Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
September 5, 2012
There has been a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study's index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York's, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism — or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.
Starting in December 2009, InterfaithFamily's annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. Our surveys are not "scientific" or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.
Interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews have a hierarchy of interests or needs that they want their synagogue or Jewish organization to address, apart from issues related to their being in interfaith relationships. More than half rated the following factors highly, in order of importance: opportunities for their children's Jewish education and opportunities for their children to meet and socialize with other Jewish children; having a place to celebrate life cycle events and to attend High Holiday services; and opportunities to learn about Judaism. Less highly rated were opportunities to express spirituality, cultural and social events, opportunities for social action, and opportunities to have a leadership role in the synagogue or organization. The existence of friendships with and connections to other members was also very highly rated, while just under half rated highly the approach to prayer and ritual, the professionals, and the denomination.
As to issues directly related to interfaith relationships, interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; the offering of programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to recent reports that interfaith couples feel comfortable attending Jewish activities, our surveys show that interfaith couples emphatically are interested in explicit statements of welcome and still report experiences of negative attitudes and disinviting behaviors as barriers to their expanded connection to Jewish life. Policies that limit participation by interfaith couples in ritual and leadership, perceived pressure to convert, the absence of programming and groups for interfaith couples, and difficulties finding rabbis to officiate at weddings, are likewise reported as barriers to expanded connection.
The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:
InterfaithFamily has been conducting annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys since 2004. Starting in December 2009, respondents were asked if they were currently a member of a synagogue or temple, a JCC, or another Jewish organization (respondents could define membership however they wished). If the respondents said they were a member, they were asked two questions about how important a series of factors were in attracting them to their synagogue or Jewish organization. The Passover surveys asked about Jewish organizations; the December surveys asked about synagogues. The first question asked about factors that are not related to interfaith family issues; the second question asked about factors that did. The answer choices were "A lot," "Somewhat," "A little," "Not at all," or "Don't Know."
We also asked two open-ended questions: "What if anything has been most helpful in your Jewish organizations [or synagogue] to you and your family exploring and expanding your connection to Judaism" and "What if any have been the barriers in your Jewish organizations [or synagogue] to you and your family exploring and expanding your connection to Jewish life?"
InterfaithFamily's past survey reports have focused on the answers of respondents who are in interfaith relationships or intermarried, who had children, and who were raising or had raised their children as Jews, because it is the attitudes and behaviors of those families that we are most interested in exploring (and seeing replicated). Consistent with that focus, this report summarizes the answers of respondents who said they were in interfaith relationships or intermarried, had children, were raising or had raised their children Jewish, and were currently members of synagogues or other Jewish organizations.
We first asked "how important... in attracting you to a synagogue [or Jewish organization"] are the following factors that are not specific to interfaith families:
(See Appendix 1 for complete question and data table.)
These responses indicate that interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews have a hierarchy of interests or needs that they want their synagogue or Jewish organization to address. By far the most important interests are opportunities for their children's Jewish education (85% said that factor attracted them "a lot") and opportunities for their children to meet/socialize with other Jewish children (72%). Next most highly rated are having a place to celebrate life cycle events (65%) and having a place to attend High Holiday services (59%). More than half rated opportunities to learn about Judaism highly (56% said that factor attracted them "a lot").
Interfaith families express less interest in opportunities to express spirituality (38% said that factor attracted them "a lot"), cultural and social events (30%), opportunities for social action (22%), and opportunities to serve on committees and have a leadership role in the synagogue or organization (19%).
In terms of the characteristics of a synagogue or Jewish organization that attract interfaith families, by far the most important is the existence of friendships and connections to other members: 71% said that factor attracted them "a lot." Just under half rated three other organizational characteristics highly: the approach to prayer and ritual (49% said that factor attracted them "a lot"), the professionals (48%), and the denomination (44%).
We asked "how important... in attracting you to a synagogue [or Jewish organization]" are the following factors that are specific to interfaith families:
(See Appendix 2 for complete question and data table.)
1. Welcoming/Unwelcoming Attitudes and Explicit Statements Indicating Welcome. The two factors that were rated most highly in the quantitative questions both involve explicit statements of welcome. The highest rated factor was that the professionals or rabbis say that they welcome interfaith families — 79% said this factor attracted them "a lot." The second highest was that "the organization [or synagogue] says (in membership materials, bulletin, website) that it welcomes interfaith families" — 70% said this factor attracted them "a lot."
The responses to the open-ended questions about what helped interfaith families who are organization members explore and expand on their Jewish connection were consistent with the quantitative responses. The most often mentioned helpful factor by far was a welcoming attitude coming from the organization or synagogue's leaders and members. Some of the comments were:
The open-ended responses provide more texture as to what interfaith families who are organization members experienced as welcoming:
Open discussion of interfaith family issues was specifically identified as a helpful factor:
One comment identified as a barrier, "being vague about their approach to interfaith families." Another reflected a practice perceived as not welcoming: "Sometimes I feel excluded when I have to check NON JEWISH on forms..."
The New York Jewish Community Study of 2011 reported that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married. (p. 144). The principal author of that study, Steven M. Cohen, has been quoted as saying that "If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution." But as the responses detailed above indicate, the respondents to our surveys — interfaith families raising their children as Jews who have joined synagogues or Jewish organizations — emphatically indicate that they are heavily influenced by welcoming attitudes and explicit welcoming statements. One interesting comment even indicated that they give more weight to differences in openness to interfaith families than to other factors:
Moreover, in response to our open-ended questions, the most often mentioned barriers interfaith families who are organization members encounter to expanding their Jewish connection had to do with perceived unwelcoming attitudes from both professionals and members:
A finding from the New York Jewish Community Study exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that could well explain the disinviting, unwelcoming attitudes our respondents experienced: high percentages of parents in the New York study say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While only 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. The responses to our open-ended question about barriers mentioned general statements of negative attitudes that are consistent with the upset the New York study's respondents reported:
2. Policies on Participation by Interfaith Families. The next most often mentioned factor attracting interfaith families was the organization or synagogue policies about interfaith families participating in worship services and at life cycle events — 64% said that factor attracted them "a lot."
Many responses to the open-ended questions mentioned policies about participation by non-Jews as a helpful factor or as a barrier:
A specific attitude that respondents identified in our open-ended responses as a barrier, which is related in many cases to policies about participation, involves recognition of "patrilineal" Jews:
Some comments mentioned issues particular to the Conservative movement as barriers:
3. Invitation to Learn vs. Invitation to Convert. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they were attracted "a lot" by the Jewish organization or synagogue inviting non-Jews to learn about Judaism, while 32% said they were attracted "a lot" by invitations to learn about conversion. Twenty-four percent of respondents said that invitations to learn about conversion attracted them "not at all." While a not insignificant percentage of partners in interfaith relationships clearly are open to and interested in learning about conversion, our survey responses indicate that almost twice as many are attracted by invitations to learn about Judaism. A few of the responses to the open-ended questions mentioned the absence of pushing to convert as a helpful factor and perceived attempts to convert as a barrier:
4. Presence of Other Interfaith Families. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they were attracted "a lot" to a Jewish organization or synagogue if "there are a lot of interfaith families who are members." Several of the open-ended responses referred to the presence of other interfaith families as a helpful factor:
5. Programming and Groups "For Interfaith Families." A previous report by InterfaithFamily on four of the holiday surveys concluded that significant percentages of interfaith families interested in Jewish life are interested in some programs that are marketed as "for interfaith families" and are attracted to synagogues and Jewish organizations that offer such programs. Expanding on that report, 45% of respondents to the six surveys were attracted "a lot" by the Jewish organization or synagogue offering programs "that are described as being 'for interfaith families'." Several of the open-ended responses mentioned this as helpful in expanding their Jewish connection:
Several comments mentioned as helpful factors programs and classes that may be community based and not centered in a particular organization or synagogue:
One comment indicated how programs can have a lasting impact because of the relationships that are formed:
The absence of programs for interfaith families, on the other hand, was referred to as a barrier:
Thirty percent of respondents said they were attracted "a lot" by the Jewish organization or synagogue organizing "groups of interfaith couples (havurah, interfaith discussion groups, etc.)." Some of the open-ended comments identified these as a helpful factor:
Other open-ended comments mentioned the absence of these groups as a barrier:
6. Officiation for Interfaith Couples. Of respondents to the three December surveys about synagogues, 42% said they were attracted "a lot" if "the rabbi officiates at weddings of interfaith couples;" 25% said "somewhat," 13% "a little," and 21% "not at all." Note that the respondents were all organization members who were raising children as Jews, thus past the time when officiation would have been a personal issue for their own wedding.
Several comments referred to rabbis not officiating as a barrier:
We hope that the findings of this report will be helpful to individual Jewish leaders and organizations as well as local Jewish communities that want to see increased engagement in Jewish life and community by interfaith couples and families. The findings suggest several areas of concrete steps that could be taken to accomplish that desired objective:
With respect to general factors:
|How important is the following in attracting you to a Jewish organization:||A lot||Somewhat||A little||Not at all|
|Opportunities for children to have Jewish education (n=681)||85%||11%||2%||2%|
|Opportunities for children to meet/socialize with other Jewish children (n=684)||72%||20%||4%||4%|
|Friendships and connections to other members (n=697)||71%||22%||6%||1%|
|Having a place to celebrate life cycle events (n=693)||65%||27%||6%||2%|
|Having a place to attend High Holiday services (n=696)||59%||29%||8%||3%|
|Opportunities to learn about Judaism (n=695)||56%||33%||9%||2%|
|The approach to prayer and ritual (n=693)||49%||37%||11%||3%|
|The professionals (n=688)||48%||35%||11%||6%|
|The denomination (n=687)||44%||38%||12%||6%|
|Opportunities to express spirituality (n=691)||38%||35%||19%||7%|
|Cultural and social events (n=691)||30%||46%||20%||4%|
|Opportunities for social action (n=686)||22%||39%||32%||8%|
|Involvement in committees/opportunities for leadership roles (n=680)||19%||34%||27%||20%|
With respect to factors specific to interfaith families:
|How important is the following in attracting you to a Jewish organization:||A lot||Somewhat||A little||Not at all|
|The professionals/rabbis say that they welcome interfaith families (n=686)||79%||17%||3%||1%|
|The organization/synagogue says in membership materials, bulletin, website that it welcomes interfaith families (n=691)||70%||23%||4%||3%|
|The policies about interfaith families participating in worship services/at life cycle events (n=672)||64%||24%||9%||3%|
|Non-Jews are invited to learn about Judaism (n=679)||58%||28%||10%||5%|
|There are a lot of interfaith families who are members (n=676) )||53%||31%||12%||5%|
|Programs are offered that are described as being "for interfaith families" (n=708)||45%||30%||14%||11%|
|The rabbi officiates at weddings of interfaith couples (n=325)||49%||37%||11%||3%|
|Groups of interfaith couples (havurah, interfaith discussion groups, etc.) are organized (n=656)||42%||25%||13%||21%|
|Non-Jews are invited to learn about conversion (n=616)||32%||26%||18%||24%|
This report is also available as a PDF download.