I want people to realistically understand intermarriage

Until now we have failed to check the rise in intermarriage or to bring the intermarried closer to Jewish life.

By STEVEN M. COHEN
February 7, 2007 19:31
generic jewish wedding 88

jewish wedding 88. (photo credit: )

In A Tale of Two Jewries: The 'Inconvenient Truth' for American Jews, I argue that, regrettably, "Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today, both on an individual level (for specific Jewish families and their descendants) and on a group level (for the size and distinctiveness of the American Jewish population)." I reach this disturbing conclusion notwithstanding manifold creative efforts in recent years to make Jewish life more meaningful, magnetic and welcoming to in-married and intermarried alike. Owing to the hopes of thousands of parents and grandparents, encouraging (too infrequent) examples of Jewishly engaged interfaith families, and the determination of outreach advocates, many Jewish policy-makers believe that we are "winning the battle" for the hearts, minds and souls of the intermarried. In the face of this unfortunately mistaken impression, A Tale of Two Jewries, published and distributed last week by the Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation, offers several reality-based comparisons between intermarried homes with school-age children and their in-married counterparts. "As compared with the in-married, only half as many of the intermarried observe Passover, Chanukah or Yom Kippur or belong to a synagogue. Just 7% have mostly Jewish close friends (as compared with 53% of the in-married). Only handfuls (9-14%) attend services at least monthly, have been to Israel, light Sabbath candles, keep kosher at home, or volunteer in Jewish contexts as compared with about four times as many among their inmarried counterparts." ONE REASON for these huge gaps is that few intermarried Jews, in their youth, experienced the high levels of Jewish education, the Jewishly engaged family life, and the geographic origins in areas of dense Jewish settlement that far more often characterize the in-married. "As compared with the in-married, only about half as many [of the intermarried] attended Jewish summer camp or participated in a Jewish youth group or visited Israel as a youngster, and a minuscule 3% attended a Jewish day school. Twice as many of the intermarried as the in-married grew up with Christmas trees in their homes, and far fewer observed their parents lighting Shabbat candles." Unless things change, the future for today's intermarried will look no different than it has in the past. Among the in-married, nearly all raise their children in the Jewish religion, and only in the Jewish religion. Nationally, the comparable figure for the intermarried is about one-third, with considerable geographic variations, higher in some cities (like Baltimore), and lower in others (like San Diego). But it's one third overall. Moreover, intermarriage begets intermarriage. Just under a third of the children of the in-married have been marrying non-Jews. For the children of the intermarried, though, the rate reaches about three-quarters. Or, take two Jews with the same background. Let's assume that both never went to day school, and that both had two parents who identified as Jews, but were not so observant as to regularly light Shabbat candles. The one who marries a Jew will have more than a 90% chance of raising his/her child in the Jewish religion. But the one who marries a non-Jew would have less than a 40% chance of doing so. At least that's the way things have been until now: a large gap separates the in-married Jews and intermarried Jews. Hence my claim that this is a tale of two Jewries. Some analysts assert that this dismal pattern somehow will reverse itself of its own accord. But the truth is, no other American religious or ethnic group has, as yet, seen its intermarriage rates diminish with the passing generations. No Jewish community has reported lower rates of intermarriage for young adults as compared with older adults. None has reported significantly lower intermarriage rates in the first years of the 21st century as compared with the 1980s or 1990s. IN BOSTON, the current intermarriage rate has climbed inexorably: from about 26% in 1985, to 34% in 1995, to 37% in 2005. In San Francisco, among the most welcoming communities in North America, the intermarried have moved further away from Jewish life over the last 20 years. From 1986 to 2004, ritual observance rates rose for the in-married; but they declined for the intermarried. In the last two decades, the gap between the in-married and inter-married, unfortunately, widened rather than narrowed - despite the community's vastly increased outreach efforts. All the acceptance, openness and welcoming for which the multi-ethnic Bay Area is so well known and admired has done nothing either to check the rise in intermarriage or to bring the intermarried closer to Jewish life. Some outreach professionals advocate for working exclusively on the already intermarried, since intermarriage itself cannot be prevented. Rather, I say we must work with both the intermarried and the non-married. True, a certain level of intermarriage is indeed inevitable. But all intermarriages are not inevitable. Parents, educators and communities are working to promote in-marriage and decrease rates of intermarriage. They need - and deserve - more help in doing so. Some advocate relying primarily upon welcoming the intermarried as a means of coping with the intermarriage challenge. Rather, we need a multi-pronged strategy for Jews of all ages, to reduce the odds of intermarriage before it takes place, and to increase the chances of engaging the intermarried family in Jewish living after it takes place. Fortunately, everything we need to do to contend with the intermarriage challenge, both before and after the fact, is valuable in its own right. Jewish education, Jewish association, promoting conversion, and reaching out to the unengaged to enter welcoming communities are all inherently good. In the context of the intermarriage challenge, they take on added value. So, what should be done? FIRST, FOR our children and teenagers, we need to increase their Jewish educational experiences, as almost all such experiences raise the chances of in-marriage. In addition to all the current strategies for expanding educational participation, we need to "Link the Silos" of Jewish education to get more Jewish children already in the system to acquire more numerous and coordinated educational experiences. • Second, for our unmarried Jewish young adults, we need to increase the chances that they meet and form friendships (and of course, enduring relationships) with other Jews. Among the best strategies here are motivating families to consider universities with higher Jewish populations; blanketing major metropolitan areas with Jewish cultural events; bringing thousands more young Jews to Israel, for a short 10-day trip or an intensive 10 months of study; providing opportunities for young Jews to engage in Jewish social service to strengthen their connections to fellow Jews; and supporting Jewish cultural, spiritual and political endeavors that have been organized by numerous extraordinarily creative Jewish adults under the age of 35. • Third, we must shift our posture toward the intermarried by going beyond welcoming to encourage the non-Jewish spouse to convert to Judaism. One untried way of doing so is to meet the pent-up demand for personal conversion counseling. We can experiment with hiring rabbis dedicated to working closely with interfaith families in their Jewish journeys. THIS IS the real message of A Tale of Two Jewries. Obviously this version, consistent with the original, differs in style and substance from the version (mis)presented by Paul Golin on this page, and implicitly addresses many of his concerns. Yet one issue remains: He fears that words addressed to Jewish policy-makers will be overheard by the intermarried and offend them, as may sharpen comparisons between them (the mixed married) and the in-married. To be clear: By drawing comparisons between in-married and mixed married, I mean no offense. Social science relies on drawing comparisons. Over the years, I have found some groups more Jewishly engaged than others: women more than men, the affluent more than the economically struggling, Easterners more than Californians, Canadians more than Americans, and, with respect to Israel, the old more than the young. These comparison do not stem from an animus toward the less Jewishly engaged group, but from a desire to understand them, and then to inform the Jewish policy world. Just as Golin is concerned lest the mixed married misinterpret my words, so too am I concerned that our unmarried children will misinterpret words of welcome to the intermarried. I hope that our unmarried children will not mistake our welcoming the intermarried for an endorsement of intermarriage. In the same vein, I do hope that my realistic presentation of the true implications of intermarriage for Jewish continuity will not be seen by the mixed married as a rejection of them or their families. We must broadcast two messages that are clearly in tension: To the unmarried, we need to stress the value of marrying other Jews as the means to create Jewish families and as fulfilling the normative expectations of our tradition and our People. To the mixed married, we need to encourage and welcome their Jewish involvement, their decisions to raise children exclusively in Judaism, and the exploration by non-Jewish spouses to move toward conversion. At the circumcision ceremony, we express the hope that our children will enter into a life of Torah (Jewish learning), huppa (Jewish marriage and family), and ma'asim tovim (good deeds). That is my wish for all Jewish children and grandchildren, and all children and grandchildren of Jews today. I trust and hope it is a wish shared by all who contend with the complex challenges posed by intermarriage. The writer is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. www.jewishlife.org/pdf/steven_cohen_paper.pdf


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