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
I wasn’t planning on posting this week, but we recently learned from Shmuel Rosner, the American correspondent for Ha’aretz, that sociologist Steven Cohen is coming out with a new study that calls intermarriage the “greatest single threat to Jewish continuity.”
Titled “Two Jewries,” the study makes a claim that there are two distinct populations in the Jewish community: the in-married and the intermarried. According to Rosner, Cohen says the in-married are religiously observant, educate their children Jewishly and feel strongly about Judaism and Israel, while the intermarried are not religious and are unaffiliated. We haven’t seen the report yet, but to me, it sounds like an old argument in new packaging: denigrate the intermarried by looking at the entire population of interfaith families without specifically looking at those who are raising their children Jewish.
Rosner also blogged today about Cohen and the author of the cover letter for the study, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Both are wary of intermarriage, but Rosner says Greenberg is an optimist while Cohen is a fatalist or pessimist.
Stay tuned for more details…
It’s been accepted wisdom that the American Jewish community is shrinking ever since the initial findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 revealed that the Jewish population in the U.S. was 5.2 million–a 300,000-person drop from the 1990 NJPS.
This has had important ramifications for the debate on intermarriage, as many–if not most–observers have blamed assimilation and intermarriage as the twin evils behind the assumed population decline. (Meanwhile, few have noted that the Jewish birthrate is below replacement-level. But why blame our educated men and women who choose to have few children when we can so easily blame those “bad” Jews who go off and intermarry?)
The Jewish Week has an op-ed criticizing both the recent Boston Jewish Community Study and the notion of outreach. It’s written by Samuel C. Klagsbrun, chairman of the Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, an organization that has taken up the anti-intermarriage cause with fervor in recent years (led primarily by Stephen Bayme, the director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life department).
Unlike the authors of a similarly critical op-ed in the Forward last week, Klagsbrun is neither a sociologist nor a demographer, so he does not criticize the survey on methodological grounds. Instead, he questions the legitimacy of asking intermarried parents how they’re raising their children:
First off, I’ll explain how being Jewish was defined–as the authors of the study explained in their letter to the Forward, they asked what religion parents are raising their children in. That’s actually a more stringent question than many other demographic studies, which ask only about the children’s “identification.”
Klagsbrun seems to suggest that if intemarried families can’t answer yes to all of his rhetorical questions then they are not legitimately Jewish. If that’s the case, then not many in-married families are legitimately Jewish, because according to the National Jewish Population Study 2000-01, only 28 percent of Jews in the country light candles for Shabbat–let alone “observe” the Sabbath. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but poor religious observance is a problem of the Jewish population as a whole, not just the intermarried population.
As for asking “What are the odds that these children will in turn intmerarry later?” of course no one has an answer to that question. No large-scale demographic study has ever answered that question, or could be expected to. It is an open question, but not a reason to condemn the survey’s results.
The central point of his question is what behaviors “being raised Jewish” entails. The preliminary report on the Boston study doesn’t answer this question in depth, but it does offer one hint: the children of intermarried families in the Boston area are as likely as the children of inmarried families to have received some Jewish education. More in-depth mining of the data to cross-reference intermarried families who say they’re raising their children Jewish with information on religious behavior (lighting Shabbat candles, attending Jewish services, attending Passover seders, etc.) is necessary.
But he has not done that research, so he has no proof one way or another that intermarried families who say they’re raising their children Jewish are not engaging in serious Jewish behaviors. But only four paragraphs later, he says: “Counting the number of Jews who identify as Jews in a most superficial way and taking that identification seriously is an enormous danger.” Somewhere along the line, his rhetorical questions found answers: intermarried families in the Boston area who say they are raising their children Jewish are not in fact doing so, even though nobody, especially Klagsbrun, has mined the data to find out.
Klagsbrun then goes on an anti-outreach assault, saying variously, that outreach is “an effort to decrease the intensity of the disaster we face,” that focusing on outreach is “misleading and dangerous,” and that outreach is “contradictory and even antagonistic to the traditional approach of discouraging intermarriage and encouraging conversion.” “Discouraging intermarriage while promoting outreach,” he says, “is taking two diametrically opposite approaches.”
I won’t disagree with his logic that the two efforts are “diametrically opposite,” but I will argue with his assumption that discouraging intermarriage actually works. The Jewish community has been discouraging intermarriage for decades and it hasn’t stopped the intermarriage rates from rising. If you want Jews to marry Jews, you can’t rely on negative reinforcement anymore; you need to offer a multitude of positive Jewish experiences where Jews can socialize with other Jews. That kind of inreach is compatible with outreach to the intermarried.
Like many critics of outreach, Klagsbrun seems terrified that the Jewish community will focus exclusively on outreach, or that outreach will overtake the funding and priority of inreach. He need not worry. Last year, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies spent less than $350,000 on outreach; two years ago, a group of anonymous families gave $45 million towards day school education in the Boston area. It will be a very long time before outreach overtakes inreach on Boston’s–or any community’s–agenda.
It’s funny that Klagsbrun concludes his op-ed with a Talmudic adage, “It’s the not the answer that matters; it’s how you ask the question.” If he had read Saxe’s letter in the Forward, he would know how the question was asked. If, as he says, we should not come to “definitive conclusions” about what the Boston study means until more research is done, one might ask how he comes to the definitive conclusion that prioritizing outreach is “dangerous,” “antagonistic” and “misleading”?
Trying to keep up with the deluge of interfaith family-related stories during the holiday season:
For the first time in the three-year history of doing our December holidays survey, JTA has done an entire story about the survey! Frankly, I can’t say enough about what a terrific piece of reporting Sue Fishkoff did. It presents the survey results in a balanced, nuanced, contextual light, and is clear about the survey’s limits and its strengths. Fishkoff was also careful to make clear that we don’t encourage interfaith families to have Christmas trees, but we do say that the simple existence of a Christmas tree in a house does not prevent children from being raised Jewish.
In addition to Julie Wiener’s discussion of the survey in her column last week, there have been stories on the survey in the Tulsa World and the Portland Press-Herald and the Detroit Free Press article was reprinted in the News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.), the Reading Eagle (Penn.), Providence Journal, the Florida Ledger (Lakeland), the Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tenn.), the Centre Daily Times (Pa.), the Bradenton Herald (Fla.) and the Monterey County Herald. And there may be more press coming in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
In addition, President and Publisher Ed Case was recently interviewed for “Your Morning” on CN8, the Comcast Network, and “Busted Halo with Father Dave Dwyer” on Sirius Radio. We also got a nice shout-out from Miss Conduct in her column in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. (She called InterfaithFamily.com a “terrific site”–thanks, Miss C.!)
While there have been a handful of newsworthy studies of Americans’ religious affiliation and attitudes, very few have based their large-scale conclusions on samples any larger than a few thousand. But the American Religious Identification Survey 2001 interviewed more than 50,000 adults; as a point of comparison, the recent Baylor Religion Survey, which was written up in the USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and other papers, interviewed just over 1,700.
The administrators of the survey, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, wrote a book about the study titled Religion in a Free Market: Relgiious and Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why, When, Where this year. One of the chapters in this book, Household and Family Characteristics, has a subchapter on Mixed-Religion Couples.
This chapter includes the only chart I’ve ever seen that compares intermarriage rates among all of America’s significant religions.
The Jewish community tends to think of Jews as intermarrying at a very high rate, but the percentage of Jews who are intermarried seems about average for American religions. According to the ARIS 2001, 27 percent of Jews are intermarried (the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 said 31 percent), compared to 27 percent of Presbyterians, 28 percent of Lutherans, 30 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 33 percent of self-described Protestants, 39 percent of Buddhists and 42 percent of Episcopalians.
It’s always interesting to see how mainstream publications report on interfaith families, especially during December. For many of the papers, December is the only time they focus on people in interfaith relationships and often, the reporters’ ignorance of the issues at stake is readily apparent. Here’s a rundown of some recent pieces on interfaith couples:
As we had hoped, the authors of the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study responded to the op-ed by Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller questioning the findings of the Boston study. Their letter in today’s Forward is short and sweet but makes an essential point: unlike the demographic studies of Ukeles and Miller, which ask about children’s “identification,” the Boston study asked only about children’s religion–which is actually “a more stringent criterion for Jewish identification.”
In the same issue, Bethamie Horowitz, research director for the Mandel Foundation, a Jewish foundation that trains leaders in the non-profit world, has an interesting piece charting the evolution of the sociology of intermarriage from the 1940s to today. Titled “Are We More Than Just a Category?”, the piece not only looks at why intermarriage has increased (a familiar subject) but why intermarrieds today are open to making Jewish choices (a less familiar subject). Here’s her explanation–and conclusion–on the second issue:
The Solomon Schechter Day School Association made no decision on whether to change their admission policies to allow the children of non-Jewish mothers, according to Sue Fishkoff’s update of last Thursday’s JTA story. Instead, Fishkoff says, the association’s board of directors “will continue the discussion” after the conference.
That’s not surprising; these kinds of decisions often take a lot of time and a lot of controversy. But it was nice to see that Rabbi Jerome Epstein continues to argue for a more welcoming attitude in the movement:
Steven M. Cohen, one of the leading critics of outreach, has an op-ed on the results of the recent demographic study of Boston’s Jewish community in the current issue of the Forward, co-signed by demographers Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller.
Cohen et al first question whether the 60% figure for interfaith families raising their children as Jews reported in the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study is accurate, based on the way that the question was asked. They acknowledge that the Boston survey was conducted by “distinguished social scientists” who are “first-rate researchers.” We have to leave the technical aspects of the survey’s accuracy to the its authors, Leonard Saxe and his colleagues, but we are confident they are fully prepared to defend their methodology.
Cohen et al next challenge the survey author’s assertion that the 60% rate is “exceptional,” citing studies of six other cities, including Cleveland, St. Louis, Miami, Baltimore, Bergen County, N.J., and Hartford, as finding rates of between 59% and 66% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews.