View from America: What price outreach?

The results of a Boston study on interfaith families may have unintended consequences.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
For the past 15 years, Jewish intellectuals and activists have been waging a debate about what to do about the future of American Jewry. What they've pondered is this: Given the fact that at least half of all Jews who are marrying are finding non-Jewish partners, is it a better idea for the community to spend more of its scarce resources on programs designed to attract those on the margins of the organized Jewish world (i.e., the intermarried and their children), or are we better off devoting ourselves to better funding institutions that serve and perpetuate those already participating in Jewish life? This controversy was begun in the aftermath of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study. That was the survey which first put the notion that intermarriage was now so prevalent among Jews that it was a majority practice, rather than something only a minority engaged in. This "intermarriage crisis" wasn't merely a sensational statistic. It woke up the sleepy, alphabet-soup world of Jewish federations and groups that had, for the most part, ignored the entire issue. And it caught the attention of communal professionals who calculated that if Jews were being lost to assimilation at such a steep rate, before long no one might be left to pay their salaries. This stark realization set off the focus on "Jewish continuity" that was the keystone of so much of Jewish life in recent years. For the first time, Jews had to consider the question of how, as the catchphrase went, they could ensure that their grandchildren were Jewish. SINCE THE statistics seemed to show that the odds were against the children or grandchildren of an interfaith marriage being raised as Jews, the only response for those who wanted the community to survive was to put our faith in those programs that tended to reinforce the impulse to marry other Jews. The consequences of such a focus moved institutions and programs like day schools, Jewish summer camps and trips to Israel - all of which were shown to improve the chances that participants would eventually marry other Jews and become active members of the community - off the bottom of the communal priority list. Despite the fact that Jewish education never actually did become the top priority of most communities (day school and summer-camp tuitions remain expensive and out of the reach of many, if not most, middle-class families), at least more lip service was paid to them. But at the same time, the growing number of Jews who married non-Jews spawned another equally vibrant movement: the outreach lobby. What sense, this group asked, did it make for Jewish groups to spurn the 50 percent of us who married non-Jews? Rather than seeing them as irretrievably lost to the Jewish people, didn't it make more sense to spend some time and effort trying to entice them to make their families Jewish? Fueled in part by the commitment of Reform Judaism to recognizing the children of either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father as Jews, as well as by the plain fact that there was scarcely a non-Orthodox Jewish family that did not contain an intermarried child, outreach became increasingly popular. A RECENTLY released 2005 study conducted by Brandeis University's Steinhardt Social Research Institute on behalf of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies is causing almost as much of a stir as the 1990 national survey. That's because it showed that nearly 60 percent of all those children being raised in interfaith families in the Boston area are being raised as Jews. This astounding figure more than doubles the number that previous national surveys have shown. If true - and like all surveys, its numbers are open to interpretation and dispute - it would confirm the outreach lobby's point that the interfaith population is almost as likely to raise Jewish kids as those who marry other Jews. Even more important, outreach activists say, is that Boston has spent more money on outreach than most other communities. Indeed, the only other major Jewish population to give outreach a similar priority - San Francisco - has produced somewhat similar results. They say the only possible conclusion to draw from these numbers is that if other places desire the same, they should start investing more in outreach programs. That is logical, and the rest of the Jewish world would do well to study what Boston has done and see where their success can be emulated. But there are problems with using this one survey as an excuse to finally settle the in-reach/outreach debate. First, the Boston study is far from conclusive. By accepting a fairly loose definition of what it means to raise a child as a Jew, it isn't at all clear whether what's being analyzed is a genuine revival of Jewish life or a temporary pause in an assimilatory pattern. It will take another generation or more before we know whether the rise of once-a-week Hebrew schools unconnected to synagogue membership, which make up a large percentage of those counted in the study, are going to increase their chances of remaining part of the community. Even more to the point, the dynamic of emphasizing outreach has another clear effect on the messages we are sending. It is one thing to say that interfaith couples should be welcomed into the community wherever possible (as virtually every Jewish group now agrees). It is quite another to say that we should no longer waste our time or our money trying to encourage Jews to marry other Jews. Indeed, the endorsement of endogamy (in-marriage) has almost become a form of politically incorrect speech for some of us because it is seen as inherently insulting to the intermarried. IT IS true that there is an inherent contradiction between welcoming the intermarried and encouraging those who have not yet taken the plunge to choose a Jewish mate. But what is far from clear is what kind of a community we will have if our only message is one of inclusiveness. Will such a community be as committed to solidarity with Israel? Can it recreate intensive and vibrant Jewish study? In short, just how Jewish will it be? These are questions that the authors of the Boston survey and the outreach movement as a whole can only guess at. We can agree there ought not to be any competition between day schools and outreach. Both are desirable. Both ought to be funded. But in a Jewish world where budget cuts are just as much of a reality as new initiatives, inevitably there will be some who will ask us to choose. I don't doubt that more funding for outreach is a worthy idea that may well pay dividends. But if we create a culture that denigrates those who encourage in-marriage and values outreach over day schools and camps, we may well be making a mistake that will effectively decide the future in ways we may come to regret. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.