Steven Cohen Talks

The coverage of Steven Cohen’s A Tale of Two Jewries continues, with an audio interview with Cohen by JTA editor Lisa Hostein and an op-ed on outreach and intermarriage from Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Responding to a question about what the most “frightening impact” of intermarriage is, Cohen says, “The most frightening impact is that we haven’t yet figured out a way to keep the children… and grandchildren of intermarriage Jewish.” He says the communal response to the problem should have two prongs: persuading Jews to marry Jews, and persuading intermarried couples to raise their children exclusively Jewish. He says he has a mixed opinion on outreach. Some outreach, he says, is great because it brings intermarried couples closer to Judaism, but some he says, “advocates a type of lifestyle that blends Judaism and Christianity.” But he also says, “It’s hard to attribute anything, for well or for good, to outreach.” He says there is no evidence that outreach has helped bring intermarried couples closer to Judaism.

Finally, when asked what’s new about his recommendations, he says he’s advocating for three new ideas: one, getting Jews who are already receiving Jewish education to receive more (which he characterizes as different than getting unaffiliated Jews who receive no Jewish education to receive some); two, financially supporting young adults who are pioneering creative expressions of Judaism in culture, spirituality and social justice, specifically suggesting the creation of a World Jewish Peace Corps; and three, experimenting with community-funded rabbis whose sole job is to respond to the “pent-up demand” for people who want to convert.

It’s important to be clear that there is much in what he says that is positive. None of his three specific recommendations for strengthening the Jewish community are in conflict with our goals. All would contribute positively to the inclusion of more intermarried families in Judaism.

With respect to conversion, Cohen, like Gary Tobin in his op-ed, wants the Jewish community to reconsider its traditional resistance to conversion and be much friendlier to anyone who expresses even some interest in converting. I don’t disagree. In modern America, where religion is just one more lifestyle choice in a consumer marketplace, the most successful religions are those that market themselves, and make themselves readily available to new adherents (think Scientology and evangelical Christianity). Judaism needs to follow suit. I’m not sure there really is “pent-up demand” for conversion among intermarried couples, and I’m not opposed to having community-based rabbinic counselors available to work with prospective converts–although I think it would be more effective to have those counselors available to work with and be welcoming to interfaith couples whether or not the non-Jewish partner is interested in converting.

However, Cohen’s characterization of outreach is way off-base. Contrary to his statement, no Jewish-oriented outreach group advocates the blending of religions. Moreover, his statement that there isn’t “any evidence” that outreach is effective disregards every one of the handful of evaluations that have been done of outreach programs that target interfaith families, all of which show significantly increased Jewish behaviors and attitudes after program participation; and it disregards the fact that in Boston, a city with the best-funded, best-organized collection of outreach programs in the country, 60% of intermarried couples are raising their children Jewish. While the preliminiary findings of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey did not make a direct connection between outreach programs and intermarried couples raising their children Jewish, there is potential for that data to be extracted from the study.

I do agree with Cohen’s statement that outreach initiatives have been “miniscule” making it hard to attribute impact to them. But the worst thing about the interview is his statement that “we haven’t figured out ways to get the intermarried to raise their children as Jews.” Cohen takes a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to outreach that targets interfaith families. He takes false pot-shots at it as advocating blending of religions; admits that outreach initiatives have been “miniscule,” but says there is no indication that outreach works; and concludes that outreach programs that target interfaith families are not worth supporting. That approach amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy that the intermarried will not be encouraged to raise their children as Jews.

Finally, Cohen’s tone in A Tale of Two Jewries. One sure way to NOT encourage intermarried families to raise their children as Jews is to talk about intermarriage as the “single greatest threat to Jewish continuity” and to measure the success of Jewish education programs by the number of percentage points they reduce the likelihood of intermarriage. As we’ve said elsewhere, people won’t join a group that they feel demeans them.

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