What Our Surveys Say About What Attracts Interfaith Families to Jewish Organizations

There is a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study’s index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York’s, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism – or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.

Starting in December 2009, Interfaith Family’s annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. We’ve just published a report on the responses to those questions. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.

Interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Read the full report for the data and many comments to our open-ended questions.

The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:

  • Ensure that local interfaith families receive explicit messages of welcome from the community and its organizations and leaders.
  • Ensure that there are some Jewish clergy in the community who will officiate at weddings of interfaith couples so that their experience with the Jewish community at that critical point in their lives will help them connect to Jewish life.
  • Offer programs and classes explicitly marketed as “for interfaith families,” and foster the formation of groups of interfaith couples and families in which they can explore and experience Jewish life together.

That’s the approach we are taking in our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.

Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).

The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.

The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.

For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).

For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).

For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).

The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.

Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).

The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).

The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .

One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.

The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.


[1]The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.

[2]The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”

[3]Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.

A Long Look at a Long Study

While I was away from the office earlier last week, the UJA-Federation of New York released a big, giant, whopping study of Downstate NY's community. (Downstate being, of course, the opposite of Upstate NY. That is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.) More than 250 pages long, there's a lot to think about – and I'm still thinking. But there are some highlights that readers of InterfaithFamily.com might especially want to know about. I'm going to do a brief fisking, for ease of navigation.

From 1991 to 2002, the number of Jews in the eight-county New York area held steady, while from 2002 to 2011 it grew dramatically. The contrasting changes in the number of non-Jews in Jewish households — consisting mostly of spouses and children in intermarried homes — are even more striking. In the earlier period (1991–2002), the number of non-Jewish people in Jewish households almost doubled; since 2002, though, it has declined slightly, falling to 231,000. With respect to the slightly declining numbers of non-Jews in Jewish households, the Jewish population in the New York area sharply contrasts with most Jewish communities in the United States and, indeed, the entire Jewish world outside of Israel. In every other large Jewish diaspora community, rising intermarriage has brought increasing numbers of non-Jews — spouses, partners, and children — into Jewish households.

Are outreach initiatives working in NY while falling short in other communities? Are Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues and JCCs, more welcoming and inclusive of partners and other family members who aren't Jewish in NY than elsewhere? Or is this solely a statistical game, with the number of non-Jews in Jewish households smaller in NY than elsewhere due to the large number of Orthodox (who have lower rates of including non-Jews in their Jewish households)? Indeed, the study attributes it in part to the high birthrate of Orthodox families, but also to the "dramatic increase in the number of people who consider themselves 'partially Jewish,' many the children of intermarriage."

Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as “none.” This configuration is particularly common among the intermarried, children of the intermarried, and less engaged Jews, as well as Russian-speaking Jews. However, Jewish identity without religion is by no means isolated to these Jews; it is also expressed by those influenced by certain Zionist and Yiddishist movements in the United States and Europe. Still others lay claim to Jewish identity even though they maintain religious identities tied to something other than Judaism.

After reading the first two sentences here, I started to wonder about those Jews who have identified as cultural Jews for generations, but was reassured that intermarriage wasn't being (solely) blamed as I continued reading the last two sentences.

Growing up in Canada, our Jewish population studies are slightly different. According to the Canadian census, one is considered Jewish if one identifies as Jewish by ethnicity, by religion, or both. Additionally, one is counted as Jewish if identifying as Jewish by ethnicity and with a religion that does not require conversion (such as Buddhism, but not, say, Catholicism). Using definitions such as these, perhaps there wouldn't be a negative connotation to being Jewish but listing religion as "none."

Several factors account for the rise of the nondenominational segment of the population. One factor noted earlier is a decreasing attachment to denominational (and other social) identities, including political parties, consumer brands, nations, and communities. Another is the increased number of adult children of intermarriage — among the adult children of the intermarried, 65% identify with no denomination or a minor denomination, in contrast with just 32% of the adult children of two Jewish parents. A third is the increasingly porous boundaries that allow the entry of people born non-Jewish but who become identified as Jews despite never having gone through conversion.

This one surprised me. I'm familiar with the growing trend to move away from denominations. (Heck, I'm as engaged with Judaism as it gets, but pray at transdenominational or post-denominational minyans instead of synagogues of any denomination and regularly score low on Steven M. Cohen's scales. (One such example, where I score a zero.)) But I hadn't expected the statistic to be so much greater among adult children of intermarriage. I'd love to know more: Were these adults raised with strong ties to the Jewish community? Were they raised in denominations that recognized their parents' marriages? Recognized them as Jews? And when it comes to "minor denomination," why are Renewal, Sephardic, secular humanist, havurahs and minyans, and others considered lesser?

Further, how do these statistics take into account the likelihood of an intermarried individual who was raised Orthodox or Conservative shifting to Reform, Reconstructionist or "other" (or no) denominations after facing barriers in the denomination in which they were raised? If raised Orthodox but now participating in a Reform synagogue, because that's the only place they could find clergy to officiate their wedding, because that's where their patrilineal children are acknowledged as Jewish, they're now counted as Reform (though they might not identify as "Reform" nor "Orthodox" now). And with statistics skewed in this way, it perpetuates the idea that intermarriage isn't an issue for the Orthodox community (or Conservative, to a lesser extent), making it difficult to make inroads there.

as intermarriage rates persist or rise, and as Jewish group boundaries remain porous, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational, along with Jews who score low on indices of Jewish engagement.

Intermarriage is to blame? Shouldn't this read, "unless the Jewish denominational organizations make changes, start welcoming and including intermarried partners and families, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational…"?

3 in 5 Jews are congregationally affiliated, only 1 in 6 non-Jews living in Jewish homes is congregationally affiliated. The vast majority of people in congregationally affiliated households are Jewish (Orthodox, 99%; Conservative, 97%; Reform, 95%). Non-Jews in Jewish households disproportionately live in homes that are nondenominational and that do not belong to congregations.

How does this compare to Boston, where the federation (CJP) focuses some spending on interfaith families? Is there still such an extreme divide between Jewish households that are congregationally affiliated and households with non-Jewish members? In the footnote for the chart that fleshes out the above statistic, there's a footnote explaining that those non-Jewish (presumably intermarried) who said they identified as Reform were moved to the "other" category. That seems off to me, given the definition of conversion (below) that included self-identifying as Jewish with or without formal conversion.

By way of definition, we classify married couples into three categories.
[list]
  • In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — both spouses are Jewish.

  • Conversionary In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — in-marriages where at least one spouse is Jewish without having a Jewish parent. Not all such Jews converted formally; Jews by personal choice, in our terminology, acquired a Jewish identity by way of living in a Jewish family. To be clear, all “conversionary” marriages are in-marriages.

  • Intermarried Jewish Couples or Households — one Jewish spouse is married to one non-Jewish spouse.
  • [/list]

    It's nice, though not without controversy, to see their self-identification definition of conversion, instead of sticking to those who have taken a formal conversion route.

    This definition would also lower the number of intermarried couples, as those who have not formally converted, even if living Jewishly, are usually counted amongst the non-Jewish, thus forming an intermarriage.

    The “couple rate” is always higher than the “individual rate.” A simple example will clarify the point: in a population with just two couples — one in-married and the other intermarried — the intermarried couple rate is 50%, as half of the two couples are intermarried; however, of the three Jews in the population, just one is intermarried. Thus, for the same imaginary population, a third of the Jewish individuals are intermarried, while half of the couples are intermarried.

    Always good to remember this distinction.

    In 2011, 72% of all Jewish married couples in the eight county area were in-married, another 6% were conversionary in-married, and 22% were intermarried. This distribution is nearly identical to that found in 2002, when 22% of couples were intermarried and 7% were conversionary in-married. In 1991, 20% were intermarried. Over a 20-year period, then, intermarriage edged upward by a relatively small amount, but only in the first part of the period. In effect, the overall rate of intermarriage has stabilized in the eight-county New York area.

    22% of NY's couples are intermarried? That's much lower than the national average of 48%. I wonder how much their inclusive definition of "conversionary" lowers this stat.

    Intermarriage rates really jump among people who do not belong to a congregation.

    Let's look at this one differently. It isn't cause and effect (intermarriage leads to lack of affiliation). Rather, too often congregations and denominational bodies haven't kept up with the needs of their potential members. (Want to attract more intermarried couples to your congregation? Our Resource Center for Program Providers and Resource Center for Jewish Clergy both have great suggestions.)

    For the most recently conducted marriages, those who wed between 2006 and 2011, as many as 50% of non-Orthodox couples intermarried. This rate represents the first time that the intermarriage couple rate reached the halfway point, attaining a level almost three times that found in the 1970s.

    For the same period, 2006 to 2011, the individual rate of intermarriage of current Jews stands at 33%. That is, of all non-Orthodox Jews who married in the last five years or so, a third married non-Jews.

    This reminds me of how women are seen as a minority group, despite being a majority of the population. Can we start seeing intermarried couples and their families as a main Jewish population? Stop seeing them as the minority? Can we shift federation and other communal funding and programming accordingly? 

    On nearly all measures of Jewish engagement, the intermarried trail the in-married.

    I don't think we can measure them on the "groom or bloom" scale. And, again, I think there's a sizeable population of intermarried who aren't engaged because they do not feel welcomed with their partner and/or families at Jewish events, organizations, etc. It is the responsibility of the greater Jewish community to change this, not just the individual's.

    Among the intermarried, we find changes ranging from an increase of 5 percentage points (giving to a Jewish cause other than UJA-Federation) to a decline of 16 percentage points (importance of being Jewish). Double-digit declines also characterize Chanukah candlelighting (-13%) and participating in a Passover seder (-12%).

    This completely differs from the results of our annual Passover/Easter and December Holidays surveys, where we've been seeing increases.

    In short, from 2002 to 2011, the intermarried became more distant from Jewish life, especially when compared with the in-married.

    As a community, what can we do to change that? How can we meet the needs of intermarried couples and their families, make sure they feel explicitly welcomed in our Jewish communities and organizations?

    The vast majority of intermarried Jews are relatively unengaged in Jewish life: 70% score low or very low on the Index of Jewish Engagement (see Exhibit 4-22) as compared with just 22% of the non-Orthodox in-married.

    Again, I'm not sure we can accept these statistics as they stand. By an earlier study of Cohen's, I scored a 0 for "Jewish Educational Background," despite my heavy involvement in Jewish life, both at home and communally, for most of my life. They just didn't fit into Cohen's ascribed Jewish experiences. Is it possible for people to be engaged without paying for a synagogue membership, without feeling "very attached" to Israel, without "always" or "usually" lighting Shabbat candles? Yes.

    The Intermarried Are Far Less Engaged — But Not Because of Lack of Comfort
    The data from this survey demonstrates that the vast majority of intermarried respondents say that they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities. In fact, their responses differ just slightly from the other two groups examined here. The intermarried only slightly outscored the in-married (14% versus 10%), and their discomfort level equaled that of the non-married (14%). Thus, expressed discomfort with Jewish events and activities is not very widespread, nor do the intermarried express more discomfort than others.

    I saw this section heading and was surprised. When I then saw the statistics of discomfort compared to non-married individuals, it all came together for me. Like many groups within the Jewish community, those who are not married (by choice or because they are still looking) often report feeling excluded from community organizations and events. This goes doubly for those without kids (by choice or otherwise), who frequently feel shidduch-crisis">excluded for their decisions. And this is another example of the Jewish community needing to shift, not just the individual. Too often, the entry point for a Jewish adult into the community is their wedding or having a child whom they want to educate Jewishly. Not married, no kids? Those entry points don't exist for you.

    That the percentage of discomfort is so low (10-14%) remains surprising, given all the anecdotal evidence I've heard over the years, both personally and as a Jewish professional. Do people feel they cannot report feeling discomfort with the Jewish community on a Jewish community study?

    Over the years, opposition in the Jewish population to intermarriage and one’s children intermarrying has steadily declined.

    To learn how attitudes to this issue are distributed in the population, we asked Jewish respondents the following question:

    “Say a child of yours married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism. Would you be upset with that, or would that not upset you? [WAIT FOR ANSWER. IF UPSET, ASK:] Would you be very upset, or somewhat upset?”
    [/quote]

    Really? The two options for answers were "upset" and "not upset"? That's hardly nuanced! As Julie Wiener said, more response options were needed. Including, "something like 'somewhat disappointed' or 'depends on other factors, like whether or not they plan to be involved in Jewish life and what decisions they've made about how they will raise future children.'"

    the demonstration of the close ties between Jewish social networks and Jewish engagement helps partly explain why the intermarried as a group score lower on Jewish engagement than the in-married as a group, and yields implications for policies designed to elevate their engagement and that of others. It is of some consequence that the intermarried maintain very few Jewish social connections. Among the intermarried ages 30 to 39, fully 77% live fairly isolated from other Jews — no one else is Jewish in their homes and only 4% have mostly Jewish friends. In contrast, their in-married age peers not only have Jewish spouses and most have Jewish children at home — the vast majority (74%) also has mostly Jewish friends.

    The study's authors offer InterfaithFamily.com's model of connection (to other intermarried couples) and advocacy/education (helping intermarried couples and their families access and be included in the Jewish community, raise children with Judaism, and help the Jewish community become welcoming and open for these couples and families) as the solution to this low engagement.

    Chapter 5

    Much of the content that looks at intermarriage and its impact on Jewish engagement I've already countered, above. (See "groom or bloom" and read the full blog post that's linked there.)

    the philanthropic behavior of intermarried households is distinguished in three ways:
    [list]
  • • Many more contribute only to non-Jewish causes — 51% for the intermarried compared with 15% for the in-married.

  • • Far fewer contribute to Jewish causes (UJA-Federation giving and giving to other Jewish organizations combined) — 34% compared with 72%.
  • [/list]

    Could this be another statistic demonstrating the need of the community to change, not just the individual? If intermarried couples/families feel underserved by Jewish organizations, there's not much incentive to give to them. (If I'm allergic most pets, I'm not likely to donate to an animal shelter.) If the Jewish communal organizations of these eight counties of NY did a giant push to attract, welcome, engage, include intermarried couples/families, I'd like to think they'd see long-term growth in donations from this demographic.

    As compared with other Jewish households, in-marriage rates (87%) are far higher and intermarriage rates (13%) are far lower among Russian-speaking households, roughly half the rate for non-RSJ households.

    The explanation given has to do with their relative recent immigration, as I would suspect, which lends to tight-knit, ethnic identity-based community standards. A generation or two later, their American-born (grand)children are more likely to have similar intermarriage rates.

    ISRAELIS, SYRIAN COMMUNITY, LGBT, AND BIRACIAL AND NONWHITE HOUSEHOLDS

    Perhaps my favorite chapter heading, if only for its "we don't know what to do with these other groups"-ness.

    of those married, many more LGBT people are intermarried (44% versus 22%), and fewer belong to congregations (33% versus 45%). As compared with others, LGBT respondents (precisely, respondents from households with one or more LGBT individuals) score lower on all measures of Jewish belonging.

    This is disappointing, but not surprising. It's hard to find a partner, harder still if there are limitations (religion, gender, LGBT, etc.). If groups feel excluded from the general Jewish community, they're less likely to join congregations or other communal organizations, and score lower levels of "engagement" to formal Judaism.

    Biracial, Hispanic, and Other Nonwhite Households

    There's just so much to say for this section. Instead of hearing it from me, I urge you to read an article that Be'chol Lashon contributed to, originally published by the Jewish Week.

    I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. There's just so much to think about in here. What are your thoughts?

    Our Passover/Easter Survey Results Are In!

    Thanks to all of you who responded to our Passover/Easter survey.

    The results are in! Yesterday, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.


    Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Easter Activities Without Compromising Their Children’s Jewish Identity; Trend Towards Less Comfort with Easter, More Observance of Passover

    Newton, MA — March 29, 2012 — The eighth annual Passover/Easter Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily.com, an independent non-profit, shows that interfaith families raising their children Jewish address the “Spring dilemma,” the confluence of Passover and Easter, by continuing to participate in secular Easter activities and continuing to believe that doing so does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity.

    Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on this behavior and argue that interfaith families cannot impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas or Easter. The results of InterfaithFamily.com’s surveys suggest that they are doing so.

    Interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Easter celebrations are giving clear priority to Passover over Easter, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday:

    * Virtually all plan on hosting or attending a seder; less than a third will host or attend Easter dinner.
    * Small minorities engage in “religious” Easter activities like attending church (5%) or telling the Easter story (3%).
    * Seventy percent see their Easter celebrations as entirely secular.
    * A full 85% of the respondents believe that their participation in Easter celebrations does not affect their children’s Jewish identity.

    “For eight years, about half of interfaith couples raising Jewish children have told us they participate in Easter celebrations,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “These families consistently, and by very large measure, see their Easter celebrations as entirely secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity.”

    “This year we observed a steady decline in the percentage of respondents who reported being comfortable participating in Easter celebrations – from 47% in 2010 to 40% in 2011 to just 32% in 2012,” Case added. “The percentage of respondents who are not Jewish who reported being comfortable participating in Passover increased from 67% in 2011 to 78% in 2012. We also observed more following of the dietary restrictions of Passover – interestingly, almost the same percentage of respondents who are (56%) and are not (54%) Jewish plan on following those rules for most or all eight days of Passover.”

    For more information, read the full report, What We Learned from the 2012 Passover/Easter Survey.

    About InterfaithFamily.com
    InterfaithFamily.com empowers people in interfaith relationships – individuals, couples, families, and their children – to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and strongly encourages Jewish communities to welcome them. We are the premiere resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities, offering educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals, and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy, and other program providers; and our new InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities.

    ###

    Editor’s Note
    InterfaithFamily.com has developed a resource page for interfaith families dealing with the Passover and Easter holidays that includes resources such as “Tips for Interfaith Families: How To Make a Seder Inclusive” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit our Passover and Easter Resource Page.

    Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!

    This Year Be One of the 1,800

    It’s December 14.  Do you know what that means? 

    Yes, it means 11 more days until Christmas, 6 more days until Hanukkah and 12 days until Kwanza!

    But, it also means 17 more days to get your end-of-the-year contributions in to your favorite charity (InterfaithFamily.com, perhaps?). Last night, I went online and made my personal contributions. In addition to volunteering my time at local nonprofits, I give what I can. Why? Because I know that every gift can make a difference, no matter the amount. So, if you like what we do, please consider making a small donation. Believe it not, a $5 contribution can make a difference, and, even better, when we get a bunch of $5 donations, they add up! 

    This year, InterfaithFamily.com is aiming to receive contributions from 1,800 supporters. Please help us reach our goal.

    Why give to IntefaithFamily.com? Your contribution, no matter what amount, will be have a tremendous impact. In the last twelve months, 563,0000 people visited our website. Over 2,040 people requested clergy to officiate their lifecycle event. 172,000 people accessed our “Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet.” Talk about impact!

    Thank you for making a contribution to InterfaithFamily.com. We look forward to continuing to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life in the year to come.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours.

    Our December Holiday Survey Results Are In!

    Thanks to all of you who responded to our December holidays survey.

    The results are in! Earlier this morning, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.

    Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

    BOSTON – December 14, 2011 – Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities, to keep their Hanukkah and Christmas holiday celebrations separate, and to believe that their participation in Christmas celebrations does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity. These trends emerged from the eighth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily.com, an independent non-profit.

    InterfaithFamily.com has surveyed how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, annually the past eight years. Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamily.com’s surveys suggest that they in fact are doing so.

    This year the percentage of interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Christmas celebrations increased to 83%, from 76% last year. These families still make clear distinctions between the holidays and are giving clear priority to Hanukkah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday. The overwhelming majority celebrates Hanukkah at home, while less than half celebrate Christmas at home.

    Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 13% attend Christmas religious services and only 3% tell the Christmas story.  While more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (60%) compared to last year (53%), and slightly fewer (46%) will have a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (48%), ninety percent view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.

    Many families celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered around the extended family.

    Eighty percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 77% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity.

    “Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas is now common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “These families see their Christmas celebrations as  secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity. We noted somewhat more Christmas celebrations on a variety of measures this year, but not of a religious nature.”

    This year Christmas falls on the fifth day of Hanukkah. Despite this overlap, 62% said their holiday observances would not change. “We find it heartening,” Case said, “that many respondents noted they would bring their Hanukkah menorahs and light them at their Christian relatives’ homes.”

    Other key findings on interfaith families raising Jewish children include:

    • Ninety-seven percent plan on celebrating Hanukkah at home, compared to 48 percent planning on celebrating Christmas there. Seventy-one percent plan on celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives.
    • Seventy-seven percent of the respondents participating in Christmas celebrations believe it will not affect their children’s Jewish identity.
    • Only 3 percent plan on telling the Christmas story at home while 48 percent plan on telling the Hanukkah story at home. Only 13 percent plan on attending religious services for Christmas.
    • Ninety-nine percent of respondents plan on lighting a menorah and 93 percent plan on giving gifts as part of their Hanukkah celebrations at home.
    • Forty-six percent plan on putting up a Christmas tree and 60 percent plan on giving gifts at home as part of Christmas.
    • The families are opposed to blending the two holidays. Eighty percent plan on keeping the holidays separate or mostly separate.
    • Six percent of the families will participate in Hanukkah celebrations in the office, versus 25 percent that plan to celebrate Christmas there.

    For more information, read the full report online.

    About InterfaithFamily.com
    InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them.

    # # #

    Editor’s Note
    InterfaithFamily.com has developed a resource page for interfaith families dealing with the December holidays that includes resources such as “Handling the December Holidays: Ten Tips from InterfaithFamily.com” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit http://www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.

    # # #

    Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!

    In Case You Missed It…

    A few interesting articles that you might have missed:

    1. Rabbi Bruce Warshal opined on why interfaith families should raise their children in just one religion. Check out Choose One But Not Two Religions.

    2. A clip from Samon Koletkar’s “Mahatma Moses Comedy Tour,” during which he discsusses being a Jew in America. (Warning, he also drops the “r” word, too many times, at the end. To counter that, a PSA from Glee‘s Becky and Sue.)

    3. Instead of arguing about how to count the Jewish population, an argument for increasing egalitarian parenting. Why?

    Both quantitative and qualitative studies have found that if the intermarried Jew is a woman, the children will more likely be raised Jewish. Further, intermarried Jewish men stand a greater chance of raising children to identify as Jews if the organized Jewish community will count those children as Jews.

    Intermarried Jewish men can raise Jewish children as effectively as intermarried Jewish women provided they are able to integrate work and family, currently a national challenge evident by President Barack Obama urging ìTake time to be a dad, today.î Increasing the contemporary understanding of the relationship between gender, religion and culture will be what determines how Jewish is the Jewish population in the future.

    4. Effective March, 2010, gay and lesbian couples in Washington, DC were able to legally marry. In what’s believed to be a first, an Orthodox rabbi, Steve Greenberg (who’s openly gay), officiated at the marriage of a gay couple at the synagogue/">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Mazal tov!

    5. Last week, I was unable to go to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. (Luckily, Joanna and Ed were able to go and represent InterfaithFamily.com.) There, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer gave the opening address, bravely (given his audience) talking about how “continuity” should not be the Jewish community’s focus. Instead, he suggested, it should be learning. From the op-ed version of his speech:

    Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

    Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

    We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

    I agree. The rest of his speech-turned-op-ed is worth reading as well.

    Survey Again Says: IFF Has Impact!

    At IFF we are always interested in who our users are, and in what they are looking for and whether they find it with us. We’re especially interested in our impact, and so are our funders and Jewish professionals with whom we seek to work: are we changing the attitudes and behaviors of people in interfaith relationships, and of Jewish leaders?

    Every two years we do an online user survey – so far, we haven’t had funding to have an independent consultant do an evaluation for us – and we’re issuing a press release today on our 2011 User Survey Report. The results are very, very positive.

    Some key points about our users (referring to site visitors who responded to the survey):
    • More than 85% are either intermarried, interdating, the parents of intermarried children, or the children of intermarried parents; 14% are professionals. We’d like to reach more men (currently only 19% of users) and children of intermarried parents (currently just 9%).
    • 13% come to the site for help finding a rabbi to officiate or co-officiate at their wedding or other life cycle event – reaffirming the importance of our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service.
    • Over the past year, we’ve been really ramping up our “how-to-do-Jewish” materials, with booklets, videos, audio files, downloadable blessings, articles and more. In 2011 many more users are coming to the site for those materials – 35% came for information about Jewish holidays, for example, compared to just 25% in 2009. I don’t know whether more are coming because we’re offering more, but clearly there is an interest and need for the kinds of materials we’re providing. Almost half are interested in the booklets that we began to offer in 2010.
    • Many users are interested in the social networking-related functions that our Network offers – information about local events (45%), listings of local professionals (40%), meeting other interfaith families online (24%). More than 50% of professional users are interested in the kinds of resource materials and trainings that our Resource Center for Program Providers is offering and developing for clergy, synagogues and other organizations.
    • Intermarried couples with children at home report that IFF had positive influence on the factors that we believe lead to Jewish choices: knowledge about Jewish life (79%), interest in Jewish life (72%), and comfort participating in Jewish life (59%), as well as feeling welcomed by Jewish communities (54%).
    • Intermarried couples with children at home also report that IFF had positive influence on their Jewish choices, including participation in Jewish rituals and life-cycle events (62-69%), deciding to join a synagogue (34% — up from just 24% in 2009), and deciding to send children to Jewish education classes (32% — up from 25% in 2009).
    • Jewish professionals report that IFF has helped them to see interfaith families in a more positive light (71%) and to develop welcoming policies and practices (57%). 
    • Almost one third of users are interested in workshops for new interfaith couples about how to have religion in their lives and in classes on raising children with Judaism in interfaith families and adding value to their lives through Jewish practices – the programs we will be offering in 2012 as part of our InterfaithFamily/Chicago pilot initiative.

    October News Hodgepodge

    It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

    1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

    2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

    3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

    4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

    5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

    6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

    And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

    In Other News…

    Three stories of interest to readers of InterfaithFamily.com:

    Kansas!

    The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

    In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make “welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

    “Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

    Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.


    Speaking up for Jews by Choice

    Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

    But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

    It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

    Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

    When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

    Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.


    Chinese Jews

    I was surprised to stumble across an article about the “who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

    Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

    When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

    The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

    The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

    “In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

    It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!