Amy called our office asking Jews for Jesus for help on behalf of herself, her husband and three other intermarried couples. Her request made me realize how ill-equipped I was for ministry to intermarried Jews and their families. In that moment I decided to pursue graduate studies to acquire a better understanding of intermarried couples. That was six years ago.
How significant is Jewish-Gentile intermarriage in America? In 1970, the intermarriage rate was approximately 7 percent. By 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey reported the Jewish intermarriage rate had exploded to 52 percent since 1985. Overall, one-third of all Jews in America are intermarried.
What are the implications? Research has shown that marriages between people of different religious backgrounds are at greater risk for divorce. In fact, Jewish-Gentile couples are twice as likely to divorce as are Jewish-Jewish couples.
At the same time, the dramatically rising intermarriage rate indicates a Jewish community undergoing culture change and assimilation, with an accompanying spiritual openness.
The focus of my dissertation was The Challenge of Jewish-Gentile Couples: A Pre-Evangelistic Qualitative Study.” I interviewed couples in various stages of their relationships, where one partner was Jewish. My goal was to better understand these couples so I could formulate appropriate approaches to minister the gospel among them.
I discovered challenges throughout four phases as relationships developed from the dating period, to the wedding event, to marriage before children and then marriage with children. I also found out that tensions generally grouped around five cultural challenges.
Challenge one: confusion over identity differences
Couples reported difficulty understanding their cross-cultural differences in part because of confusion over terminology. Jewish people do not customarily make the distinction between ethnicity and religion. So, Jews in America refer to non-Jews (Gentiles) as Christians, not understanding that non-Jews do not necessarily identify as Christians.
Challenge two: religious differences
In situations where the non-Jewish partners were Christians, they were concerned about the eternal state of their Jewish partners. Jews, on the other hand, were more focused on Jewish survival. Couples often did not understand the foundation for one another’s different yet deeply held values. Further, the fact that they had intermarried tended to undermine the importance each placed on those core values in the eyes of the other partner. As a result, partners described feeling lonely and alienated from one another.
Challenge three: life-cycle celebrations
Every ritual, holiday and family gathering presented a gauntlet of choices and conflicting cultural signals. Planning a wedding could become a family feud. The “December dilemma” (how to navigate the Hanukkah and Christmas season) was a minefield of emotion-laden traditions and cultural symbols.
Challenge four: finding family harmony.
How could Jews remain Jews and Gentiles be Christians without violating their core values of ethnic survival and eternal life? The spiritual training of their children raised the stakes. Family peace was a frequent casualty.
Challenge five: discord over raising children.
Would the religious tradition be from one parent, a blend, or a rejection of both? How would children be trained if either the spiritual hope for one spouse or ethnic survival of the other was at stake?
Those were some of the major challenges that the couples I interviewed faced. How does that affect evangelistic planning?
Mission to interfaith couples is a cross-cultural activity. It helps to listen, learn and discover the differences in cultural perspectives. A door of understanding opens when couples become learners together. Beliefs about secular life, Judaism and Christian faith can be explored to create better understanding.
Life-cycle celebrations become opportunities to acknowledge cross-cultural differences and to discover new spiritual meaning. Jews for Jesus presentations like “Christ in the Passover” or “Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles” help accomplish new awareness.
According to intermarried couples, their greatest hope in meeting with Jews for Jesus is that we can help lead them to spiritual harmony. I believe that as each partner seeks God with a sincere heart, they will draw closer to one another as they draw closer to Him. If we demonstrate empathy for the tensions that Jewish-Gentile couples experience we have a better chance of presenting the hope that awaits them both through the good news of faith in Yeshua.
I understand Amy and her intermarried friends a lot better than I did before. Now perhaps we are ready to offer the help that she and so many people in her situation need.
Ed. note: Mazel tov to Tuvya for receiving his Doctor of Missiology degree from Western Seminary a couple of months ago!