Oy, the Hits Keep Coming

The Jewish Week has an op-ed criticizing both the recent Boston Jewish Community Study and the notion of outreach. It’s written by Samuel C. Klagsbrun, chairman of the Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, an organization that has taken up the anti-intermarriage cause with fervor in recent years (led primarily by Stephen Bayme, the director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life department).

Unlike the authors of a similarly critical op-ed in the Forward last week, Klagsbrun is neither a sociologist nor a demographer, so he does not criticize the survey on methodological grounds. Instead, he questions the legitimacy of asking intermarried parents how they’re raising their children:

To start with, how was “being Jewish” defined in the study? What is the level of Jewish life referred to in the study? Are we talking about the presence of a Chanukah menorah in a home that also has a Christmas tree, or are we talking about a level of knowledge concerning the Jewish tradition expressed in routine rituals pertaining to Jewish life? Is Sabbath observed? What are the odds that these children will in turn intermarry later?

First off, I’ll explain how being Jewish was defined–as the authors of the study explained in their letter to the Forward, they asked what religion parents are raising their children in. That’s actually a more stringent question than many other demographic studies, which ask only about the children’s “identification.”

Klagsbrun seems to suggest that if intemarried families can’t answer yes to all of his rhetorical questions then they are not legitimately Jewish. If that’s the case, then not many in-married families are legitimately Jewish, because according to the National Jewish Population Study 2000-01, only 28 percent of Jews in the country light candles for Shabbat–let alone “observe” the Sabbath. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but poor religious observance is a problem of the Jewish population as a whole, not just the intermarried population.

As for asking “What are the odds that these children will in turn intmerarry later?” of course no one has an answer to that question. No large-scale demographic study has ever answered that question, or could be expected to. It is an open question, but not a reason to condemn the survey’s results.

The central point of his question is what behaviors “being raised Jewish” entails. The preliminary report on the Boston study doesn’t answer this question in depth, but it does offer one hint: the children of intermarried families in the Boston area are as likely as the children of inmarried families to have received some Jewish education. More in-depth mining of the data to cross-reference intermarried families who say they’re raising their children Jewish with information on religious behavior (lighting Shabbat candles, attending Jewish services, attending Passover seders, etc.) is necessary.

But he has not done that research, so he has no proof one way or another that intermarried families who say they’re raising their children Jewish are not engaging in serious Jewish behaviors. But only four paragraphs later, he says: “Counting the number of Jews who identify as Jews in a most superficial way and taking that identification seriously is an enormous danger.” Somewhere along the line, his rhetorical questions found answers: intermarried families in the Boston area who say they are raising their children Jewish are not in fact doing so, even though nobody, especially Klagsbrun, has mined the data to find out.

Klagsbrun then goes on an anti-outreach assault, saying variously, that outreach is “an effort to decrease the intensity of the disaster we face,” that focusing on outreach is “misleading and dangerous,” and that outreach is “contradictory and even antagonistic to the traditional approach of discouraging intermarriage and encouraging conversion.” “Discouraging intermarriage while promoting outreach,” he says, “is taking two diametrically opposite approaches.”

I won’t disagree with his logic that the two efforts are “diametrically opposite,” but I will argue with his assumption that discouraging intermarriage actually works. The Jewish community has been discouraging intermarriage for decades and it hasn’t stopped the intermarriage rates from rising. If you want Jews to marry Jews, you can’t rely on negative reinforcement anymore; you need to offer a multitude of positive Jewish experiences where Jews can socialize with other Jews. That kind of inreach is compatible with outreach to the intermarried.

Like many critics of outreach, Klagsbrun seems terrified that the Jewish community will focus exclusively on outreach, or that outreach will overtake the funding and priority of inreach. He need not worry. Last year, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies spent less than $350,000 on outreach; two years ago, a group of anonymous families gave $45 million towards day school education in the Boston area. It will be a very long time before outreach overtakes inreach on Boston’s–or any community’s–agenda.

It’s funny that Klagsbrun concludes his op-ed with a Talmudic adage, “It’s the not the answer that matters; it’s how you ask the question.” If he had read Saxe’s letter in the Forward, he would know how the question was asked. If, as he says, we should not come to “definitive conclusions” about what the Boston study means until more research is done, one might ask how he comes to the definitive conclusion that prioritizing outreach is “dangerous,” “antagonistic” and “misleading”?

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