Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).

The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.

The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.

For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).

For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).

For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).

The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.

The study reports 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 (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.

Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).

The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).

The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .

One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.

The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.


[1]The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.

[2]The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”

[3]Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.

What Can I Say?

I have lead three workshops recently for religious school teachers and the same frustration came up each time. Teachers wanted me to tell them what to say when a child said x, y, or z. I veer away from giving teachers a script (I provide broad guidelines to think about) because I think each situation is different. The way each child says what they say, who the child is, how old they are, how many times the class has talked about this, etc., has to be taken into account in order for the teacher to know how to respond. However, in this blog I am going to share what I would say to a main comment that I have frequently heard uttered by children of all ages in religious schools.

“I’m only half Jewish.”

As a teacher, I would ask back, “Why do you say that?”

The child may respond, “Because my mom/dad isn’t Jewish and I celebrate Christmas and so I am only half Jewish.” (They may add that they don’t believe in God or other reasons.)

I might ask, “Do you think your parents would describe you as half Jewish?”

If a child says “yes,” I may encourage them to talk with their parents about this. I would be sure to email or call the parents after class to let them know that their child spoke about this in class and that I was happy they felt comfortable sharing with me. I would let the parents know that I encouraged their child to talk with them about these labels of identity. I would also mention that the clergy and educators at the synagogue are open to talking with parents and families about Judaism in an interfaith family and that there are lots of resources and support available to them as they figure out how to speak to their children about religion and identity.

If the child answers “no,” that their parents wouldn’t use this expression, a teacher could ask how they think their parents would describe who the child is religiously. If the child answers that their parents would say they are Jewish, a teacher could explain that maybe their parents have hoped that Judaism would be the religion and way of life they most identify with, but that this doesn’t mean that the other religion in the family is ignored or pushed away. It is wonderful to explore and experience the way one parent was raised and the way some in the family practice. This doesn’t take away from being brought up Jewish.

I would tell the child that a main hope is that we all feel whole and that we feel secure in who we are. I would also tell children that Judaism and Christianity share so much. We share sacred texts, values, core biblical narratives, faith in God, and a desire to make the world a better place. There are many prayers within Christianity and many songs that have roots in Judaism. We both love holidays, rituals, and traditions. But, there are many parts of the religions that are different. It may be hard to really be both religions. You can experience aspects of both religions, learn about both religions, come to love parts of both religions, but you might end up practicing and adhering to one religion. Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. In religious school and then in high school and college, you can continue to learn about Judaism and may find so many aspects that add much to your life. That’s one reason you are all here. We are here to learn about an ancient religion that still applies to our experiences in the world today. The stories, history, culture, language, and ethics of Judaism – all these aspects and many more – can bring joy, purpose, order, connectedness, and meaning to how we live.

When children bring up issues of identity it can be tricky for the religious school teacher to know what to say, how much to say, what would support the family and the goals of the religious school program and the congregation’s denominational ideology (whether it is Reform or Conservative, for example). This is why I encourage educators to write guidelines such as this and to role play with teachers to help teachers know how to respond to the most commonly talked about issues from going to church, celebrating Christmas or Easter to having family that isn’t Jewish to not believing in God, not wanting to come to religious school/Hebrew school, wondering about Jesus and more.

If you are a religious school teacher, let me know if you could see this dialogue taking place in class and if this is helpful to thinking through how to respond before comments are made so that you are not caught off-guard.

Log Into Parent Education This October

As you may know, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is a 2-year funded initiative which began July 1, 2011. In the first year of the grant we offered an online/in-person class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. The way the class works is that parents get login information to access the class on the computer. Each week of the class the material for a new session is added. You access the material on your own time during that week, read essays (or print them for later), hear/learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal, and more. Parents are able to interact with other through discussion boards. They have access to a facilitator so that they can ask questions about the material being learned. The facilitator responds to journal posts as well for a more individualized experience. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family – a Friday night Shabbat dinner and experience, and a wrap-up and next steps send-off.

Each of the 8 lessons is about a major parenting situation and how Jewish teachings and traditions offer insights about how to make these times meaningful and spiritual. The class explores bedtime, food and eating rituals, marking time with meaning on a weekly and yearly basis, doing good deeds, loving learning, spirituality, and personal journeys. Every aspect of this class was created with modern interfaith families in mind.

A new session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is beginning in October. It is ideal for families with preschool-3rd grade children. If you would like to join in this next session, go to interfaithfamily.com/raisingachildChicagoOct2012. InterfaithFamily/Chicago will cover the costs for anybody to participate.

The second program we offered in year one of our grant is a marriage workshop called Love and Religion – Online. The workshop took place over 4 Thursday evenings. The first night we take all of the couples to dinner in the city. This is a great chance for everybody to get to know each other in person and to talk about their recent or upcoming wedding. The next three Thursdays, for about an hour or so, we meet online. I facilitate the workshop along with a marriage counselor. We discuss how to create a meaningful religious and spiritual life as an interfaith couple and explore everything from communication in marriage to how to make major life decisions. We offered this workshop in February and May and begin a new session tonight, August 16, with 7 new couples. The next session of Love and Religion – Online will begin in October. It is not too late to join in. Sign up at interfaithfamily.com/loveandreligionChicagoOct2012.

In year 2 of our grant, we will be offering a new class, Preparing for Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. This class is ideal for families with 4th-7th graders, whether you are members of a synagogue or not. Like the Raising a Child class, parents will receive login information to access this class on the computer at their own pace. Each week of the class the material for a new session will be added. There will be essays, ways for you to hear and learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal and more. You will be able to interact with other parents through discussion boards. You will have access to a facilitator so that you can ask questions as you go, and the facilitator will respond both to your journal posts and on the discussion boards. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family – a Friday night Shabbat dinner and experience, and a wrap-up and next steps send-off.

Each of the eight sessions is about a major aspect of the bat/bar mitzvah ceremony and experience. We will explore the history of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, the meaning of Torah, putting the “mitzvah” back in the bat/bar mitzvah, Shabbat morning and evening worship, ritual policies in synagogues, the enduring Jewish values to hold dear, and how to explain this to family members and friends who are not Jewish.

This class is beginning in October. If you would like to join in go, to interfaithfamily.com/barbatmitzvahChicagoOct2012.

We are beginning to build a community of people we have met through these classes and workshops. At the Joyfully Jewish Mitzvah event this past Sunday in Long Grove, I saw a family who took our Raising a Child class – it was great to reconnect! These classes and workshops are great ways to participate in learning and fellowship in convenient and realistic ways.

As we learn from our sacred text of rabbinic writings, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), “Say not: when I have leisure I will study, lest you may not have it!”

Can Raising Children in One Religion Be Clear Cut?

Each week I post a discussion question on the Chicagoland page. We love your feedback, so check each Monday by 5pm for the question of the week and respond!

This week, the question was about whether parents with young children were joining congregations and registering children for religious school to start in September. In my family, I am busy signing our 5-year-old up for continued violin lessons (check out my recent blog post about the how the Suzuki method makes me wonder about Jewish religious school), swim lessons, pottery and gymnastics. She loves it all! I also just filled in the form for kindergarten religious school. True, my husband is a congregational rabbi, so this is a no-brainer.   

One person posted to the discussion board that she inquired about enrolling her young child in the Jewish preschool at her local Reform congregation and was told that if a child is being raised with any parts of another religion, then the school wasn’t for them. The question is not as clear-cut as it seems. I wonder how many interfaith families can say that they are raising their child solely with Judaism, to the exclusion of learning about and participating at times in Christian holidays or church services on occasion.

Yet many of these families want Judaism to play a meaningful role in their lives and want their children to learn about Judaism, experience Judaism, identify with Judaism and engage in Jewish communal experiences. These families would not say that they are raising their children in both religions. They want to raise children with Judaism primarily. But family dynamics are complex. Having family of a different religion can blur lines. Holidays and culture, childhood memories of songs or favorite Bible stories may get passed on by a parent who isn’t Jewish.  This same parent may be making challah on Shabbat, lighting candle, and hoping to take their child to Jewish religious school and synagogue services.

If we turn away families who want Judaism in authentic ways because the child may be exposed to Christianity, we are going to lose an enormous amount of families. Why not get these families in our doors, welcome them with sensitivity and inclusivity, with adult education, and joy-filled communal activities and allow their children to soak in this important part of their heritage? What are we afraid of? That these families will water down Judaism for everyone else? That children will talk about Santa? Many children of all religions in America talk about Santa because Dora’s Christmas Adventure is on morning cartoons. Are we afraid that families who are honest about their religious questions and struggles will give others an opening to raise their own concerns? Are we afraid that children who grow up with knowledge about and memories of Christianity will not continue Judaism? We can be sure of this if we deprive them of Jewish education and community.