Continuing Promising News from Boston

Every ten years since 1965, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Boston federation, has conducted a community study. The 2005 study electrified the Jewish media with the finding that 60% of interfaith couples in Boston were raising their children as Jews. The 2015 Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis, reveals a wealth of information that strongly supports continued programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that identifies five groups with distinctive patterns of engaging in Jewish life and community; the Index is promising as a basis for future targeted programmatic efforts.

A detailed review of the 2015 Study can be found here. The highlights on the extent of intermarriage include:

  • there are 248,000 Jews in Boston, making it the fourth largest community in the US as defined by federation service area (after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), representing 7% of the area population, and having increased 4.6% since 2005.
  • 47% of couples in Jewish households are interfaith couples, 53% are two-Jewish couples (of the latter, 5% include a convert).
  • Of Jews in Boston, 8% are Israeli, 7% are Russian born or speaking, and 7% are LGBTQ; 70% of married Russian Jews are in interfaith relationships, 20% of Israeli Jews and 69% of LGBTQ Jews.

The highlights on the impact of intermarriage include:

  • 69% of children of intermarried couples are raised with Judaism, 57% exclusively Jewish, compared to 94% of children of inmarried couples:
    • 42% are Jews by religion, compared to 65% of children of inmarried
    • 15% are Jews not by religion, compared to 28% of children of inmarried
    • 12% are Jewish and another religion, compared to 1% of children of inmarried
    • 21% have no religion, compared to 5% of children of inmarried
    • 10% are another religion
  • 27% of the intermarried (37% of the intermarried with children) are synagogue members, compared to 57% of the inmarried (64% of the inmarried with children).
  • 21% of children of the intermarried are getting part-time (19%) or day school (2%) Jewish education; 83% of the intermarried with children attended services in the past year, 100% list Hanukkah candles, 93% attended a Seder, 59% light Shabbat candles sometimes, 22% follow some Kosher practice; 60% of the intermarried donate to Jewish causes; 86% are concerned with worldwide anti-Semitism; 72% feel very much (16%), somewhat (34%) or a little (22%) emotionally connected to Israel.
  • Interestingly, the intermarried score higher than the inmarried on volunteering for all non-Jewish causes, including education, poverty/social justice, medical/health, arts/culture and political activism.

The Study notes comparisons between intermarried and inmarried Jews on numerous other Jewish behaviors and attitudes, all summarized in a table in the detailed review.

The Study creates an Index of Jewish Engagement based on a statistical “cluster analysis” of fourteen Jewish behaviors, and identifies five patterns: the Minimally Involved (17% of all Jews) and the Immersed (15%) at the ends of the spectrum, and three middle groups: the Familial (24%) who engage primarily through family and home-based behaviors, the Affiliated (26%) who engage through family and communal organizations, and the Cultural (18%) who engage through family and cultural activities. Of the intermarried, 27% are Minimally Involved, 30% are Familial, 28% are Affiliated, 11% are Cultural, 5% are Immersed.

The apparent motivation for creating the Index was the feeling that dichotomies like “engaged/not engaged” and “religious/not religious,” and comparisons between denominations, “are inadequate descriptors of contemporary Jewish behavior.” “Boston Jewry is characterized by diverse ways of being involved in Jewish life…”  The Index was designed to identify opportunities for increased engagement that can be targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

The Boston Jewish Community, led by CJP, has been probably the most welcoming to interfaith couples and families of any American community; CJP has been funding programs targeted to engage interfaith families since the late 1990’s. The 2015 Study, like the earlier one in 2005, confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of the welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors.

Of course more needs to be and can be done, and the Study suggests several opportunities. One is the high percentage of intermarried Russian born and speaking Jews at which programming might be directed. Another is the relatively low percentages of intermarried couples who send their children to Jewish pre-school (12%, compared to 27% of inmarried), overnight camp (7%, compared to 27%) and on Israel trips (8%, compared to 37%). The growth market that these programmatic efforts need to focus on clearly is the children of the intermarried.

The percentages of intermarried couples in the various groups identified by the Index of Jewish Engagement, and the behaviors associated with those groups, also suggest avenues of opportunity. If the community wanted to move intermarried couples from the Minimally Involved group (27% of the intermarried compared to 17% of all Jews) and the Familial group (30% of the intermarried compared to 24% of all Jews) towards the Affiliated and the Cultural, then the organizations (around which the Affilated are involved) and the cultural activities (around which the Cultural are involved) could focus on efforts to attract and welcome more intermarried couples.

The Study doesn’t flesh out much about what some important categories mean. For example, 3% of Jewish adults are Jews “of multiple religions” and 12% of the children of intermarried couples are Jewish “and another religion.” The Study doesn’t report on any data that might illuminate what those labels mean or the behaviors of the people so described. Hopefully, more will be forthcoming.

Finally, the Study reveals some promising data on changing attitudes. The percentage of Jews who feel it is very important that their grandchildren are raised Jewish is 46%, higher than the percentage who feel it is very important that their children marry someone Jewish (31%). Even in the Immersed group, only 63% said it was very important that their child marry someone Jewish – but 85% want Jewish grandchildren. By welcoming and providing programming designed to attract and engage interfaith families Jewishly, the Boston Jewish community clearly is helping to make that desire an increasing reality.