Latest Surveys Are Responsible for Good News, not Bad

By Micah Sachs


Reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

Response to Michael Freund’s Bold Initiatives Are Needed–Like a “Birthright Honeymoon,” originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for some Jews to accept good news.

In November 2006, the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Survey was released. It showed an exceptionally high rate of intermarried families in the Boston area–60 percent–were raising their children Jewish, which was nearly double the rate from 1995. The authors of the study, who are some of the most respected demographers of Jewish life in the world, pointed out that these families contributed to a rise in Boston’s Jewish population.

Since then, it has come to light that several other cities with significant Jewish populations, including Miami, Baltimore and St. Louis, have intermarried populations where the majority are raising their children Jewish. Taken together, these nuggets of positive evidence should have led to a sea change in thinking about intermarriage: What once was perceived as a threat to the size of the Jewish population is now an opportunity.

Coming almost immediately on the heels of that good news was another happy revelation: Two new studies of the American Jewish population have shown that the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 undercounted the American Jewish population by at least a million–which means the American Jewish community actually grew between 1990 and 2000.

That growth discredits the numerous commentators in the United States and Israel who used the notion of American Jewish population decline as circumstantial proof of intermarriage’s deleterious effects.

But even with all this wonderful news that suggests our Kiddush cup is three-quarters full, the naysayers continue to point to the one-quarter that’s empty.

First, in the Forward, sociologist Steven Cohen and demographers Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller tried to discredit the Boston survey’s key finding on methodological grounds. Then, in The Jewish Week, Samuel Klagsbrun, a lay leader of the American Jewish Committee, expressed his deep skepticism over the Boston news because of his suspicion that intermarried Jews aren’t good enough Jews.

Now Michael Freund, the founder and chairman of an organization that seeks to help “lost” Jews, is bemoaning the impact of intermarriage based on his reading of the “unofficial scorecard for American Jewry,” the Sunday New York Times‘ wedding announcements page.

While Cohen, Ukeles and Miller base their critique on a researched examination of the issues, it’s amazing that community leaders like Klagsbrun and Freund would rather rely on hunches and dubious anecdotal proof than facts. Instead of relying on “an unofficial scorecard,” why not rely on an official one, like a demographic study of a major Jewish community done by demographers with impeccable credentials? Or two completely independent studies that show the American Jewish population is much bigger than previously thought?

Faced with clear-cut evidence that the American Jewish population is rising–and being unable to link increasing intermarriage with a declining population–critics have retreated to saying it’s the “quality,” not the “quantity” of Jews that’s important.

But noted Jewish demographers Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok showed in a 2004 paper that the differences in “quality” of Jewish behaviors between intermarried families raising their children Jewish and in-married Jewish families are not so large. It’s also particularly interesting that much of the discussion of the “quality” of American Jews comes from Israel, which has admitted hundreds of thousands of Russians of questionable Jewish descent in an attempt to fight flattening birthrates.

Rather than relying on hunches and intuition, let’s look at facts. Here they are:

  • In one of the largest Jewish communities in the country, in the city with the best-funded, best-organized collection of outreach programs, 60 percent of intermarried families are raising their children Jewish. (And in San Francisco, a city with an equally robust outreach presence, the percentage of intermarried families raising their children Jewish is higher than the national average.)
  • If more than half of intermarried families in a given community are raising their children Jewish, then they are actually raising more Jewish children than their inmarried counterparts.
  • For reasons not fully analyzed, the American Jewish population grew by more than a million–nearly 20 percent or more–between 1990 and 2000.

To be sure, the battle against assimilation has not been won. The majority of children of intermarriage nationally are still not raised as Jews. There is still much work to do. Intermarried newlyweds could benefit from the “Honeymoon Israel” trip Freund suggests as much as, if not more than, inmarried newlyweds.

But with the persistent threats in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza and the emerging threat in Iran, the worldwide Jewish community has more than its share of bad news. When good news comes along, let’s celebrate it.

We can go back to hand-wringing next week.



About Micah Sachs

Micah Sachs is the former managing editor of InterfaithFamily.