So Intermarriage is a Bad Thing, After All

An alert reader tipped me off last week to this piece from the JTA: “Latest salvo in intermarriage debate suggests a split in Jewish community.

Steven M. Cohen, a prominent Jewish sociologist, has fired the latest salvo in what is becoming an increasingly vituperative debate about outreach to the intermarried.

In his newest paper, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The `Inconvenient Truth’ for American Jews,” Cohen uses his own research and data from the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey to argue that inmarried and intermarried Jews form two distinct halves of the Jewish community.

And the Jewish future, he argues, rests with the inmarried, who are more Jewishly engaged and much more likely to raise their children as Jews.

The Orthodox have always argued that the intermarried will be, in the great majority, lost to the Jewish future. But Steven Cohen is no Orthodox ideologue — he is professor of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. And in his circles, where the term “Jewish outreach” means not outreach to unaffiliated Jews, but to non-Jews, his words are far more controversial.

Where one stands on this paper depends largely on where one stands on outreach. The debate has been going on at least since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed that 43 percent of new marriages involved intermarriage. That figure rose to 47 percent by the 2000-01 survey.

Should the Jewish community reach out aggressively to welcome the non-Jews in the hopes that they and their children will join the Jewish fold? Or should it circle the wagons, focusing communal attention on the inmarried and their progeny?

Note that the JTA, unsurprisingly, adopts the Reform definition of “outreach” without so much as acknowledging the existence of an alternative.

On the other side of the debate are the outreach professionals — Ed Case of, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute — and researchers such as Len Saxe at Brandeis’ Cohen Center and Bethamie Horowitz of the Mandel Foundation, who say that concerted outreach to the intermarried is not only right, it’s effective.

Saxe was the lead researcher on a recent study of Boston’s Jewish community that showed nearly 60 percent of the city’s children from intermarried homes were being raised as Jews, a figure almost double the national average, according to the 2001 Jewish population study.

Debate over the Boston study raged for weeks. Supporters said it shows that communal investment in outreach pays off. Opponents said it had more to do with Boston’s investment in Jewish education.

I am certain of four things. I am certain that (1) the Boston study omitted many of the least affiliated intermarrieds, thus creating an inaccurate statistic; (2) when these children grow up, far less than 50% will affiliate as Jewish adults; (3) far more than 50% of them will intermarry themselves, and (4) of the next generation, much less than 50% will be raised as Jews.

I have said in the past that reaching out to non-Jews is an ineffective way to ensure a Jewish future — comparable to “treating a patient with a spurting arterial wound by giving him a transfusion.”

This is a somewhat obvious conclusion — the only thing surprising about Cohen’s results is that they have arrived so soon.

In one chart Cohen shows that 71 percent of Jews whose parents were intermarried but who married Jews are raising their children exclusively as Jews, whereas that number dropped below 10 percent for Jews from intermarried backgrounds who are also intermarried.

“Intermarriage makes a difference — a very large difference — in the likelihood of raising one’s children exclusively as Jews,” he concludes.

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9 Responses

  1. Fern R says:

    I think we (the Jewish community) need to do both.

    I am the product of a Jewish mother and a secular, non-Jewish father. I am a practicing Jew (doing my best to live a Torah-observant life) and my husband is also Jewish. I have two brothers, one is living a secular, nominally Jewish life and the other attends a Jewish day school and davens at a Orthodox shul. So 2/3s of my parents offspring are still well connected to the Jewish community and there is still hope for my more secular brother. Clearly it was not a waste of time and resources to reach out to my parents and encourage them to raise their children Jewishly (as my parents’ Reform synagogue did).

    Obviously the best situation is for Jews to marry other Jews. But when a Jew marries a non-Jew (especially a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jew), the appropriate response shouldn’t be to shun them. Then the Jewish community needs to go into damage control mode to make sure that the children don’t lose their Jewish identity. It seems so obvious to me that we shouldn’t choose one to the exclusivity of the other. If we shun Jews who have made a mistake then we lose out on the opportunity to bring them (and their children) back into the fold.

  2. Ahron says:

    I certainly agree with Fern (above) that outreach can well include intermarried Jews and their families. But as a general policy, we should realize that is is unlikely to offer the same “return on investment” of energy and time as strengthening the education and community fabric of ‘regular’ Jewish couples.

    The real story here, though, is irrelevant to most Jewish couples. The real story is about the viability of a “Jewish” mode of living that attempts to obviate even the need to marry a partner of the same faith, values and worldview (Obviously I’m not including such likely shared values as “being-a-good-person”, etc.) As for the Boston study, I find their statistic simply beyond the realm of the credible. “Nearly 60%” raised as Jews? And what standard, pray tell, constitutes the entrance bar for being “raised” as “Jews”? Does it mean having a Channukah menorah and a Xmas tree? Does it mean going to a Passover Seder at the grandparents once a year? Does it mean skipping desert on Yom Kippur?

    Sorry to sound so glum about this, but let’s please get real: Even the well-rooted Jewish devotion of one Jewish parent–likely a very scarce commodity in most intermarriages–is achingly insufficient to alleviate the neutrality or cool disinterest of another parent. Nor is the psychic stress and friction stemming from the reception of entirely different value sets from each parent (aside from the shared value of being-a-good-personism, of course) likely to set a child on a course towards even psychological health, not to even begin mentioning Jewish strength.

    Obviously much can always be done, or at least attempted, ex post facto. Teshuvah is always possible (and by that I do not even mean divorce). But to predict that an intermarriage is likely to provide a viable path to children with a strong Jewish identity and balanced emotional health is simple fantasy. That huge portions of an organization populated by Jews, supposedly committed to Jewish values and the Jewish future, could believe such nonsense, is not a positive testament to their powers of intellect or strategy. Then again, it may not be a testament to our powers of intellect or strategy either. “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh” –we are all responsible for each other–after all remains in effect. Where have all of us been?

  3. SM says:

    Personal feeling isn’t a substitute for research. So what R Menken is “certain” of may not be correct. Nor does it offer a response which the authors of the study would recognise – a definite weakness if he wants to debate them. Ahron’s comment is more to the point; how did this study define “raised as Jews”?

    Equally, if the impressive result (whatever it actually is) is a response to Boston’s investment in Jewish education then that investment represents a good return and serious study.

    The issue for the Orthodox world is the extent to which they want to associate with only moderately committed Jews. In the UK, where I come from, the answer to that question has always been “fully”. Hence the United Synagogue where non-orthoprax people belong to orthodox congregations. For what it’s worth I would like to see a study which measures direction and speed of travel rather than which of two religions, or no religion, parents raise children of mixed marriages.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    I am very wary of studies such as the Boston study which reduce Jewish identity to that of the lowest common denominator. It is interesting that the same pollsters and those who endow such studies studiously avoid reporting on today’s Torah communities and continue to tell their readers that yesterday’s Orthodox communities are disappearing .

  5. Reb Yid says:

    Having studied the Boston report and methodology in some detail, I can respond:

    The children’s being raised Jewish was defined by religion. So that settles that question.

    The real question is to what extent intermarriage is truly “causing” these lower levels of affiliation/identification. It’s too glib and simplistic to say that it is.

    Perhaps at an earlier point in American Jewish history, intermarriage was seen by some as a upwardly mobile path to “escape” Judaism. That’s simply no longer the case, even though many contemporary analyses of intermarriage are still flawed by this outdated, hidden assumption.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Are people who at best care little about Judaism going to be troubled by the prospect that, if they intermarry, their children or grandchildren will not identify as Jews?

    The non-Orthodox religious and secular organizations that need the revenue stream from the likely “defectors” do have reason to be troubled by the decline in Jewish identification, but no mere study will focus these groups on real solutions to the decline.

  7. Yoel Ben-Avraham says:

    “I am certain of four things.” I’ll add a fifth. That those few select souls that do feel some affinity for Judaism who elect to live as Jews will be devastated and/or blind with anger when they discover the Jews who live according to tradition do not consider them Jewish at all.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Yoel Ben-Avraham — February 13, 2007 @ 1:22 pm :

    Some who imagine that they are Jews will be devastated and/or blind with anger when they discover that religious Jews consider their conversions to be bogus. But the fraud itself is the crime; pointing to the fraud is not.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I don’t think many people in the Heterodox organizational community thinks of intermarriage as a good thing milchatchila. However, those organizations do not have the influence to affect marriage choices. All they can do is handle the choices people have already made bediavad, after the fact.

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