Why Intermarrieds Stay Away

There’s a new article coming out in the Forward by Gal Beckerman,  New Study Finds That It’s Not a Lack of Welcome That’s Keeping the Intermarrieds Away.

Beckerman starts by saying that “the guiding principle” of organizations like InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish Outreach Institute is to “be more welcoming.” Then Beckerman says that Steven M. Cohen in a recent study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that most interfaith couples feel like that have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. Cohen is quoted as saying that outreach “has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming” and that “the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried, and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.” He suggests that there is a competence barrier, that the couple does not have access to what is going on once they are in a synagogue, that they need not open arms but a helping hand.

Encouraging Jewish communities to be more welcoming is only one part of InterfaithFamily.com’s strategy. We have a theory of change that posits that interfaith couples will engage in Jewish life if they are attracted to it, if they feel knowledgeable about it, if they can reconcile the other religious tradition in their family – and if they experience welcome in Jewish settings. In short – there is a need for the community to be welcoming, and there is a need to help interfaith couples feel competent.

The notion that interfaith couples don’t feel unwelcome in Jewish settings simply does not recognize reality. Belittling being welcoming as a matter of having smiling ushers may explain why Cohen doesn’t “get it.” Being welcoming is much more than that. Sylvia Barack Fishman chimes in with a particularly insulting comment. She suggests that outreach leaders focus on overcoming stigma because they are intermarried themselves and had to overcome uncomfortable stares in an earlier era, decades ago, no longer relevant.

I’ve got news for you Sylvia, and Steven: there is still a tremendous need for improvement in the welcoming department. I just watched the video of a focus group that IFF’s marketing communications consultants conducted last week. People said they didn’t feel welcomed when they heard “don’t intermarry” messages, when they felt subtle pressure to convert, when rabbis tell them what they have to do in order to participate, when the first reactions they experience are suspicion and infiltration. The issue of officiation came up a lot; one person said, “rejection stays with you. It turns you off to the synagogue and it turns you off to Judaism.”

At least Cohen says that being welcoming is “a good thing to do.” That’s a start. And his support for providing Jewish education to the intermarried, and “changing our own expectations of new initiates to Jewish life” – that is very positive as well.

I appreciate being quoted in the article for saying that welcoming institutions and increased Jewish literacy are both necessary, and I agree with Kerry Olitzky from JOI that literacy can be addressed but “you have to demonstrate to people… that they are going to be welcomed and embraced, that there are others like them that are part of this community, that they will feel like they belong.”

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.