A Leaky Tent


If you read The Jewish Week, you’ve seen Marvin Schick’s ads before. Tucked towards the back, they occupy a horizontal half-page and are all-text (small type) editorials on matters of import in the Jewish community. I rarely read them, but his ad from last week–which is also online on his blog–caught my attention.

Titled “As We Continue to Widen My Tent,” it is a simultaneous attack on the intermarried and non-traditional notions of Jewish identity. It begins with a lament over the intermarriage statistics first revealed by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. He actually is a bit charitable to the intermarried, saying “a great number continued to be involved in a Jewish life,” but he cleverly damns the intermarried by guilt of association:

The forces that compelled the acceptance of intermarriage could not escape the impact of changes in American society or Jewish life, changes that impelled most American Jews further away from the moorings of Jewish tradition. An additional pull away from what had been our sense of Jewishness resulted from Jewish identity being determined less by communal norms than by what can be referred to as self-definition.

This he calls “anything goes Judaism,” which essentially means practices that don’t fit his definition of what “authentic” Judaism is. As an example, he uses the most extreme, bizarre case of an event involving cross-dressers, haiku and booze titled “Golem Gets Married.”

Further guilty by association are “some demographers [who] have been hard at work expanding the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons who do not regard themselves as Jewish, the goal being to increase our numbers and also to promote the legitimacy of ultra-secular experiences that are somehow labeled Jewish.” I’m not sure any demographer would agree with him, but then again, they are subject to the same mysterious “forces that compelled the acceptance of intermarriage” that he discussed earlier.

He goes on:

The anything goes mindset is not the final leg in the journey away from even a minimalistic sense of traditional Jewish identity. The pervasiveness of social change and the maintenance of a critical mass who are comfortable with a definition of Jewishness that conforms to their life-style mandates a further enlargement of the tent. Intermarriage is now welcomed in certain quarters and there is the corollary urging that communal resources be directed at those who are most distant, including at persons who are not Jewish.

He then makes the completely bogus claim that “we are told that efforts to promote Jewish continuity should not favor day school education or conventional religious activity,” and that “we are told” that the spiritual needs of “at-risk Jews” should be be ignored and that “we should concentrate on those who are distant and unlikely to pay attention to our messages.” I’m not sure who the “we” is, nor who it is doing the telling, and the best he can say is “this argument was made at a recent conference on the future of North American Jewry.”

The question of funding outreach has never been an either/or proposition. As it is, less than one-tenth of one percent of all Jewish communal funding goes to outreach to the intermarried–does he really think that upping that, even ten-fold, would exclude day school education or the spiritual needs of at-risk Jews? If anything, recent events have shown that support for day school education among big funders is thriving–a whole series of communities have seen massive donations come in in an attempt to subsidize Jewish day school education.

In his final two paragraphs, Schick makes clear what his real game is: deligitimizing the results of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Study.

Advocates of outreach to non-Jews who are married to Jews have just gotten a boost, perhaps inadvertent, from a report out of Boston claiming that such activity by the local Federation has resulted in sixty percent of the children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews, a figure that is about twice as high as that indicated by NJPS and research in other communities. In all likelihood, the Boston statistic is exaggerated because of the inability of researchers to survey the intermarried who are not involved in Jewish life and/or those who do not have recognizable Jewish names. An added factor that points in the same direction is that Jews who no longer regard themselves as Jewish invariably do not respond to our demographers.

It sounds persuasive… if there were a speck of truth to anything he says.

First, advocates of outreach are not only looking to engage “non-Jews who are married to Jews,” they’re looking to engage Jews married to non-Jews. But his clever switching of the targets makes it seem like Jewish organizations are spending their time trying to reach people who aren’t even Jewish at all and have no interest in Judaism (who he earlier refers to as “peoples who are entirely bereft of a scintilla of Jewish identity.”)

Second, he claims that the report from Boston claims outreach activity by the local Federation has resulted in the 60 percent figure. Nowhere does the report make such a claim; as the various articles make clear, this is an explanation that various observers–such as our president, Ed Case–have offered.

Third, his charge that the demographers were unable to survey intermarried who are not involved in Jewish life is baseless. The survey is based on a combination of interviews with 1,400 people from a compilation of lists from Jewish organizations in Boston and 400 people identified from a random digit dialing of 3,000 households in the Boston area. The first group was weighted against the second so as not to provide a disproportionate picture of Jewish behaviors. The random dialing had nothing to do with recognizably Jewish names and in no way favored intermarried people who are involved in Jewish life. Indeed, as the survey showed, the overwhelming majority of Jewish women in intermarriages with non-Jewish men were raising their children Jewish–how many of these women does he think had recognizably Jewish surnames?

Moreover, I should clarify that the authors of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Study did not engage in any kind of hanky-panky involving the definition of Jewish. In their own words, they say “Jewish adults (ages 18 and above) were defined as individuals who identified as Jews (religious, ethically, or culturally) or who were raised as Jews and did not identify with any religion” and “Jewish children (ages 0 to 17) were defined as such if a parent reported that they were being raised as Jews.” This definition is not particularly different from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which defined Jews as “a person whose religion is Jewish, or whose religion is Jewish and something else, or who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, or who has a a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing.”

Indeed, the reason for the debate over intermarriage rates that he alludes to early on in his essay is that the authors of the 1990 NJPS deliberately used a more expansive definition of Jewish when calculating intermarriage rates than when authoring the rest of the 1990 report. The intermarriage rate initially reported for the 1990 report was 52 percent because it included as Jewish people with one Jewish parent who were raised in a non-Jewish upbringing. If anything, the demographers were guilty of exaggerating the intermarriage rate in an attempt to demonstrate there was a crisis, rather than the other way around, as Schick suggests.

Here’s Schick’s conclusion:

We are not now capable of preventing our tent from being enlarged, albeit bogusly, nor can we prevent critical resources from being diverted to meaningless pursuits. We must, however, insist that that which is authentic be supported.

Nowhere in his essay does he prove or even suggest how outreach is a “meaningless pursuit.” The best he can do is make totally bogus claims about why the best proof of their success–the recent Boston Jewish Community Study–is producing exaggerated results. If this is the best opponents of outreach to the intermarried can do, then Paul Golin is right: the battle over intermarriage is over.

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