The Link Sink

kitchen sink

It’s a little late, but I need to pass along this amusing story of the Jewish daughter of a Jewish mom and a Christian dad named Sarah Christmas.

The Forward has a wonderful story about a group of 55 African-Americans who converted to Judaism in Cairo, Ill.–home to 40 churches and only 4,000 people.

Also in The Forward is an article about the growing interest among non-Jews in using mohels to circumcise their sons.

There’s a nice summary piece on the Conservative movement’s efforts in reaching out to the intermarried, in the Cleveland Jewish News.

Chelsea Handler, host of Chelsea Lately on E!, explains her struggle deciding whether to follow the Jewish faith of her father or the Mormon faith of her mother.

Cleveland Browns backup lineman Lenne Friedman talks about being Jewish in the NFL, and being married to a Catholic, also in the Cleveland Jewish News.

The Power of Controls

In the sciences all experiments require controls as well as subjects. Controls allow scientists to see if the expected results from an altered environment are any different than what would occur in an unaltered environment.

Typically, research on intermarriage in the Jewish community has looked at the effect of intermarriage on Jewish behavior as a binary proposition. If you’re intermarried, you act this way. If you’re inmarried, you act another way. But in recent years, more researchers have used controls in their research, controlling for variables such as level of Jewish education as a child and size of one’s personal Jewish network. Revealingly, when you control for level of Jewish “capital” when comparing the inmarried and the intermarried, gaps in Jewish behavior and participation shrink dramatically.

The latest study to add to this body of research comes from Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok and Benjamin Phillips of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Titled “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage,” the study controls for factors such as the Jewish partner’s pre-existing Jewish education and home religious practice.

As Sue Fishkoff of JTA reports, the study is muddying the waters of the intermarriage debate. Meanwhile, however, Steven Cohen, author of several of his own studies on or related to intermarriage, disagrees with the study’s conclusions, arguing that intermarriage is a deterministic factor in decreased Jewish involvement independent of other factors.

Further complicating the debate is another study soon to be released by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston which shows that the children of intermarried families being raised Jewish behave remarkably similarly to the children of non-Orthodox inmarried families.

When I get my hand on the actual studies, I will have more to add to the conversation.

Of Mega-Churches and Christmas Trees

At its recent biennial convention in San Diego, the Reform movement apparently borrowed a few chapters from the modern evangelical handbook:

In a darkened room at the San Diego Convention Center last week, nearly 1,000 people clapped, sang and danced to evening prayers, with the words projected on two large screens against a bucolic backdrop of mountain vistas and rolling streams.

Featuring a five-piece band, a small vocal ensemble and a charismatic, storytelling leader, the weekday evening service could have been held at any of the growing number of mega-churches in America.

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Adam Sandler = Israeli Super Spy

I’m not much of an Adam Sandler fan, but for the first time in well over a decade, I saw a trailer for a Sandler movie that looks genuinely funny. Called You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, it stars Sandler as an Israeli Mossad agent who goes to New York to become a hair stylist–and Rob Schneider as a Hezbollah terrorist/cab driver.

Outreach Pros and Cons

While I was at the Reform movement’s biennial last week, Anthony Weiss suggested in the Forward (Intermarriage Study Muddies Waters, December 12) that Boston’s figure of 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews may not be the result of its CJP-funded outreach programs, contrary to a Forward op-ed I co-wrote last year.

Weiss first argues that because other cities without outreach programs report similar rates, Boston’s rate cannot be tied to its outreach programs. But whether those rates are comparable is open to question. I am familiar with and confident in the survey methods (sampling and questions form) and results of the Boston survey; I don’t know the methods used in the other cities surveys and, as Ira Sheskin, the demographer who did those surveys, apparently told Weiss, “differing survey methods make it impossible to make precise comparisons between cities.” Continue reading

The Rap on Rent-a-Rabbis

Independent rabbis without congregations get a bad rap. There seems to be a general cultural assumption that unless you have a congregation–or you’re famous, the great reprieve of American culture–you are somehow not a “real” rabbi. Somehow the fact that a small group of volunteer leaders at a synagogue decided to pay you a salary confers more legitimacy on you than if you write, do freelance projects and travel the country to officiate at weddings and other life cycle events.

An otherwise quite thoughtful article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about changing attitudes toward intermarriage in the religious movements is marred by this prejudice:

Rabbi [Bradd] Boxman arrived at Har Sinai in 2003. Up until then, he had not officiated at a single interfaith ceremony. He had been thinking about it and, he felt, if he were going to make a change, this would be a good time.

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IFF in the Boston Globe

Allow us to gloat: a week after making the New York Times, we were featured in a front-page story in the Boston Globe. Philanthropic Shift: Young Jewish donors go beyond traditional groups, by Sacha Pfeiffer, focuses on efforts by 20- and 30-something Jewish philanthropists to give money to different causes and organizations than their parents and grandparents:

Federations historically have “done really wonderful things, and they continue to do wonderful things, but they don’t reach out to my demographic very well,” said Jessica Warren, 27, a New York University graduate student whose wealthy family has a private foundation. “They’re so huge and amalgamous, and they don’t hit the niche interests that a lot of people my age have.”

This thinking has benefited organizations such as InterfaithFamily.com, a Newton nonprofit that provides support for relationships between Jews and non-Jews. It has struggled to raise funds from traditional donors.

In years past, “I was despairing of our ability to get any significant funding because intermarriage is a very controversial issue in the Jewish community,” said Edmund C. Case, the online service’s founder and president.

We were specifically noted because we were one of 50 innovative Jewish non-profits chosen for inclusion in Slingshot, a guidebook for young philanthropists. We were also one of the first eight recipients of grants from the Slingshot Fund.

Intermarriage Peaks Up North

A recent story in The Forward reported that Portland, Maine, has the highest rate of intermarriage in the country.

While true, the number cited in the story–61%–is a little different than the number typically used when citing intermarriage rates. The most commonly cited intermarriage rate is the percentage of married Jews who are married to non-Jews (the individual intermarriage rate). The 61%, however, is the household (or couples) intermarriage rate, which is the percentage of households with Jews that are intermarriages. The household rate is always higher than the individual rate. In Portland, the individual rate is 44%–which is not quite as shocking as 61%.

To understand why the household rate is always higher than the individual rate, one need only realize that it takes two Jews to form an inmarried household and only one Jew to form an intermarried household. Therefore, when you are calculating the household rate, one intermarried Jew counts as much as two inmarried Jews. If you had 12 Jews in a community, and six were intermarried, the individual intermarriage rate would be 50%. However, because the six inmarried Jews all have to be married to other Jews, there are only three inmarried couples (because six people make three couples). But there are still six intermarried households. So the household intermarriage rate in this 12-person community would be 66%.

During the maelstrom over intermarriage that occurred after the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, people were astonished that the reported intermarriage rate for the years 1995-2000 was 52% (a number which was since revised downward to 43%). But that was the individual intermarriage rate. Translated to a household rate, the national intermarriage rate for 1995-2000 would be an astonishing 68%!

Undermining Assumptions

I’m a little late on noting this, but a few weeks ago Scripps News published a thought-provoking column by Rabbi Arthur Blecher on intermarriage, the High Holidays and the Jewish future. Attentive readers of this blog will recognize his name as the author of the recently published New American Judaism, which argues that widely held anxieties about Jewish continuity rest on a false image of the past and a faulty analysis of the future.

In both his book and his column, Blecher brings a much-needed historical perspective to the debate over intermarriage and Jewish continuity. He points to the revered Solomon Schechter’s completely misguided prediction that “traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country.” Schechter died in 1915. He also points out that the Jewish population in the U.S. has grown six-fold since the beginning of the century.

His arguments on the demographic impact of intermarriage mirror our own. He says, “The math of intermarriage should give rise to optimism, not comparisons to genocide.”

Probably the most fascinating section of his book deconstructs the myth of historical Jewish continuity. When one compares the rites and worship of pre-rabbinic Judaism compared with the rituals of modern Judaism, it’s clear that the two share only a few philosophical underpinnings–and little else. Moreover, the idealized notion of a rich Jewish life on the shtetl is as much a product of fiction (primarily Fiddler on the Roof) as it is of fact.

If you’re interested in having your assumptions tested, buy this book.

The Art of (Speaking About) Intermarriage

Esther Kustanowitz, the prolific blogger, columnist and editor of PresenTense, has written a column about her experience speaking about intermarriage–or more accurately, serving as “session artist” for a workshop on intermarriage at a conference for young Jewish leaders.

At the session, Kustanowitz read an essay from her book-in-progress about her own thoughts on intermarriage:

(To ruin the ending, I decided intermarriage wasn’t for me, and to this day I restrict my dating pool to Jews who are interested in living a traditionally Jewish life.) Continue reading