The Critics Respond to the Boston Survey

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.

It is a statistical fact that if more than 50% of interfaith families raise their children as Jews, then the Jewish community will increase in size, not decrease. The Boston survey authors emphasized that contrary to the general presumption that intermarriage decreases the size of the Jewish community, in Boston it appeared to be increasing its size.

If studies of single cities–and, by the way, most Jews live in urban areas–are showing that more than a majority of interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, that is great news. It knocks out one of the major underpinnings of the opponents of intermarriage and outreach, that intermarriage decreases the size of the community. Sadly, Cohen et al don’t make that point in their essay.

Cohen et al next acknowlege that while not “exceptional,” the Boston rate is “unusually high,” “indeed in the high range.” But they say that this can not be attributed “primarily to targeting intermarried families.” Instead, they contend that Boston’s Jewish community is “special” with impressive institutions and “exciting opportunities for engagement” including in Jewish education of all sorts. They conclude that the Boston survey “makes no instrumental case for outreach.”

We are extraordinarily disappointed that Cohen et al are unwilling to include Boston’s targeting of intermarried families as even partially responsible for the 60% figure. It is a simple, undeniable fact that Boston relative to every other city in the country has the most coordinated, extensive and well-funded programs of outreach to interfaith families, and that the Boston federation, CJP, has made outreach to the intermarried a priority more than any other local federation, to the extent of saying so on every invitation to every CJP event. We believe that is what makes Boston special–or certainly at least part of what makes Boston special.

Cohen et al note that the most recent survey of New York city found that only 30% of interfaith families there were raising their children as Jews. Certainly New York city is “special” with impressive institutions and opportunities for education and other engagement. What New York city lacks is any coordinated, extensive and well-funded programs of outreach.

What really matters in all of this is the response of Jewish leaders who are in a position to make funding decisions–the lay and professional leadership of the federations, and the principals and staff of Jewish family foundations. I was frustrated recently when a leading federation executive, when I urged him to try to reach a 60% level of interfaith families raising their children as Jews in his community, said, “if only we knew what to do.” I was frustrated recently when the executive director of a major foundation said “we like to fund programs that work” with the unmistakeable implication that he did not belive that outreach programs do. I was frustrated on two separate occasions recently when staff of a major federation and a major foundation said they wanted to do research before funding any outreach programming.

Research is fine. Every study of the impact of outreach programs has shown that a significant increase in Jewish engagement after participation in the programs. We are confident additional evaluations of outreach programs would show the same result, and welcome them. But in the meantime, while waiting for more research, the Boston survey results should be regarded as compelling evidence justifying an investment in the same kind of outreach programs that CJP has funded. We say to Jewish funders: what are you waiting for?

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