A Long Look at a Long Study

While I was away from the office earlier last week, the UJA-Federation of New York released a big, giant, whopping study of Downstate NY's community. (Downstate being, of course, the opposite of Upstate NY. That is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.) More than 250 pages long, there's a lot to think about – and I'm still thinking. But there are some highlights that readers of InterfaithFamily.com might especially want to know about. I'm going to do a brief fisking, for ease of navigation.

From 1991 to 2002, the number of Jews in the eight-county New York area held steady, while from 2002 to 2011 it grew dramatically. The contrasting changes in the number of non-Jews in Jewish households — consisting mostly of spouses and children in intermarried homes — are even more striking. In the earlier period (1991–2002), the number of non-Jewish people in Jewish households almost doubled; since 2002, though, it has declined slightly, falling to 231,000. With respect to the slightly declining numbers of non-Jews in Jewish households, the Jewish population in the New York area sharply contrasts with most Jewish communities in the United States and, indeed, the entire Jewish world outside of Israel. In every other large Jewish diaspora community, rising intermarriage has brought increasing numbers of non-Jews — spouses, partners, and children — into Jewish households.

Are outreach initiatives working in NY while falling short in other communities? Are Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues and JCCs, more welcoming and inclusive of partners and other family members who aren't Jewish in NY than elsewhere? Or is this solely a statistical game, with the number of non-Jews in Jewish households smaller in NY than elsewhere due to the large number of Orthodox (who have lower rates of including non-Jews in their Jewish households)? Indeed, the study attributes it in part to the high birthrate of Orthodox families, but also to the "dramatic increase in the number of people who consider themselves 'partially Jewish,' many the children of intermarriage."

Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as “none.” This configuration is particularly common among the intermarried, children of the intermarried, and less engaged Jews, as well as Russian-speaking Jews. However, Jewish identity without religion is by no means isolated to these Jews; it is also expressed by those influenced by certain Zionist and Yiddishist movements in the United States and Europe. Still others lay claim to Jewish identity even though they maintain religious identities tied to something other than Judaism.

After reading the first two sentences here, I started to wonder about those Jews who have identified as cultural Jews for generations, but was reassured that intermarriage wasn't being (solely) blamed as I continued reading the last two sentences.

Growing up in Canada, our Jewish population studies are slightly different. According to the Canadian census, one is considered Jewish if one identifies as Jewish by ethnicity, by religion, or both. Additionally, one is counted as Jewish if identifying as Jewish by ethnicity and with a religion that does not require conversion (such as Buddhism, but not, say, Catholicism). Using definitions such as these, perhaps there wouldn't be a negative connotation to being Jewish but listing religion as "none."

Several factors account for the rise of the nondenominational segment of the population. One factor noted earlier is a decreasing attachment to denominational (and other social) identities, including political parties, consumer brands, nations, and communities. Another is the increased number of adult children of intermarriage — among the adult children of the intermarried, 65% identify with no denomination or a minor denomination, in contrast with just 32% of the adult children of two Jewish parents. A third is the increasingly porous boundaries that allow the entry of people born non-Jewish but who become identified as Jews despite never having gone through conversion.

This one surprised me. I'm familiar with the growing trend to move away from denominations. (Heck, I'm as engaged with Judaism as it gets, but pray at transdenominational or post-denominational minyans instead of synagogues of any denomination and regularly score low on Steven M. Cohen's scales. (One such example, where I score a zero.)) But I hadn't expected the statistic to be so much greater among adult children of intermarriage. I'd love to know more: Were these adults raised with strong ties to the Jewish community? Were they raised in denominations that recognized their parents' marriages? Recognized them as Jews? And when it comes to "minor denomination," why are Renewal, Sephardic, secular humanist, havurahs and minyans, and others considered lesser?

Further, how do these statistics take into account the likelihood of an intermarried individual who was raised Orthodox or Conservative shifting to Reform, Reconstructionist or "other" (or no) denominations after facing barriers in the denomination in which they were raised? If raised Orthodox but now participating in a Reform synagogue, because that's the only place they could find clergy to officiate their wedding, because that's where their patrilineal children are acknowledged as Jewish, they're now counted as Reform (though they might not identify as "Reform" nor "Orthodox" now). And with statistics skewed in this way, it perpetuates the idea that intermarriage isn't an issue for the Orthodox community (or Conservative, to a lesser extent), making it difficult to make inroads there.

as intermarriage rates persist or rise, and as Jewish group boundaries remain porous, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational, along with Jews who score low on indices of Jewish engagement.

Intermarriage is to blame? Shouldn't this read, "unless the Jewish denominational organizations make changes, start welcoming and including intermarried partners and families, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational…"?

3 in 5 Jews are congregationally affiliated, only 1 in 6 non-Jews living in Jewish homes is congregationally affiliated. The vast majority of people in congregationally affiliated households are Jewish (Orthodox, 99%; Conservative, 97%; Reform, 95%). Non-Jews in Jewish households disproportionately live in homes that are nondenominational and that do not belong to congregations.

How does this compare to Boston, where the federation (CJP) focuses some spending on interfaith families? Is there still such an extreme divide between Jewish households that are congregationally affiliated and households with non-Jewish members? In the footnote for the chart that fleshes out the above statistic, there's a footnote explaining that those non-Jewish (presumably intermarried) who said they identified as Reform were moved to the "other" category. That seems off to me, given the definition of conversion (below) that included self-identifying as Jewish with or without formal conversion.

By way of definition, we classify married couples into three categories.
[list]
  • In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — both spouses are Jewish.

  • Conversionary In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — in-marriages where at least one spouse is Jewish without having a Jewish parent. Not all such Jews converted formally; Jews by personal choice, in our terminology, acquired a Jewish identity by way of living in a Jewish family. To be clear, all “conversionary” marriages are in-marriages.

  • Intermarried Jewish Couples or Households — one Jewish spouse is married to one non-Jewish spouse.
  • [/list]

    It's nice, though not without controversy, to see their self-identification definition of conversion, instead of sticking to those who have taken a formal conversion route.

    This definition would also lower the number of intermarried couples, as those who have not formally converted, even if living Jewishly, are usually counted amongst the non-Jewish, thus forming an intermarriage.

    The “couple rate” is always higher than the “individual rate.” A simple example will clarify the point: in a population with just two couples — one in-married and the other intermarried — the intermarried couple rate is 50%, as half of the two couples are intermarried; however, of the three Jews in the population, just one is intermarried. Thus, for the same imaginary population, a third of the Jewish individuals are intermarried, while half of the couples are intermarried.

    Always good to remember this distinction.

    In 2011, 72% of all Jewish married couples in the eight county area were in-married, another 6% were conversionary in-married, and 22% were intermarried. This distribution is nearly identical to that found in 2002, when 22% of couples were intermarried and 7% were conversionary in-married. In 1991, 20% were intermarried. Over a 20-year period, then, intermarriage edged upward by a relatively small amount, but only in the first part of the period. In effect, the overall rate of intermarriage has stabilized in the eight-county New York area.

    22% of NY's couples are intermarried? That's much lower than the national average of 48%. I wonder how much their inclusive definition of "conversionary" lowers this stat.

    Intermarriage rates really jump among people who do not belong to a congregation.

    Let's look at this one differently. It isn't cause and effect (intermarriage leads to lack of affiliation). Rather, too often congregations and denominational bodies haven't kept up with the needs of their potential members. (Want to attract more intermarried couples to your congregation? Our Resource Center for Program Providers and Resource Center for Jewish Clergy both have great suggestions.)

    For the most recently conducted marriages, those who wed between 2006 and 2011, as many as 50% of non-Orthodox couples intermarried. This rate represents the first time that the intermarriage couple rate reached the halfway point, attaining a level almost three times that found in the 1970s.

    For the same period, 2006 to 2011, the individual rate of intermarriage of current Jews stands at 33%. That is, of all non-Orthodox Jews who married in the last five years or so, a third married non-Jews.

    This reminds me of how women are seen as a minority group, despite being a majority of the population. Can we start seeing intermarried couples and their families as a main Jewish population? Stop seeing them as the minority? Can we shift federation and other communal funding and programming accordingly? 

    On nearly all measures of Jewish engagement, the intermarried trail the in-married.

    I don't think we can measure them on the "groom or bloom" scale. And, again, I think there's a sizeable population of intermarried who aren't engaged because they do not feel welcomed with their partner and/or families at Jewish events, organizations, etc. It is the responsibility of the greater Jewish community to change this, not just the individual's.

    Among the intermarried, we find changes ranging from an increase of 5 percentage points (giving to a Jewish cause other than UJA-Federation) to a decline of 16 percentage points (importance of being Jewish). Double-digit declines also characterize Chanukah candlelighting (-13%) and participating in a Passover seder (-12%).

    This completely differs from the results of our annual Passover/Easter and December Holidays surveys, where we've been seeing increases.

    In short, from 2002 to 2011, the intermarried became more distant from Jewish life, especially when compared with the in-married.

    As a community, what can we do to change that? How can we meet the needs of intermarried couples and their families, make sure they feel explicitly welcomed in our Jewish communities and organizations?

    The vast majority of intermarried Jews are relatively unengaged in Jewish life: 70% score low or very low on the Index of Jewish Engagement (see Exhibit 4-22) as compared with just 22% of the non-Orthodox in-married.

    Again, I'm not sure we can accept these statistics as they stand. By an earlier study of Cohen's, I scored a 0 for "Jewish Educational Background," despite my heavy involvement in Jewish life, both at home and communally, for most of my life. They just didn't fit into Cohen's ascribed Jewish experiences. Is it possible for people to be engaged without paying for a synagogue membership, without feeling "very attached" to Israel, without "always" or "usually" lighting Shabbat candles? Yes.

    The Intermarried Are Far Less Engaged — But Not Because of Lack of Comfort
    The data from this survey demonstrates that the vast majority of intermarried respondents say that they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities. In fact, their responses differ just slightly from the other two groups examined here. The intermarried only slightly outscored the in-married (14% versus 10%), and their discomfort level equaled that of the non-married (14%). Thus, expressed discomfort with Jewish events and activities is not very widespread, nor do the intermarried express more discomfort than others.

    I saw this section heading and was surprised. When I then saw the statistics of discomfort compared to non-married individuals, it all came together for me. Like many groups within the Jewish community, those who are not married (by choice or because they are still looking) often report feeling excluded from community organizations and events. This goes doubly for those without kids (by choice or otherwise), who frequently feel shidduch-crisis">excluded for their decisions. And this is another example of the Jewish community needing to shift, not just the individual. Too often, the entry point for a Jewish adult into the community is their wedding or having a child whom they want to educate Jewishly. Not married, no kids? Those entry points don't exist for you.

    That the percentage of discomfort is so low (10-14%) remains surprising, given all the anecdotal evidence I've heard over the years, both personally and as a Jewish professional. Do people feel they cannot report feeling discomfort with the Jewish community on a Jewish community study?

    Over the years, opposition in the Jewish population to intermarriage and one’s children intermarrying has steadily declined.

    To learn how attitudes to this issue are distributed in the population, we asked Jewish respondents the following question:

    “Say a child of yours married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism. Would you be upset with that, or would that not upset you? [WAIT FOR ANSWER. IF UPSET, ASK:] Would you be very upset, or somewhat upset?”
    [/quote]

    Really? The two options for answers were "upset" and "not upset"? That's hardly nuanced! As Julie Wiener said, more response options were needed. Including, "something like 'somewhat disappointed' or 'depends on other factors, like whether or not they plan to be involved in Jewish life and what decisions they've made about how they will raise future children.'"

    the demonstration of the close ties between Jewish social networks and Jewish engagement helps partly explain why the intermarried as a group score lower on Jewish engagement than the in-married as a group, and yields implications for policies designed to elevate their engagement and that of others. It is of some consequence that the intermarried maintain very few Jewish social connections. Among the intermarried ages 30 to 39, fully 77% live fairly isolated from other Jews — no one else is Jewish in their homes and only 4% have mostly Jewish friends. In contrast, their in-married age peers not only have Jewish spouses and most have Jewish children at home — the vast majority (74%) also has mostly Jewish friends.

    The study's authors offer InterfaithFamily.com's model of connection (to other intermarried couples) and advocacy/education (helping intermarried couples and their families access and be included in the Jewish community, raise children with Judaism, and help the Jewish community become welcoming and open for these couples and families) as the solution to this low engagement.

    Chapter 5

    Much of the content that looks at intermarriage and its impact on Jewish engagement I've already countered, above. (See "groom or bloom" and read the full blog post that's linked there.)

    the philanthropic behavior of intermarried households is distinguished in three ways:
    [list]
  • • Many more contribute only to non-Jewish causes — 51% for the intermarried compared with 15% for the in-married.

  • • Far fewer contribute to Jewish causes (UJA-Federation giving and giving to other Jewish organizations combined) — 34% compared with 72%.
  • [/list]

    Could this be another statistic demonstrating the need of the community to change, not just the individual? If intermarried couples/families feel underserved by Jewish organizations, there's not much incentive to give to them. (If I'm allergic most pets, I'm not likely to donate to an animal shelter.) If the Jewish communal organizations of these eight counties of NY did a giant push to attract, welcome, engage, include intermarried couples/families, I'd like to think they'd see long-term growth in donations from this demographic.

    As compared with other Jewish households, in-marriage rates (87%) are far higher and intermarriage rates (13%) are far lower among Russian-speaking households, roughly half the rate for non-RSJ households.

    The explanation given has to do with their relative recent immigration, as I would suspect, which lends to tight-knit, ethnic identity-based community standards. A generation or two later, their American-born (grand)children are more likely to have similar intermarriage rates.

    ISRAELIS, SYRIAN COMMUNITY, LGBT, AND BIRACIAL AND NONWHITE HOUSEHOLDS

    Perhaps my favorite chapter heading, if only for its "we don't know what to do with these other groups"-ness.

    of those married, many more LGBT people are intermarried (44% versus 22%), and fewer belong to congregations (33% versus 45%). As compared with others, LGBT respondents (precisely, respondents from households with one or more LGBT individuals) score lower on all measures of Jewish belonging.

    This is disappointing, but not surprising. It's hard to find a partner, harder still if there are limitations (religion, gender, LGBT, etc.). If groups feel excluded from the general Jewish community, they're less likely to join congregations or other communal organizations, and score lower levels of "engagement" to formal Judaism.

    Biracial, Hispanic, and Other Nonwhite Households

    There's just so much to say for this section. Instead of hearing it from me, I urge you to read an article that Be'chol Lashon contributed to, originally published by the Jewish Week.

    I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. There's just so much to think about in here. What are your thoughts?

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