Humanistic Judaism: Basics & Intercultural/Interfaith Family Appeal

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.

If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.

Humanistic Judaism

a logo for Humanistic Judaism

For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.

There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).

Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.

What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.

This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.

Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.

You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.

Nature vs Nurture

If you don’t receive our bi-weekly eNewsletter, you may not know that we’re looking ahead to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in the spring. The last two editions asked for folks who are descendant of Holocaust survivors and have relatives who intermarried. If you are, we’d love to hear your stories — contact Benjamin!

Rebecca's grandfather (a German Jewish Holocaust survivor) and grandmother (an American Mormon) with their children, her mother, uncle, and aunt, in the 1960s.

My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. My grandmother was raised Mormon in Utah. How they met, fell in love, and eventually married is a story for another time. For now I want to fast forward to the dinner table at my parents’ home last week.

A Holocaust educator, my mother often writes about the Holocaust, modern Germany, and her own life experiences in Indianapolis’ National Jewish Post and Opinion. I thought she would jump at the chance to share one more layer of her story. When I broached the subject with her, her response was (with what sounded like a tone of offense) “I don’t consider myself to have been raised in an interfaith family.” I was surprised that she sounded so offended.

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit with my mom’s older sister. I met her at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where she volunteers twice a month. I perused the museum as she finished her shift and then we went to dinner. Usually we see each other at a family reunion or life cycle event. Finding time for a 1:1 conversation in these settings is next to impossible; this was the first time we had a chance to speak as adults.

I told my aunt about the note in our eNewsletter and she said she’d be interested in writing. I then told her my mom’s response and she replied, “Of course we were an interfaith family!” I was shocked! One sibling considers her family to be interfaith while the other doesn’t.

To break the tie, I emailed my uncle. He responded,”Well, the short answer is that ‘Of course we were an interfaith family.’ Not only did we visit cousins in Utah who were still Mormon (even if not fervent in their practice), but my mother frequently invited the Mormon missionaries, who were working in our home town, over for dinner. I even went to Europe one summer with a group that was mostly Mormon. My mother somehow hooked us up with this group and she served as one of the chaperones. Imagine going to the Moulin Rouge at the age of 15 and sitting at a table with your mother!” (Or, for that matter with a group of Mormon missionaries!)

He continues, “I think I know more about the Mormon religion than most other Christian religions… My Mom was very involved with the Jewish organizations, and we observed all the holidays. I have a theory that when it comes to religion, when people of different faiths marry, those with strong backgrounds tend to find one another, more so than people of the same religion who came from opposite ends of the observance spectrum.”

My grandparents made a lot of great decisions about how they would raise their children, weighing both how much German and Jewish influence, as well as how much American and Mormon influence, would permeate their household. In the end, they raised three fantastic children. I suppose my take-away is that parents have a lot of power. They nurture each child. But eventually it’s the children who decide who they are, how they identify, and what role religion (which religion) has in their lives. How you define yourself is ultimately up to you.

Trees Are Sensitive

For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

The Importance of Jewish Education

I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:

Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”

Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.

I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.

Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!

It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.

Language, Inclusion and Entry Points

I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families.  There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.

For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.

I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.

As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.

I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)

Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.

This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!

What Do Violin Lessons Have to Do With Religious School?

My 5-year-old daughter just started violin lessons. Her lessons use the Suzuki method; parents come to lessons and learn along with the child so that when then child practices at home, the parent can help. Parents are expected to take notes during lessons and often video pieces of the lesson to watch with their child at home for reinforcement. I have not only thoroughly enjoyed the uninterrupted time with my daughter, but I have loved the pursuit of gaining these skills with her – new skills with which neither of us has any familiarity. Hannah teaches me and reminds me just as much as I help her. When we practice at home, we laugh a lot, we concentrate a lot, we learn together and get better together.

It recently occurred to me that this concept of Teacher, Parent-Learner-Teacher and Child-Learner-Teacher could be a great model to bring into the religious school classroom. Family education has become normative and popular in most synagogue congregations. Parents spend time in the classroom and engage in projects with the child. But what if family education meant that the parent and child were as engaged and highly focused on mastering the skills, on learning the techniques, on understanding the rhythm as they are in these violin lessons? What if parents prized the possibility of their child learning how to do Jewishly: how to perform rituals and traditions, how to read and speak Hebrew, how to study Torah and how to live based on mitzvot (commandments)? What if parents took notes in the religious school classroom, and all were silent, mouths gaped open in awe, as the teacher hummed a niggun (wordless melody), offered an appropriate blessing or translated a portion of Torah? What if the teacher gave homework that the parent and child had to do together and gave stickers when the parent-child team brought back their weekly homework chart filled in?

In some ways, many families have outsourced their child’s Jewish education to the synagogue school. Just as there is no way violin or a foreign language can really be learned unless it is practiced at home, there is no way Judaism can be learned unless it is practiced at home. I think that for interfaith families in particular, in which one parent did not grow up with Jewish knowledge and traditions, it would be even more powerful to gain these insights with their child. And, for a parent who grew up Jewish and has a deep level of knowledge, they can learn from the teacher how to teach and transmit that knowledge to their child. There is a parent in our Suzuki class who teaches flute. She knows music. She doesn’t know the violin. She is learning with all the other parents who don’t have her musical background. For a parent who grew up Jewish and needs a refresher, what better way than with your child?

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about how this could translate to the religious school classroom. Could you imagine making the commitment to learn with your child each week and then practicing at home? If you believe Judaism provides the framework for structuring a life of meaning, joy, order and purpose, it would seem to be worth the time and effort!

Rabbis Faceoff in Israel

I just blogged about gender, prayer, and the conflicts that arise in Israel due to the Orthodox rabbinate's control. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait… Back? Great. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, just shared Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Moshe Amar's open letter to Reform and Conservative rabbis. (See image, below.)

It's in Hebrew, but the RA nicely included a translation. In short, Amar claims that these so-called rabbis who are not Orthodox are ruining Judaism ("trampling" the Torah! horrendously destroying Judaism!) all over the world and now, gasp!, they're starting to be officially recognized as rabbis in Israel and, obviously, this horribleness must be stopped!

Background is that, recently, Israel said it would start recognizing Reform and Conservative rabbis and, like Orthodox rabbis, would fund their salaries. Unlike Orthodox rabbis, these rabbis (officially termed "rabbi of a non-Orthodox community") face restrictions:

The State held that the deal on Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be made via the religious council and will not be done via direct employment by the local authorities, rather via financial assistance. The Reform movement agreed to this. Financing will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.

The decision is currently limited to regional councils and farming communities, and does not extend to large cities. It was also written that those listed under the new title will not have any authority over religious and halakhic matters. So far, the State has committed to financially supporting 15 non-Orthodox rabbis. The Supreme Court is supposed to present a decision on the petition soon.

In a country that's supposed to be a home for all Jews, yet another example of one group's insistence that they're the only "right" way to do/be Jewish.

Click to see full size:

Love and Religion is Starting in August

I have blogged about the workshops and classes that we offer through InterfaithFamily/Chicago. This time, I want to go into more depth about a workshop we offer four times a year: Love and Religion – Online.

[table][tr][td][/td][td] Developed by a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, Love and Religion is offered throughout the country, usually housed in Jewish community centers. If you are not in Chicago and you or someone you know would like to take part in a Love and Religion workshop, it is highly possible a JCC near you is or could offer it. Just [email=marionusher@aol.com]email Dr. Marion Usher[/email], the creator of the program, [/td][/tr][/table]to ask her where and when it is being offered. In Chicago we have already offered the workshop twice and we have two more sessions coming up in August and October.

This program is only four sessions long. It is meant for interfaith couples (where one partner is Jewish and the other partner is not (whether or not they practice another religion) or is new to Judaism) who are engaged or were married within the last couple of years. The first night we meet, we treat all of the couples to dinner in the city so that we can get to know each other. The next 3 sessions take place from the comfort of your own home: couples use WebEx’s video conferencing on their computers or smart phones. So, for four Thursdays you devote an hour to thinking about your relationship, about religion and spirituality, and about which traditions you find important and want to establish in your home.

The couples participating in the past two sessions have felt that their understanding of their partner (and other couples) increased through this sharing process. They nodded their heads as each one told of the feelings they had for their partner when they met; they shared so much camaraderie around coming from two different religions. For many couples, the fact that they are two different religions is not a big deal; neither family expressed concerned about this. In lots of cases, either or both partners grew up with family members of different religions and celebrated all of the holidays with joy and cheer. The specifics of theological or cultural differences seem minimal in comparison to the sense that they have found their soul mate. This workshop does not create issues where there are none. It does help couples come to articulate aspects of what’s important to them religiously that maybe they hadn’t yet thought about. And, of course, couples makes decisions about a whole host of major life issues over time and with change. This workshop helps set a foundation for making those decisions together as they arise.

The hardest part about offering this workshop is finding interfaith couples who are engaged or recently married. The workshop is normally just $36 per couple, but mention this blog post and it’s free! Please share this blog post with anybody you know who lives in Chicagoland if you think they would get something out of having an experience like this. Whether a couple is getting married by a rabbi, a rabbi and clergy from another religion, only clergy from another religion, a Judge or by a friend; whether the couple is getting married for the first time or whether one or both has been previously married; whether the couple is LGBTQ or straight; everybody should know that this is open to them. At InterfaithFamily/Chicago our goal is to reach interfaith couples with programs in which they can strengthen relationships, find ways to connect with Judaism and with the Jewish community, and to understand more about the role Judaism can play in an interfaith relationship, in ways that will feel natural, comfortable, accessible and meaningful to both partners.

I look forward to learning with you in August or October!

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?