Don’t Write Off the Intermarried: A Case for Community Outreach

February 12, 2007 (with Micah Sachs)
With a response from Steven M. Cohen

Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities begins with the famous opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sociologist Steven Cohen’s new study on intermarriage has a similar title, but a different spirit.

Ignoring positive recent evidence from Boston and elsewhere that more intermarried families are raising their children as Jews, Cohen’s “A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews,” sees only the worst of times when it comes to intermarriage.

It is uninformative to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of inmarried couples with all intermarried couples, as Cohen does. Sadly, one-third of intermarried couples are raising their children in another religion. It necessarily follows that intermarried couples, taken as an undifferentiated whole, are less Jewishly engaged than their inmarried counterparts.

Cohen sets up a straw identity chasm between inmarried and all intermarried families, and then knocks down intermarriage as “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity”–the sound-bite headline for which his paper will be remembered.

What is productive is to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of inmarried couples with those of intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews. When sociologists Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok made that comparison in a 2004 paper titled “Jewish Identity Among the Adult Children of Intermarriage: Event Horizon or Navigable Horizon?” they found greatly reduced gaps.

A child’s Jewish identity is determined not simply by the fact that the parents are intermarried but largely by the environment the family creates, and in particular by their decision to raise the children as Jews. Phillips and Chertok conclude that “Tarring all intermarriages with the same brush” makes the loss of Jewish identity “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The logical conclusion for policymakers to draw from an analysis that focuses on “two Jewries” is to write off the intermarried and support only increasing the Jewish engagement of the inmarried. In contrast, the logical conclusion to draw from an analysis showing that intermarried families raising their children as Jews are closer to inmarried families in their Jewish engagement is to support encouraging more interfaith families to raise their children as Jews.

Cohen concludes in “A Tale of Two Jewries” that Jewish education experiences “work.” In that respect he undoubtedly is correct, but measuring their success by the degree to which they reduce intermarriage is a serious mistake. Cohen acknowledges that Jewish education experiences “exert salutary effects even in the event of intermarriage. … [They serve] to further chances of Jewish continuity [including] by increasing the likelihood that the mixed married couple will raise its children exclusively in Judaism.” It would be far wiser to publicize the success of Jewish education experiences on that basis.

The reason is that recruitment–how to promote the use of Jewish education–is the “true challenge,” as Cohen says. But Jewish education can’t be “sold” to the intermarried on the basis that the experiences will reduce the chances that their child will intermarry. “Send your children to our day school/camp/etc. and they won’t succumb to intermarriage, the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity” is not a message that resonates with parents who did intermarry and who are raising their children as Jews. Promoting those experiences on the basis that they increase the chances that the children will make the same Jewish choices as those parents did–that is a message that is credible, open and inviting.

Half of the children who identify as Jews today have one Jewish parent. Transformative Jewish education experiences–day schools, camps, youth movements and Hillel, Israel travel and study, and intensive adult education–could have twice the impact, for little extra investment, if they attracted interfaith families and their children.

The timing of Cohen’s paper is particularly unfortunate because after the recent finding that 60 percent of Boston’s interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, policymakers and funders have a very clear road map to follow to seek comparable results everywhere:

  • Fund the Reform movement’s outreach staff and programming, as the Boston federation does, and foundations do in San Francisco. Every Union for Reform Judaism regional office could have a substantial outreach effort like those cities.
  • Back the efforts of Rabbi Charles Simon’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and its pioneering kiruv work in the Conservative movement.
  • Spur the JCC world to explicitly communicate the message that the JCCs welcome everyone in the Jewish community including interfaith families, and to have at least a part-time professional devoted to offering outreach programs in the JCCs.
  • Support independent outreach organizations.
  • Fund more evaluations of the impact of outreach programs–every one of the few done to date shows increased Jewish engagement after participation.

The Jewish community has an opportunity to make this the best of times concerning intermarriage, not the worst. Seeing intermarried families as a separate, inferior portion of our population, as Cohen does, leads to a dead end; intermarried families, like anyone else, will not affiliate with a group that demeans them and offers little programming to welcome them.

The key to Boston’s successful targeting of interfaith families is not the actual outreach programs; those flowed from a communal choice to adopt a welcoming and inclusive attitude toward interfaith families and to respond to intermarriage positively.

Which shall we be: two Jewries or one?

Steven M. Cohen’s response: Stop Looking at Intermarriage Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not, the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews. And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children, and because most of their children won’t identify as Jews, intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.

The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and JCCs became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of “Jewish outreach” efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, “interfaith outreach” seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.

Social scientists, myself included, have charted–and implicitly celebrated–the growing and exhilarating diversity of Jewish identities, communities and innovation. Since the early days of American Jewish sociology and its founder, Marshall Sklare, of blessed memory, we have documented the rises, falls and rises of Jewish identity over the life course. Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever.

But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life–however one measures it–than inmarried Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one’s kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one’s children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.

When we ask intermarried Jews, “how important is being Jewish to you?” as a group they score far lower than inmarried Jews.

Some news from the field has been encouraging. But for every report of an apparent success, we have an overall pattern of, let’s call it “less than success.” Sure the Baltimore Jewish population study reports that 62 percent of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, but the rate in San Diego is 21 percent and apparently less than 40 percent nationwide. Just 15 percent to 20 percent of intermarried couples are synagogue members, as compared with 60 percent of inmarried couples.

While Jewish religious engagement is steady or rising, Jewish connections and “collective identity” trends are clearly declining. While the inmarried are leading more intensive Jewish lives, the intermarried as a group remain much less engaged.

Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged–people reading this column, for example–raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry. Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we’re “winning the battle.” In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.

Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there’s nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there’s much that is being done to affect the rate.

Some sociologists claim we can find evidence of high rates of Jewish commitment among the intermarried as a group, if only we measured properly. But on no measures do the intermarried outscore the inmarried.

Some speculate that because Jewish identities are fluid, or because the intermarried have become so numerous, the intermarried as a group may well move toward significant Jewish engagement.

Yet no study shows the gap narrowing. Jewish identities are changing–but the basic import of intermarriage is not. San Francisco, for example, reports that from 1986 to 2004 observance patterns by the inmarried climbed, while those for the intermarried fell, further widening the gap between inmarried and intermarried.

The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews,” to refute the wishful thinking and false optimism that has grown up around the intermarriage question.

For anybody who’s been reading and writing the scientific analyses over the last few years, there’s nothing new here. It simply reminds us that intermarriage continues to grow in number; that most intermarried couples raise non-Jewish children; and that the children of the intermarried overwhelmingly marry non-Jews.

However, Jewish education–e.g., day schools, youth groups, Jewish camps, Israel trips–lowers intermarriage. So does Jewish association, such as experienced by living in areas with Jewish neighbors, attending universities with large Jewish student bodies, and participating in Jewish cultural events, spiritual communities and social justice activities.

I also highlight the growing conviction that we have to do better at promoting conversion, making conversion the ultimate objective of outreach efforts.

“A Tale of Two Jewries” is an advocacy piece. It was not written for the intermarried, nor as a guide for how to engage with the intermarried. Neither was it written in the cautionary style favored by the academy. It is meant to communicate. It is meant for the Jewish policymaking community–the philanthropists, those who advise them, the federations and other agencies that are making critical funding decisions.

It says intermarriage poses a grave threat to the numbers of communally identifying Jews. But it also says that you can make a difference.

You can invest in Jewish education. You can support growing efforts by Jewish young people in social justice, culture and spiritual communities. You can launch experiments to convert more non-Jews to Judaism, such as by paying for community rabbis dedicated to helping prospective converts embark upon Jewish journeys. You can do all this and more.

Or you can watch the Jewish population start to contract as my generation of baby boomers begins leaving this world for the next, to be replaced–or not–by a numerically much smaller cohort of Jewish descendants. The choice is yours.

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.