Fear of Disappearing

  

The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent ran a piece on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia.” Apparently Philadelphia’s Jewish community has a high rate of interfaith marriage and a low rate of people in those marriages deciding to raise Jewish children. In the greater Philadelphia area, 45 percent for Jews under 40 marry non-Jews with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews. In the Philadelphia area, 60 per cent of same-faith Jewish couples affiliate with synagogues, but only 9 per cent of interfaith couples do.

The community then asks two familiar questions: Can we stop Jews from marrying non-Jews, and can we simultaneously welcome interfaith families to stay in the community? The reporter talked with different leaders in the Jewish community, some who advocate doing one, and some the other.

It’s really difficult for people outside of our community to understand this fear, but articles like these make it clear–it’s a fear of disappearing. It’s also clear what direction we should take. The article quotes:

Mindy Fortin, a mother of three, who’s married to a Catholic man and is a former board member of the synagogue, has overseen those efforts, which have included weekly classes with the rabbi for both Jewish and non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages.

“I understand the panic” over the numbers, she said. But she explained that all the difference in her own spiritual life has resulted from folks in her synagogue not writing her off, but encouraging her to become more involved.

“The biggest mistake is to equate intermarriage with apathy toward Judaism and write off immediately a Jew who has intermarried,” she said.

Either the Worst or the Best Thing–We Choose

  

Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.

It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.)  Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”

Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.

Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.

I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.

My Talk In Cleveland

  

I went to Cleveland to speak at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies about the current state of interfaith families in the Jewish community. I grew up in Cleveland and my mom earned a second BA in Hebrew Literature and a Master’s in Hebrew Literature at Siegal College back in the 1970s when it was the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the 1990s, after she’d completed her PhD at Case, they hired her to be the Dean. She retired as Dean of the College two years ago, but it’s still a very important place to our family.

In the morning I was invited to speak to a group of 25 Jewish educators and rabbis who meet regularly to talk about adult and family education issues. It was incredibly cool to have people there from all of the large and medium-sized Reform and Conservative congregations and the relatively new Reconstructionist synagogue. The Conservative synagogues are very creative about outreach. One of the Conservative rabbis disagreed about IFF’s approach and I am hoping to get him to write for us about it. There were also some educators from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and I got to meet Jeffrey Grover, an actor and playwright who has created a non-profit that does education on subject of interfaith families

In the evening I gave a longer presentation to 65 people as part of Siegal College’s fall series. (Only about half a dozen of the people in the crowd were my relatives, but they count–especially my father’s cousin Jo Anne Randall, who wrote a beautiful article for me about her interfaith marriage early in my tenure at IFF.) I got to meet more of the Jewish educators and outreach workers in the evening, too.

I also got to meet Elizabeth Meyer, who wrote My First Yom Kippur, and her husband. (I gave her a hug.) They are thinking of starting a group for young interfaith couples and I encouraged them to coordinate it through our site. If you have created such a group yourself, drop me a line–I would love to have an article about how to do that.

I spoke for an hour, showed off the website and took questions. The college staff took video that they are going to post on Youtube. I don’t have to summarize much, because you’re going to be able to see most of it, I think!

The crowd was very receptive to what I had to say. They were also funny. First one woman on one side of the room raised her hand to complain that I was being too positive. I said, “Well, I have a list of positive approaches, but I’m sure you’ll figure out from them what the problems are.” Then another woman on the other side of the room said, “You’ve outlined all the problems, how about some possible solutions?”

One of the comments from the audience–from a same-faith Jewish family who are South American–was about one their children being turned away from Hillel when he got to college because the person who met him at the door thought he looked Latino and therefore “not Jewish.” I remembered her son as a very small boy, it was kind of crazy when she came up afterward to tell me that he is now a PhD in Mathematics! It bothers me every time I hear or read these stories about people being effectively told to go away when they come into Jewish settings. Someday I want to do a David Letterman-style Top Ten list of what the Jewish community should not be doing if we want to retain and attract people! I do try to stay positive but sometimes it’s frustrating to know that a lovely kid like that could be turned away.

Even in Canada

  

Back in January I was contacted by a staff member of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIA) who was researching international best practices for outreach to underserved members of Jewish communities, including interfaith couples. I gave her a lot of information about outreach programs in the US. I remember thinking at the time that things must be changing in Canada, which traditionally has had lower rates of intermarriages.

A new study by UIA verifies that that is the case. It reports that by 2021 “2/5 of the largest communities in Canada are projected to have intermarriage rates above 50% and over 1/3 of all individuals residing in couples families will be living in interfaith arrangements.”

The report also states, “It is incumbent upon Jewish communal institutions to strongly consider facilitating the participation of interfaith couples.  . . . if the organized community can accept intermarried couples and their children through the institutions of the synagogue, school, daycare, and other community-oriented programs, then there is a greater likelihood that they will choose to be Jewish.”

Given how behind the Canadian Jewish community has been in having to address intermarriage, I was amazed that the UIA report says that one area where the organized Jewish community can make a difference is in rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples: “Having a Rabbi officiate at an interfaith ceremony is extremely important to the likelihood of future participation in Jewish life. In fact, 50% of interfaith couples married by a Rabbi indicated that it is important to them that their eventual grandchildren are raised Jewish as opposed to 18% when no Rabbi officiated at their wedding ceremony.”

And I was glad to see making resources readily available for interfaith couples on websites as another of their recommended actions.

More Secular? Or More Spiritual?

  

There were a number of articles and comments on the Internet last week about a new report from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey to the effect that the number of American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant has declined by more than 20 percent over the last two decades while the number of Jews who consider themselves secular has risen. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent. The report’s authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reportedly attributed the increase in secularism in large part to high rates of intermarriage.

Kosmin and Keysar aren’t completely negative about intermarriage, however. As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, “Keysar said there was a benefit to intermarriage, as many more people were now connected to Jews in America and around the world. ‘If you maintain Jewish culture, you bring new people into the fold,’ she said. ‘We tend to look at [Judaism] as religion, but if you look at the other aspect of culture and history, there are many aspects of Judaism that are open.’ The emphasis on Jewish culture could help fight anti-Semitism, Keysar said.”

Nina Amir, who has frequently written for us in the past, disagrees in the San Jose Jewish Examiner that intermarriage leads to less religiosity. “We would not be practicing Jews at all – in fact, I wouldn’t be writing about Judaism and Jewish spirituality and mysticism – if my husband had not been a non-Jew who later decided to convert.”

The growth in secularism seems to be at odds with the recent Synagogue 3000 study by Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Larry Hoffman that found increased interest in spirituality among young adult Jews, including the Orthodox, and the non-Orthodox with one Jewish parent, in particular. We blogged about that study just four months ago. This may be a matter of definition – when Kosmin and Keysar talk about religiosity and religiously observant, they may not be talking about those who are spiritual but not interested in traditional forms of prayer. As Rabbi Brad Hirshfield of Clal is quoted in Jewkey.com, the study “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity — the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

  

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Jewish Population Shrinking?

  

The American Jewish population–as defined by religion–continues to decline, according to the just released American Religious Identification Survey. However, as measured by ethnicity, the number of Jews remains relatively stable, say the survey’s principal investigators.

The ARIS 2008 is the third in a series of large-scale surveys conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism and Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. With data culled from more than 54,000 telephone interviews, it has no equal in terms of sample size among American surveys on religion. Even the landmark U.S. Religion Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is based on fewer interviews. Continue reading

Survey: 60% of Progressive Rabbis Officiate

  

Sixty percent of rabbis at Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated congregations officiate at interfaith weddings, according to a new transdenominational survey by Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Steven Cohen, reports JTA.

I haven’t seen the survey yet–it only was presented yesterday as part of a conference on best practices for engaging LGBT Jews–but if that number is correct, then it’s an astonishing development. The only comparable historical survey I know of is a 12-year-old rabbinic survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute. That 1997 study showed that only 20 percent of rabbis across the denominations officiated at interfaith weddings, and even among the Reform rabbinate, only 36 percent officiated (although 85 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis did). Those numbers aren’t directly comparable to the reported number from the new study since the new study aggregates rabbis across several movements. But my guess is that officiation numbers are up across the board within movements that permit officiation at interfaith weddings.

The new survey polled 1,221 North American rabbis, synagogue directors and presidents in attempt to learn about how synagogues approach and engage gay and lesbian Jews. Among the other reported numbers: 73 percent of these leaders felt their synagogue did a good job welcoming gay and lesbian Jews; 33 percent said they held programs explicitly for gay people; 73 percent of synagogues had rabbis who officiated at same-sex ceremonies; and 47 percent of synagogue leaders said their attitudes toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable over the last decade.

I will let you know more once I get my hands on the report, but early signs suggest that the research will show that synagogues have become more welcoming towards gays and lesbians AND interfaith couples over the last decade. That’s a welcome development.

A Goldmine for Geeks

  

Every few weeks, I get a call from a reporter, student or amateur researcher looking for statistics on intermarriage. Usually I can quickly answer the question–47% of Jews marrying between 1996-2000 married non-Jews, 28 million American are intermarried, 31% of all Jews were intermarried as of 2000–but sometimes I have to look things up. My secret weapon? The North American Jewish Data Bank.

The Data Bank is a comprehensive source for Jewish demographic information. It includes every–or nearly every–digitally available geographically focused demographic study in the North America, going back to the 1925 Jewish Communal Survey of Greater New York. Within months of any new study being published, it ends up on the Data Bank.

Continue reading