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Don't Write Off the Intermarried: A Case for Community Outreach

February 12, 2007

NEWTON, Mass. (JTA)--Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities begins with the famous opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Sociologist Steven Cohen's new study on intermarriage has a similar title, but a different spirit.

Ignoring positive recent evidence from Boston and elsewhere that more intermarried families are raising their children as Jews, Cohen's "A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews," sees only the worst of times when it comes to intermarriage.

It is uninformative to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of inmarried couples with all intermarried couples, as Cohen does. Sadly, one-third of intermarried couples are raising their children in another religion. It necessarily follows that intermarried couples, taken as an undifferentiated whole, are less Jewishly engaged than their inmarried counterparts.

Cohen sets up a straw identity chasm between inmarried and all intermarried families, and then knocks down intermarriage as "the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity"--the sound-bite headline for which his paper will be remembered.

What is productive is to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of inmarried couples with those of intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews. When sociologists Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok made that comparison in a 2004 paper titled "Jewish Identity Among the Adult Children of Intermarriage: Event Horizon or Navigable Horizon?" they found greatly reduced gaps.

A child's Jewish identity is determined not simply by the fact that the parents are intermarried but largely by the environment the family creates, and in particular by their decision to raise the children as Jews. Phillips and Chertok conclude that "Tarring all intermarriages with the same brush" makes the loss of Jewish identity "a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The logical conclusion for policymakers to draw from an analysis that focuses on "two Jewries" is to write off the intermarried and support only increasing the Jewish engagement of the inmarried. In contrast, the logical conclusion to draw from an analysis showing that intermarried families raising their children as Jews are closer to inmarried families in their Jewish engagement is to support encouraging more interfaith families to raise their children as Jews.

Cohen concludes in "A Tale of Two Jewries" that Jewish education experiences "work." In that respect he undoubtedly is correct, but measuring their success by the degree to which they reduce intermarriage is a serious mistake. Cohen acknowledges that Jewish education experiences "exert salutary effects even in the event of intermarriage. ... [They serve] to further chances of Jewish continuity [including] by increasing the likelihood that the mixed married couple will raise its children exclusively in Judaism." It would be far wiser to publicize the success of Jewish education experiences on that basis.

The reason is that recruitment--how to promote the use of Jewish education--is the "true challenge," as Cohen says. But Jewish education can't be "sold" to the intermarried on the basis that the experiences will reduce the chances that their child will intermarry. "Send your children to our day school/camp/etc. and they won't succumb to intermarriage, the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity" is not a message that resonates with parents who did intermarry and who are raising their children as Jews. Promoting those experiences on the basis that they increase the chances that the children will make the same Jewish choices as those parents did--that is a message that is credible, open and inviting.

Half of the children who identify as Jews today have one Jewish parent. Transformative Jewish education experiences--day schools, camps, youth movements and Hillel, Israel travel and study, and intensive adult education--could have twice the impact, for little extra investment, if they attracted interfaith families and their children.

The timing of Cohen's paper is particularly unfortunate because after the recent finding that 60 percent of Boston's interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, policymakers and funders have a very clear road map to follow to seek comparable results everywhere:

  • Fund the Reform movement's outreach staff and programming, as the Boston federation does, and foundations do in San Francisco. Every Union for Reform Judaism regional office could have a substantial outreach effort like those cities.
  • Back the efforts of Rabbi Charles Simon's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs and its pioneering kiruv work in the Conservative movement.
  • Spur the JCC world to explicitly communicate the message that the JCCs welcome everyone in the Jewish community including interfaith families, and to have at least a part-time professional devoted to offering outreach programs in the JCCs.
  • Support independent outreach organizations.
  • Fund more evaluations of the impact of outreach programs--every one of the few done to date shows increased Jewish engagement after participation.

The Jewish community has an opportunity to make this the best of times concerning intermarriage, not the worst. Seeing intermarried families as a separate, inferior portion of our population, as Cohen does, leads to a dead end; intermarried families, like anyone else, will not affiliate with a group that demeans them and offers little programming to welcome them.

The key to Boston's successful targeting of interfaith families is not the actual outreach programs; those flowed from a communal choice to adopt a welcoming and inclusive attitude toward interfaith families and to respond to intermarriage positively.

Which shall we be: two Jewries or one?

For a counterpoint, read Steven M. Cohen's  Stop Looking at Intermarriage Through Rose-Colored Glasses.

Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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