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Jewish Journal

Intermarriage reports urge understanding and openness

by Sue Fishkoff

March 13, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage argue for increasing Jewish educational opportunities, encouraging Jewish behaviors among both intermarried and inmarried Jews and opening the doors even further to intermarried couples and their children.

One report, the result of a new study, shows an intriguing correlation between rabbinic officiation at an intermarriage and how "Jewish" the family becomes.

"I would encourage the community to think more broadly," said Leonard Saxe, a professor of Jewish community research at Brandeis University and a co-author of one of the three reports. "The 'tragedy' is not intermarriage but that we haven't created an engaging Judaism that Jews, whether married to Jews or non-Jews, want to take part in."

Saxe's report, "It's Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah," is about to be released by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis.

It analyzes intermarriage data from several sources, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study and a 2007 Reform movement leadership survey, concluding that intermarriage itself is not as critical in determining a family's Jewish involvement as the Jewish partner's background and education.

In addition to that report, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Greater Boston just completed an in-depth investigation of its 2005 Greater Boston Community Study of Intermarried Families and Their Children. The investigation follows up on the study's much-debated finding, reported in November 2006, that 60 percent of children in the city's intermarried homes were being raised as Jews.

Also, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, an affiliate of Hebrew College in suburban Boston, will soon release a new study of 140 interfaith couples in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco that describes an intermarried population whose eagerness to explore Jewish involvement is often stymied by communal barriers.

With all of the reports and debates over intermarriage in the past two decades, some might think three more studies are overkill.

Saxe disagrees.

"This is all a positive development," he said. "The simple, end-of-the-world take on intermarriage that came out of a simplistic interpretation of the National Jewish Population Study data is now being better understood. It means people are paying attention to intermarriage in a more serious and thoughtful way."

The "Chuppah" report, like the other two, goes beyond hand wringing to suggest policies aimed at greater Jewish engagement for both the intermarried and the underinvolved.

Relying both on national and internal Reform movement data, it shows that the Jewish behaviors and practices of intermarried families who are raising their children as Jews is almost identical to those of inmarried Reform Jews.

Saxe and his co-researcher, Fern Chertok, caused a stir when they presented that finding at the Reform movement's biennial in December.

Their policy recommendations -- that Reform Jews in particular must participate more actively in Jewish life if they wish to model Judaism for their children, and that this is more important to the Jewish future than staving off intermarriage -- dovetailed with the initiative announced at the same convention by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, urging greater Shabbat observance among Reform Jews.

Creating a home filled with Jewish rituals and Jewish learning, Saxe and Chertok conclude in their report, has more influence on Jewish continuity than whether or not one marries a Jew. Thus the Jewish community would do well to encourage the former rather than worrying overly about the latter.

The newly released CJP report came about in part as a response to widespread criticism of its central finding that twice as many children in Boston's intermarried households are being raised Jewish as was reported by the latest National Jewish Population Study.

"People asked, what did we mean by 'raised Jewish?'" said Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at the CJP. "They said the way we asked the question led to a higher number of families saying they were raising their kids as Jews. So we looked at what that means in terms of real practice: day to day, week to week, what are these families doing?"

The result of that investigation not only confirmed the earlier findings, including the 60 percent figure, Preuss said, it also showed that a couple's initial decision to raise their children as Jews is the critical factor in determining an intermarried family's level of Jewish involvement.

Once a couple decides on a brit milah, or baby naming, for their newborn, he said, "the rest follows," from synagogue membership to religious school to Shabbat observance.

The CJP report also showed, as did the Steinhardt report, that at least in Boston, intermarried families in which the children are raised as Jews look pretty much like inmarried Reform Jewish families in terms of Jewish practice. Nearly 70 percent of the children in both groups become bar or bat mitzvah; similar percentages are enrolled in religious school and are members of congregations, although the intermarried families tend to join later and leave sooner, and both groups attend services with the same frequency.

That didn't happen on its own, local Jewish leaders say.

One major difference was noted in the religious education of teenagers. Whereas 37 percent of inmarried Reform families and 61 percent of Conservative families enroll their children of high school age in Jewish education, that number drops to 13 percent among intermarried families who are raising their children Jewishly.

The CJP is using this to beef up its financial support for Jewish education for teens and younger children as part of its strategic plan to be unveiled in May.

"The CJP will now spend a lot of time and money to strengthen the Jewish educational experience for 9- to 16-year-olds and their families," Preuss said.

Also this week, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies is releasing the findings of a new and extensive intermarriage study headed by University of Connecticut sociology professor Arnold Dashefsky.

Researchers interviewed 149 intermarried couples, mostly Jews married to Christians, in four cities, asking about their Jewish behaviors, degree of involvement with their Jewish communities, and negative and positive experiences with those communities.

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