Jewish Federations embrace intermarried couples

58% of US Jews have a non-Jewish spouse

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – Since the Pew Research Center came out with a study showing rapidly increasing rates of intermarriage and assimilation among US Jews two years ago, Jewish Federations across the country have looked for ways to address the phenomenon.
The study, which was published in the fall of 2013 and surveyed 3,475 people, showed that 58 percent of Jews in the US are married to non-Jews. In addition, only 45% of intermarried Jews are raising their children as Jews by religion.
“When the study came out, it caught the attention of our federation and then we digested it and thought about how it relates to us,” the head of the Jewish Federation of Birmingham in Alabama, Richard Friedman, told The Jerusalem Post at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington last week.
“We understood we shouldn’t take it as face value,” he explained. “For us as a federation it isn’t saying that our generation is unaffiliated, it just meant we have to be creative in finding ways to make Jews engage with Jews.”
To achieve this, Friedman and his staff, mainly consisting of millennials, have decided to embrace intermarried couples and ensure that they are included in Jewish life.
“We have a policy of ‘No strings attached.’ You can be involved in our federation without necessarily [giving money],” he said. “We also create support for millennials who play fairly significant leadership roles, there is no kids’ table at the Birmingham Jewish Federation.”
While his federation, like many organizations serving Jewish people, is committed to the principle of continuity – meaning producing Jewish children and maintaining Jewish homes – Friedman said it is important to adapt to modern reality.
“When Jews are married to Jews, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are affiliated to Jewish life,” he explained. “And often times, Jews are married to people who are not Jewish but who are nonetheless very supportive of maintaining Jewish life.”
Friedman stressed that BJF’s “strategy” is to make the federation a “welcoming and open place for Jews married to non-Jews.
“We want to be a place where a Jewish person can immerse deeply in a way that makes the non-Jewish partner more comfortable.”
The spokesman for the Jewish Community Federation & Endowment Fund of San Francisco, Ilan Kayatsky, said opening doors to intermarried couples has also been his organization’s policy.
According to Kayatsky, in the Bay Area, assimilation and intermarriage have been facts of life for many years, and the federation decided early on to embrace it.
“For us it’s less about worrying about assimilation so much as ensuring that we are welcoming and accepting of those who wish to be part of the community,” he told the Post.
“That means supporting and actively engaging community members in lots of different ways, making sure that there is no barrier to access for those who feel like they are on the outside.”
One of the JCF’s latest initiatives supporting single Jewish mothers illustrates this philosophy, he said. “We have discovered that this population had felt very much overlooked and has been in danger of moving away from Jewish life because of those barriers to access,” he explained.
Kayatsky explained the JCF strives to be “as inclusive as possible” and to “create meaningful engagement opportunities.”
BJF and JFC are not the only Jewish federations to have chosen this route.
Recently, the Jewish Funders Network came out with a Matching Grant Initiative aiming to “encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families.”
To do so, the JFN encourages donors to engage with nonprofits and other organizations in developing the field.
The JFN Matching Grant model consists of leveraging the funds of these nonprofits to encourage donors to make their first-ever grant to projects supporting intermarried families.
“Some $1.6 million in matching funds is on offer to fund organizations and projects that support and enhance avenues to Jewish engagement for intermarried couples and their families in North America, Israel and around the world,” the JFN wrote on its website.
The initiative was taken in honor of 2015 Genesis Prize Laureate Michael Douglas, who comes from an interfaith family.