a small group ministry outreach to Jewish-Gentile couples within the church program.
Family ministry: Couples appreciate help in navigating the choices of symbols in various life-cycle events. Life celebrations and holidays are appropriate entry points for evangelistic ministry. Each family celebration or religious holiday presents an occasion for discussions of the meaning within Jewish cultural symbols and biblical Christian beliefs. Consider the role that Bible stories for children and parents can play in family ministry. One of my favorite experiences with our three children was reading Bible stories to them in the evenings. They learned about their Jewish ancestors and about the character of our God. The unity of our family was strengthened, and faith was formulated in their hearts as we prayed together to that God of our forefathers. Imagine the possibilities of spiritual ministry to intermarried couples from a collection of Bible stories that appropriately communicate faith in Yeshua and Jewish heritage. The Bible is full of stories of intermarried couples, by the way. These, if told in a sensitive way, could have a major impact on family life.
If you are part of a Jewish-Gentile couple, then you are by no means on the margin of American Jewish life. Jewish-Gentile couples are fast becoming the norm. This means that you will likely know other interfaith couples. Some of them might be your relatives or your children. You have a wonderful story and a vital ministry right now to Jewish-Gentile couples. The longing for spiritual harmony is ultimately satisfied in Yeshua, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.
Tuvya Zaretsky is Chief of Station at Jews for Jesus Los Angeles. He received his Doctor of Missiology degree from Western Seminary in 2004.
For more on this topic visit our website JewishGentileCouples.com