Intermarriage: The Impact of Birthright Israel
A “new” study, Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel, is being publicized on the impact of Birthright Israel on intermarriage. I put “new” in quotations because the study was prepared in November 2010. It apparently was published online by Contemporary Jewry then (I didn’t see it at the time), but the print version of the November 2010 journal is just being delivered, so the study is now getting some mention.
I’ve blogged before previous studies about Birthright Israel and intermarriage and the significance of Jewish wedding ceremonies. The new study is important for focusing on intermarriage and collecting observations that have previously been made. The main conclusions of the new study reiterate that participation in Birthright Israel is associated with significantly greater probability of non-Orthodox trip participants being married to a Jew, and with increased importance placed upon raising Jewish children.
The study notes positive impacts of the trip on people involved in intermarriage: trip participants who were intermarried were nearly three times as likely as non-participants who were intermarried to think raising children as Jews was “very important,” and trip participants who themselves had intermarried parents, “rather than being lost to Jewish life,… appear to be particularly susceptible to informal Jewish education…”
For me this report is most interesting for its description of the “inreach” and “outreach” advocates and this conclusion:
The study casts doubt on the central claim of advocates of inreach; specifically, that there is little that can be done to convince intermarried couples to choose to raise their children as Jews. [Birthright Israel’s] strong impact on the importance intermarried participants attach to raising their children as Jews should encourage advocates of inreach to reconsider the possibility of engaging those who choose a mixed marriage. In parallel, the study also casts doubt on a central claim of outreach advocates. The present findings provide strong evidence that the rate of intermarriage is not fixed and unchangeable. Rather, the likelihood of intermarriage is contingent upon Jewish education and background, including even—or especially—educational interventions that occur after children leave their parents’ homes. Perhaps most importantly, the study suggests that there is no need to decide between inreach and outreach. The educational interventions that reduce the likelihood of intermarriage—including but not limited to [Birthright Israel]—also increase the likelihood that intermarried Jews will view raising Jewish children as very important.
As an outreach advocate, I have to say that I don’t take the position that the rate of intermarriage is fixed and unchangeable, and I am all in favor of educational interventions that result in part in more in-marriage. As I said in my previous blog post, “Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews.”
But I do take the position that there is going to continue to be a significant amount of intermarriage in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, regardless of intervention efforts. Again as I said with respect to the earlier study, “of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried…. [A]lthough trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.”
The choice between inreach and outreach as described by Leonard Saxe and the co-authors of this study is in my view a distraction from another more serious issue. There is extremely little programming available that is explicitly targeted at engaging people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life and community. This study supports educational interventions before intermarriage occurs, and it talks about comparative and cumulative effects of interventions like day school and Jewish camp as well as Birthright Israel, but it does not acknowledge that programming aimed at interfaith couples and families could have a similar positive cumulative impact. Sadly, it seems that the only interventions that are palatable to many in the community are those that can be shown to reduce intermarriage, with the fact that they also lead to more Jewish engagement by those who intermarry anyway as an tolerated by-product.
The last point in the report is that:
The present research cannot shed light on a key issue that will continue to divide the inreach and outreach advocates; specifically, whether rabbis and Jewish educators should advocate for endogamy. In the case of [Birthright Israel], the program’s effects appear to be due to more general features of the program, such as its impact on participants’ overall Jewish identities and/or social networks. Direct promotion of inmarriage is not part of [Birthright Israel’s] curriculum. Although some [Birthright Israel] educators may encourage endogamy, the program’s effects seem too large to be the result of such ad hoc efforts. Accordingly, the question of whether rabbis and educators should advocate for endogamy remains unanswered.
I have argued this point extensively before, most recently in my presentation at the Jewish Federation of North America’s last General Assembly. Advocating for endogamy creates too much of a risk of alienating the substantial numbers of people who do intermarry. I see this question as related to another issue that is implicated but not addressed in the new study, something I mentioned in my previous blog posts:
It would be a shame if … Birthright Israel [was viewed] as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”
This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.