Is This the Truth?

Steven M. Cohen has written another provocative paper, A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews, published by the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

As he has in the past, Cohen compares Jewish behaviors and attitudes–holiday observance, synagogue membership and attendance, having Jewish social networks, providing Jewish education to children, feeling attachment to the Jewish people and to Israel–of in-married Jews with intermarried Jews, looking at data from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01. The first conclusion of Cohen’s paper is this:

The gaps between the in-married and intermarried are so large and persistent that it seems that we are developing into two distinct populations: the in-married and the intermarried…. The identity chasm between in-married and intermarried is wide and gaping, suggesting the imagery of ‘Two Jewries.’… ntermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.

The fundamental problem with Cohen’s argument is that comparing the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with all intermarried families is uninformative and unhelpful. We know that probably one-third of intermarried families, sadly from a Jewish perspective, are raising their children as Christians (or in the other religion in the home). Obviously the lack of Jewish behaviors and attitudes of that segment of intermarried families skew the overall results. How is it helpful to set up a straw man of all intermarried families that can so easily be knocked down?

What is interesting and helpful is to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews. In Jewish Identity among the Adult Children of Intermarriage: Event Horizon or Navigable Horizon? (2004), Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok of the Cohen Center at Brandeis do just that, and find that the gaps in outcomes are greatly reduced. The Jewish identity of a child of intermarried parents is determined not simply by the fact that the parents are intermarried, but largely by the environment the family creates. They conclude that treating intermarriage as a black hole for Jewish identity is a mistake.

What are the implications of this research? By failing to control for the environment in which intermarried children are raised, the outcomes of intermarriage truly appear to be an event horizon for Jewish identity, a place from which no recovery is possible… But this is not the case–intermarried households are diverse, and those raising their children exclusively as Jews are far from a lost cause… Tarring all intermarriages with the same brush will make the event horizon a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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From Birth to Death And All Points in Between

There was a great editorial in the Forward a week and a half ago about the two new studies that are showing the American Jewish population has risen since 1990–not fallen, as commonly believed. The editorial makes an important point about why the 5.2 million number, although viewed with widespread skepticism by almost all demographers of the Jewish community, had such traction:

Virtually every scholar of American Jewish population studies understood that the number was wrong, but none of them wanted to descend to the level of polemics. Consequently, the doomsayers and triumphalists had the field to themselves. Maybe now, as the scholarly field begins to speak out, the hysteria can be laid to rest.

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