The Idea Behind Jewish-Gentile CouplesBy: Tuvya Zaretsky
TUVYA: Hey, everybody. I’m Tuvya Zaretsky, and this is “He Said ... Then She Said: Conversations with Jewish Gentile Couples from Around the World.” Today, I’m glad to be with Isaac Brickner, director of Jews for Jesus, Los Angeles. He’s a friend, a colleague, and the product of a Jewish Gentile family. Isaac is going to help me tell the story behind why we’re doing this series about Jewish Gentile couples. Isaac ...
ISAAC: Thanks, Tuvya. It’s an honor to talk with you, share with our listeners, and ask questions about what’s behind this project. You’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve watched your work with different couples. So, I’m curious to know more, and I know our listeners will also benefit from this as well. What exactly led you to study the Jewish Gentile couples phenomenon?
TUVYA: It has been a gradual development over the years. In the 1990s, I noticed that a majority of people who were contacting the Los Angeles Jews for Jesus office were mixed, inter-ethnic couples where one partner was Jewish. I wondered how we could serve them better, but I needed to know more about them. My wife and I are both Jewish. So, I came to realize I’m not sure I understand their world. As I started asking them a lot of questions, I heard about some significant pains, passions, loves, and struggles that are unique to their experience. Then, the 1990 “National Jewish Population Survey” reported the trend toward secularization, assimilation, and intermarriage among American Jewry. The rate that Jewish people were marrying Gentiles had, over the previous 30 years, skyrocketed from about 7% to over 52%. That alarmed Jewish community leaders, not just because it signaled change, but “out-marriage” was regarded as a threat to Jewish survival. While the Jewish community reacted to battle the trends, I wondered about what kind of ministry would offer meaningful service to those couples.
ISAAC: For those who might not understand, why would the Jewish community be sounding an alarm about that?
TUVYA: Intermarriage signaled secularization and assimilation. Significant changes were taking place in the way American Jewry defined itself religiously and as community. The 1990 NJPS reported 63% of American Jewish people were already disaffiliated from any kind of Jewish religious institutions, organizations, periodicals, and camps. Synagogue attendance was declining, and Jewish community centers were closing.
By 1990, the U.S. Jewish birthrate had dropped below replacement level to only 1.8 children per Jewish family. Those facts indicated that many traditional systems and institutions of American Jewish life no longer maintained previous communal attachments.
Marshall Brieger, a sociologist at CCNY, said any effort to fight intermarriage is like “trying to stop the wind.” Others suggested more Jewish education was an antidote. Over the next decade, Jewish community leaders spent tens of millions of dollars to increase Jewish education and initiated programs to stimulate Jewish family attachment. Things didn’t change. The 2000/1 “National Jewish Population Survey” reported the Jewish intermarriage rate had not only plateaued, it had gone up slightly more to 54% between 1990 and 2000.
ISAAC: I would imagine that the Jewish community was disappointed.
TUVYA: Yeah. There were a couple of noteworthy responses. Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary, remarked about the trends with candor. He said these Jewish people don’t want an “unambiguous reattachment to Judaism.” And Edmund Case founded Interfaith Family in Massachusetts in the hope of creating a more welcoming experience of Judaism for intermarried Jews and their Gentile spouses. That effort required providing more access to Jewish life for couples and experiences of Judaism that adapted for changing cultural realities.
I asked intermarried couples if both partners were seeking the solution of a “bigger tent Judaism.” We found couples coming to our centers weren’t seeking resources offering only traditional Jewish solutions. They wanted satisfactory experiences that respected the cultures of both partners. Many reported being marginalized by traditional synagogues when old guard stakeholders resisted making accommodations for the newcomers.
ISAAC: So, they were saying, we can solve your inter-religious problem by welcoming Gentiles into Judaism, and somehow the interfaith families wouldn’t lose their sense of Jewish identity. So, then they could then raise Jewish kids in more traditional forms.
TUVYA: I suppose that was a part of it. As far as I could see, there was a piece that was never resolved. Traditional Jewish institutions weren’t actually clear about how Gentile partners and the children would be embraced. Ideology of welcoming the stranger didn’t always match actual actions. Were they to be regarded as Jews with equal standing among other Jewish people? Could that happen without their having to jettison all prior beliefs? Not everyone is okay making that sacrifice. A Christian partner, once invited to embrace Judaism and the Jewish community, is accepted on condition they renounce all prior beliefs about Jesus.
ISAAC: Right. It’s an incredible dilemma to be asked to do something against your own conscience as a consequence of your love for another person. So, then what did you decide to do?
TUVYA: Well, I had to find out what was happening with those couples. I listened to them to learn what would make their lives better. I thought maybe I could serve them if I could gain more understanding of their situation. I asked for their perspectives regarding their challenges. I wanted to know the issues that are most important to them. I had to begin without supposing I already have a spiritual solution. I couldn’t formulate appropriate ways to help without knowing the reality of their experience and challenges. Sure, I’ve got a dog in the fight, a spiritual conviction. That doesn’t mean everyone has to agree before we can have a safe conversation. That’s what creating understanding is all about.
I did doctoral-level social research to discover the challenges that Jewish Gentile couples experience. Treating them as equally valuable informants, I want to know what both partners say are the issues with which they grapple.
ISAAC: So, in your research, you created case studies as you worked with actual couples. How many couples did you end up talking to for your research?
TUVYA: Just for the doctoral research, it was 50 couples. My approach was within the disciplines of cultural anthropology. I asked questions about the cross-cultural challenges they were encountering. We walked the conversation through their experiences at different periods during their relationships. Like: What did you discover when you were dating, planning to get married, navigating your different holidays together, or raising children? I recorded all the interviews for the research. Those were transcribed, then color coded according to what people said within recurring themes. That data about challenges grouped into specific periods: when couples were dating, planning a wedding, living together as a committed couple without kids, and then when children came into the family. That data yielded a multi-dimensional, very complex picture of what was happening. In that way, it was much easier to understand their experience once I could tease apart the challenges and look at them in a natural order occurrence.
ISAAC: Wow! So, you were doing this kind of research as a cultural anthropologist in order to hear some of the challenges the couples were facing. I imagine you might want to respond in some way to coach or help them. Was that also a part of your research?
TUVYA: No, the integrity of doing a social research project would not allow me to be any more than a participant-observer. I could engage merely by asking questions and recording their answers. The data I needed was their honest descriptions about their experience. My doctoral dissertation was an ethnographic description meant to capture the elements of what I observed and heard from the couples about their situation. So, the rigorous discipline involved in research did not allow me to extend ministry to any of the couples while they were in the interview process.
ISSAC: So, what did you learn that led you to approach Jewish Gentile couples in ways different from how Jewish clergy or Christians approach them?
TUVYA: I found myself working from a “third culture” perspective. I’m raised in traditional Judaism, and I also have a Messianic faith that helps me understand Christians and faith in Jesus. I lived in Israel for a couple of years, working out my identity as a Messianic Jew. That helped me relate to both Christian and traditional Jewish cultures. Later, I learned that all communication is cross-cultural. That meant I’m able to serve couples as a cultural translator to help partners find greater understanding in their communication. From that point, we can move on to discuss more sensitive issues.
ISAAC: Right, communication is the basis for healthy relationships. As a cross-cultural translator, you are able to help them clarify and understand the terminology they’re using.
TUVYA: Right, this approach isn’t psychology. So, we aren’t dealing with emotions. I’m focused on their cultural elements: the words they use, cultural symbols, and religious ideas that guide behaviors like observing holidays, rites, and rituals.
One very interesting distinction came out of the research. It was in noting the difference between ethnicity and culture. That became important in order to understand how people self-identify. Ethnicity, unlike culture, is established by DNA at birth. It doesn’t change. Culture, on the other hand, is acquired at various stages of development and changes over a person’s lifetime. Religious beliefs, such as Christianity or Judaism, are learned elements of a person’s culture. As expressions of personal identity, they can change. Therefore, to be consistent, we chose to identify partners according to the simple, unchanging distinction of ethnicity as Jews and Gentiles. And I admit, seeing the world in that ethnic dichotomy is ????? a from a Jewish perspective. Just like that, our cultural differences impact how we understand the world. Which brings us back to the axiom that all communication is cross-cultural. And those differences are the fount from which misunderstandings spring up.
ISAAC: Right. So, a couple might be having a seemingly normal conversation in which they’ve misunderstood each other because the terms they’re using have different meaning to each of them. And the tension gets worse, like you’re saying, when it’s connected to their cultural identity.
TUVYA: Yes, you’re touching something very important here. Those different cultural identifiers can sound funny to the other person. I’ve heard a Christian say of their Jewish partner, “Well, he’s not really Jewish because he doesn’t go to his church.” Well, I’m thinking, Yeah, synagogues aren’t churches, okay? We can get that word clarified, but what happens is, there’s an emotional trigger. The Jewish partner is hurt or angry and feels judged. What they hear is disrespect. The Christian partner meant no offense, but that’s just an expression of their cross-cultural inexperience. My role is in trying to create mutual respect where those universal cross-cultural expressions of unsophistication occur. They offer an opportunity to talk about them and grow our understanding of one another.
ISAAC: When you were starting your research, you weren’t aware of the challenges that Jewish Gentile couples were facing. What were some of those you discovered besides the need for cross-cultural communication?
TUVYA: Well, first I found that different issues that were surfacing during the course of four different relationship periods. Once I saw that, it became a lot easier to understand what was going on. The first period was when they were dating. That was naturally when they were just discovering each other. They might discover tensions over words without realizing that the same terms had a different meaning for each of them. “Christian” might connect a person to
their church, set of spiritual beliefs, or strongly held religious identity. Or, for a Jewish partner, it might just indicate that a person isn’t Jewish.
I saw the next challenges occur when they decided to get married. In that situation, they have to collaborate between two different cultural worldviews. That’s not always just two different religions, because so many are secularized these days. Many wanted to compromise by having a wedding ceremony that was spiritual but not religious. Okay, but you would be surprised how many competing cultural symbols or traditions that can involve. On top of that, you have the considerations to take into account from two different family networks.
Then, once married, they enter a whole new phase of defining themselves within a joint identity. They don’t have children yet, so they wrestle with the change of formerly seeing themselves as a single and now a blended identity as a couple. God, in the Torah (Genesis 2) describes a married couple as having become one flesh. Everyone comes into a marriage thinking that both partners in the couple share the same culture. When huge differences exist between those values, traditions, rites of passage, and family relationships, partners struggle to find a comfortable idea for their one flesh identity.
The fourth phase sees all that change once the couple welcomes children into their relationship, which was formerly a couple and then becomes a family. I found each of those four relational phases—dating, wedding, committed couple, and family—all present unique and increasingly more complex challenges.
Understanding those challenges became so important to me when I found research on the survivability of couples from two different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In cases where only one is Jewish, research showed that 75% of the marriages end in “dissatisfaction” or “dissolution.”
Tuvya: So, I became very passionate about what we could possibly do to serve these people. I realized we can help them understand these four phases in their relationships to give them hope of acquiring greater cross-cultural understanding. That might provide optimism about finding a more satisfying relationship. And one common challenge was reported as the inability to find a mutually satisfying spiritual harmony. That became more of an issue with each phase, prompting many of them to wonder how they would raise their children. The more it became an issue, the greater the threat to their relationship. I found that they need greater cross-cultural understanding to have a conversation about spiritual harmony in a safe and successful manner.
ISAAC: You mentioned that term spiritual harmony before. Is that a term you coined, or was it something that these couples told you was a challenge for them?
TUVYA: When they’d say, “We’re spiritual but not religious,” I didn’t know what they meant. So, I would ask, “What do you mean by spiritual?” “What do you mean by religious?” They would struggle to explain what they meant. Spirituality could have a connection with their core faith values, the beliefs with which they were raised, and traditions that they still value. God, Bible stories, liturgy, rituals, holy days, and rites of passage all came up in their descriptions of what is spiritual. Religion was a separate entity and usually identified with institutions, social authorities and, just as often, core values. I found both followers of Judaism and Christianity would identify themselves with a traditional religion, even if they were no longer actively practicing it. I think I’ve come to understand “spiritual but not religious” from the couples that I interviewed and continue to meet today. I learn what the phrase means from them.
ISAAC: It’s a powerful phrase because both partners could state clearly that it’s what they’re looking to have and yet have not been able to achieve. So, how do they express the cross-cultural gap between them in practical terms?
TUVYA: Very often, I hear a Christian ask, “How can I help my Jewish partner end up in eternity with me?” That’s a very sensitive question. On one hand, the answer is simple and found in the good news about Jesus. On the other hand, the Jewish partner has their own interests, the blessing of free will, and perhaps a totally different idea about eternal life or what happens after we die. Bridging those two worldviews takes a sensitive, patient, and humble engagement that is at the same time passionate, approachable, and honest. There is a balance that is crucial to maintain. To serve people, we need to create a safe conversation, rooted in trust that no one is going to be manipulated or judged in the process.
ISAAC: Yeah, and you mentioned earlier you openly tell couples, “Hey, I’ve got a dog in the fight. I’ve got a faith position.” So, when one partner shares your faith in Jesus, and the other doesn’t, how do you keep that conversation safe?
TUVYA: Yeah, I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re the underdog in a two-on-one situation. As a Jew, I know what it feels like to be looked on as a minority and an outsider. In our Jewish Gentile couple conversation, I insist on everyone having an equal voice and standing. So, I set a ground rule right from the start. I won’t be the anvil on which one partner can hammer on the other. We’re all on an equal plane in the conversations. When someone asks respectfully, “So, when all gets said, is it fair for me to say, ‘I just don’t buy what you’re talking about?’” I believe God is not threatened by anyone rejecting Him, otherwise He wouldn’t have blessed us all with the gift of free will. Everyone has a responsibility for wielding that gift and choosing to bear the consequences. I want to do everything I can to support others in discovering truth that makes us all free. I know Jesus is the truth, but even I had to wrestle with my own culture in Judaism. That reminds me to be patient with others who grapple with similar challenges.
ISAAC: Right. It takes a tremendous amount of trust to establish a ministering relationship with a couple. You need to say, “Even though I believe this, for the sake of helping this couple, I will regard both partners with equal dignity and not prefer one over the other.”
TUVYA: I wish I was so virtuous that I could claim the humility to do that consistently. I’ve realized how my carelessness could ruin the whole conversation. People have taught me. I remember one guy saying something like, “When we first met, I’m thinking, I’m not going to talk to this guy. I figured you just wanted to bash me over the head with a Bible and try to convert me. But you didn’t do that. You asked a lot of good questions that got us talking. You know what? When you did that, you made it safe.” Hearing that, I’m going to really work my tail off to make sure we keep doing it like that. It’s a huge key.
ISAAC: That’s great. Perhaps we can do this again another time. I mean we focused a lot on Jewish Gentile couples, and I know that’s the focus of this podcast. Full disclosure for our readers, I’m the product of a Jewish Gentile couple. So, I know some of the unique challenges that kids from those couples encounter. Do you have some thoughts about the challenges that you’ve seen among the children of Jewish Gentile couples?
TUVYA: Well, let’s save that for the next conversation. Just so folks know, my wife and I are both Messianic Jews, and we practice what we preach. We have three young-adult children. Our oldest daughter is married to a wonderful young man who is a Gentile Christian from Brazil. So, they’re a Jewish Gentile couple raising their two little kids in a very multi-cultural world that is American, Brazilian, Jewish, and Christian/Messianic. And I’m learning from them along the way, too.
I’ve written a helpful resource for couples that listen to our podcasts and visit the JewishGentileCouples.com website. It’s a little booklet called Finding Spiritual Harmony in your Jewish-Gentile Relationship. It’s a 56-page, helpful guide to encourage couples into safe conversations. Each of the six chapters ends with a Self-Assessment section, so you can ask, “What are we learning about us from reading this together?” Readers can request a free copy online or a printed version for $5.00 at my email address, [email protected]
ISAAC: That’s great. Very cool. Well, thanks so much for having me on your podcast, Tuvya. It’s been fun to ask you a few questions. I look forward to doing it again.
TUVYA: For sure Isaac, and thanks. Good job!