What I Would Like To Be Thankful For

It’s Thanksgiving 2010. I have a lot of good fortune in my life and I try to be very grateful. That goes for my work at InterfaithFamily.com, too, but this year I’m not sure how thankful I feel. It has to do with Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage and whether they are changing and will change for the better. It’s related to my presentation at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Federations of North America, and to media reports since.

One of the most important books I’ve read is Ron Heifitz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers. I read it in one of my best classes at the Hornstein Program, organizational behavior taught by Susan Shevitz. His thesis is that the job of leadership is to move people to adapt their attitudes in significant ways.

What I tried to convey in my presentation is that every Jewish community could and should extend explicit welcoming messages to interfaith families, and could and should offer relatively low cost programs and services that will attract and engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. But the real question was, why don’t Jewish communities do that? Why do Jewish funders allocate less than 1/10 of 1% of their total spending to engaging interfaith families?

I believe it’s because Jews and Jewish leaders view intermarriage as bad, as something negative, or at best, with ambivalence. Whether it’s because of tribalism, or because of flawed research that suggests that intermarried couples because of the fact of the intermarriage are and will be less Jewishly engaged, or because of misguided views that intermarriage can be prevented or reduced – whatever the source, too many Jews and Jewish leaders, in the words of one of IFF’s users, can’t resist saying that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.” One of the primary goals of InterfaithFamily.com’s work is to move Jews to adapt from that attitude, towards seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.

The GA presentation was structured as initial remarks by me and then by Steven M. Cohen, followed by responses from three top federations executives. Now Steven M. Cohen is the sociologist most associated with the survey reports that conclude that intermarriage leads to much less Jewish attitudes and behaviors. Even though I think he has made a lot of progress over the years, and now says that he supports more funding for engaging interfaith families, and that he doesn’t want to alienate interfaith families – still, when he made his remarks, it was like he couldn’t control himself from his default position that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.”

Cohen repeated his severe critique of the Boston federation’s report that showed that the 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews were much like in-married Reform Jews in their attitudes and behaviors. He recited a litany of comparisons where they fall short of their in-married counterparts – all while studiously avoiding any comparisons where they “score” ahead. You would never ever know, listening to Steven Cohen, that interfaith families raising Jewish children in Boston actually light Shabbat candles more than in-married Reform of Conservative families do.

There was a little moment of drama at the end of the session. I think Steven could sense that the last question had been asked. He took the mic and recited another litany, of things like Jewish summer camps, day schools, Israel trips, social networks that get young Jews together – and said that these steps could or would prevent or reduce intermarriage. I kind of grabbed the mic and said, we don’t have to promote those things as preventing intermarriage, we can promote them as building strong Jewish identity and desire to have Jewish families and children. There was a smattering of applause at that point, and the program ended.

That was really my point: Jews and Jewish leaders should stop talking about intermarriage as bad; they should promote Jewish experiences not as preventing intermarriage but as building identity and desire to have Jewish families; they should encourage young adults to choose partners who will support their Jewish engagement – whether or not the partner is a Jew.

The room was packed. I estimate there were over 200 people there — at 8:15 am! Several people came up and said very positive things to me afterwards, but it’s hard to gauge overall reaction. I heard indirectly that one of the federation executives on the panel told one of his donors that he had been sensitized that it is a problem to say that in-marriage, rather than strong Jewish identity, is the goal. To that extent, the program was a great success, and I’m thankful for that. If others felt that way, I’d be even more thankful.

I didn’t make good notes of the three federation executives’ remarks. Barry Shrage, the head of the Boston federation, basically said that saying don’t intermarry and fearing intermarriage won’t work, that we need to address interfaith couples with positive messages. Steve Rakitt, the head of the Atlanta federation, said the message should be to promote positive Jewish identity, and talked about the Pathways program to engage interfaith families that the Atlanta federation funds. The Boston and Atlanta federations are the only two that allocate any significant funding to programs to engage interfaith families. I’m thankful for that, but if more federations would follow suit, I’d be even more thankful.

Jay Sanderson, head of the Los Angeles federation, seemed to say that welcoming interfaith families wasn’t the right issue to be talking about – he said that we need to be welcoming everyone. My response was that yes, it’s important to be welcoming to everyone, but we need to have some services and programs that specifically address the unique needs of interfaith couples and families. Even after this session, my feeling is still that federation executives would just as soon not talk expressly and explicitly about engaging interfaith families.

I hope you will be able to evaluate the session for yourself. It was filmed by Shalom TV and their founder told me afterwards that it would be on their site, but it hasn’t appeared yet and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will. You can read my complete remarks on our site, and a shortened version on the Huffington Post and on eJewish Philanthropy.

So I got back from the GA and there was a spate of news stories coming out of Israel. On November 16 the Jerusalem Post reported that the Knesset held a special session on assimilation in the Diaspora and a new study showed high rates of intermarriage in the Diaspora. As usual, the Israeli view was to equate intermarriage with assimilation, the loss of Jewish identity and engagement. I’ve tried in the past to explain What Israelis Should Know About Intermarriage in North America – but it doesn’t feel like many are getting the message there. I’d be more thankful if they did.

On November 17, Alan Dershowitz was interviewed about his new novel that includes a romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman. The interviewer from The Jewish Press, which is by its own admission mostly for Orthodox readers, says, “Intermarriage is generally thought of as one of the worst sins a Jew can commit” and asks why he protrayed the interfaith romance. Dershowitz gave what I consider a bad answer:

I don’t think I portray it in a positive light. I think I portray it realistically. I portray it the way I see it among my students. I’m trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting it’s a good thing. I don’t support it. But I see it all around me. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. Many of them will eventually convert to Judaism but we’re going through a very challenging period now with intermarriage. I can’t ignore that in my writing.

I would have been thankful if he instead had said, “I don’t accept your question – most young Jews today do not consider intermarraige to be a sin. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. That just goes to show that young Jews feel that they can live Jewishly with non-Jewish partners – isn’t that great! That’s what we should hope will happen.”

I don’t want to overlook the more positive news and views. On November 18, there was a wonderful short piece in the Jewish Exponent by our friend Gari Weilbacher, the managing director of Interfaithways in Philadelphia, with yet another story of Jewish engagement in an intermarriage. On November 21, Sue Fishkoff reported that the Conservative movement is tipping towards openness to the children of intermarried couples. And on November 23, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger interviewed sociologist Arnold Dashefsky, who said:

On one hand, intermarriage could be a boon to the Jewish population. If the non-Jewish spouse decides to become Jewish or if the couple raises its children as Jews, they might actually increase the Jewish population. … [T]here is a portion of the Jewish population that is intermarried that is also committed to living a Jewish life, even if the spouse hasn’t converted. In our interviews – and I stress that they do not constitute a representative sample of all intermarried couples – in many dimensions, some couples had Jewish behaviors similar to or exceeding the larger Jewish population. In [some] areas – synagogue membership, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, participating in a Passover seder – intermarried couples actually exceeded the American Jewish population as a whole… Fasting on Yom Kippur was identical among the two samples…. We believe that the Jewish community should offer encouragement to those members of intermarried couples who wish to affirm their Jewish identity and give the non-Jewish spouses support and recognition that this is something they want to share in.

I would be thankful if more sociologists talked about intermarriage like Dashefsky did.

How thankful do you think I should feel? Am I right to feel that there hasn’t been enough progress fast enough towards a positive attitude that sees intermarriage as an opportunity for Jewish engagement? Or is there progress that I’m not seeing and is it happening as fast as reasonably could be expected?

Either way, I hope you have a good and thankful Thanksgiving.

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