Attracting Interfaith Families Through Jewish Spirituality

Synagogue 3000 (S3K) has released a fascinating new study by Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence Hoffman, How Spiritual Are America’s Jews? Narrowing the Spirituality Gap Between Jews and Other Americans. Given some of Mr. Cohen’s previous writings on intermarriage, both the tone and the substance of this report are noteworthy for highlighting an important path to more Jewish engagement by interfaith families and their adult children.
The study’s first headline finding is that on all scales, Jews are less spiritual than white non-Jewish Americans — less spiritually inclined, less likely to have spiritual mentors, less involved with God (although 71% say they believe in God, as compared to 81% of non-Jews, only 35% have a “certain” belief in God, as compared to 58% of non-Jews), less attached to religion and prayer.

The second headline finding is that, unlike non-Jewish Americans, where older people are more spiritual, for Jews, younger adults are more spiritual and more religious than their elders. The authors describe this pattern as remarkable because on most measures of behavior and belonging, younger Jews trail older ones — Jewish association (marriage, friends, neighbors), Jewish affiliation (organizations, synagogues, federations, etc.) and Jewish ritual practice (e.g. observance of holidays).

For us, the most interesting findings highlight distinctions among sub-groups of American Jews. The Orthodox (8% of all American Jews) score highest on all spirituality scales, but Jews with just one Jewish parent are more spiritual than Jews with two Jewish parents. Because non-Jewish parents are more spiritual, children growing up with at least one non-Jewish parent are more likely to resonate with spirituality and be culturally pre-disposed to spiritual concerns.

The authors label a new category “Extended Jews-by-Choice” which refers both to children of mixed marriages (one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent), and to people who had no Jewish parents “but became Jewish anyway, sometimes as a personal journey of faith, but usually as a result of relationships with, or marriage to, born-Jews.” (The authors omit to say whether those who “became Jewish” formally converted or not.)

The higher rate of spirituality of younger Jews is explained by the shifting dimensions of the Jewish population. Among Jews 65 and older, 5% are Orthodox, 9% are Extended Jews-by-Choice, and 86% are non-Orthodox with two Jewish parents. In contrast, among Jews under 35, 15% are Orthodox, 28% are extended Jews-by-Choice, and only 57% are non-Orthodox with two Jewish parents.

The policy implications of this study are exciting. As self-described synagogue advocates, the authors state that spirituality is growing in importance as a gateway into meaningful Jewish life, and that since Extended Jews-by-Choice are one of two growth sectors of the Jewish populations (the Orthodox being the other), synagogues need to become spiritual communities.  Significantly, the authors acknowledge that “Accenting spirituality will especially broaden Judaism’s appeal… among Extended Jews-by-Choice, who sometimes feel marginalized among born Jews but find familiarity in spirituality.” The same could be said for interfaith couples and families generally. We believe that the more that Jewish communities emphasize spirituality, the more interfaith families will be attracted to Jewish life.

As a final point, I have never heard children of one Jewish parent called “Jews by Choice” before, and don’t think it’s a good idea. The authors appear to explain why they call the children of one Jewish parent “Jews by Choice” when they say that their “mixed parentage gave them the de facto familial choice to identify as Jewish or not.” I suppose that makes sense — when intermarried parents decide to raise their children as Jews, they are making a familial choice to identify as Jewish. However, children of intermarried parents raised by both of their parents as Jews should be regarded simply as Jews, not as a separate category of Jews by Choice. Using a category to draw a distinction as to their status will be off-putting, where acceptance and welcoming are in order.

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