This is the fifth part in an ongoing debate with Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. Part I is here, Part II here, Part III here and Part IV here. We have been discussing many issues, and readers are more than welcome to weigh in, send questions or comments, and take part in this conversation about Jewish life in America today.
By way of making my life easier – but not yours – I’m going to ask someone else’s question, or questions. I’ve found these questions in an interesting JewSchool post by the notable TheWanderingJew, a post that is very long and detailed, and generally talks about your findings in the New York community study as they relate to intermarriage.
From the post one gets the impression that the writer is quite suspicious of you. As I’m sure you know, there is a community of Jews that thinks you’re an intermarriage alarmist, and which is not quite happy with your way of describing the impact of intermarriage on Jewish identity and the American Jewish community. But I don’t think we can deal with all of that in one go, and suggest we focus on just two paragraphs – and the many questions they contain – from the TheWanderingJew.
This part of his post refers to the following paragraph from the New York study:
Several factors account for the rise of the nondenominational segment of the population. One factor noted earlier is a decreasing attachment to denominational (and other social) identities, including political parties, consumer brands, nations, and communities. Another is the increased number of adult children of intermarriage — among the adult children of the intermarried, 65% identify with no denomination or a minor denomination, in contrast with just 32% of the adult children of two Jewish parents. A third is the increasingly porous boundaries that allow the entry of people born non-Jewish but who become identified as Jews despite never having gone through conversion.
TheWanderingJew has many questions on this finding, and I suggest we pick some of them and attempt to give him an answer. But truly, most of these questions reflect the suspicions I mentioned – he seems to think that for some reason your representation of the intermarried community is somehow skewed.
This one surprised me. I’m familiar with the growing trend to move away from denominations. (Heck, I’m as engaged with Judaism as it gets, but pray at transdenominational or post-denominational minyans instead of synagogues of any denomination and regularly score low on Steven M. Cohen’s scales. (One such example, where I score a zero.) But I hadn’t expected the statistic to be so much greater among adult children of intermarriage. I’d love to know more: Were these adults raised with strong ties to the Jewish community? Were they raised in denominations that recognized their parents’ marriages? Recognized them as Jews? And when it comes to “minor denomination,” why are Renewal, Sephardic, secular humanist, havurahs and minyans, and others considered lesser?
Further, how do these statistics take into account the likelihood of an intermarried individual who was raised Orthodox or Conservative shifting to Reform, Reconstructionist or “other” (or no) denominations after facing barriers in the denomination in which they were raised? If raised Orthodox but now participating in a Reform synagogue, because that’s the only place they could find clergy to officiate their wedding, because that’s where their patrilineal children are acknowledged as Jewish, they’re now counted as Reform (though they might not identify as “Reform” nor “Orthodox” now). And with statistics skewed in this way, it perpetuates the idea that intermarriage isn’t an issue for the Orthodox community (or Conservative, to a lesser extent), making it difficult to make inroads there.
So – please answer some questions, just to reassure the readers that your numbers are solid, and also say something about the suspicious tone. Are you biased against the intermarried community?
All the best,
Clinical, Not Critical
No, I am not, “biased against the intermarried community.” At the core of my being is a love of Jews in all their variety. Significant elements of my persona and my biography are … Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secularist, Zionist, Yiddishist, democratic socialist and even socially conservative (well, on just a few issues). I have always deeply resonated with the Rosenzeig’s imperative that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” I find myself frequently situated at the interstices of Jewish life – on Israel, I’m a “hawkish dove;” on Judaism, I’m a “moderately observant secularist;” and on the Jewish People, I’m an “ethnocentric liberal.”
Obviously, as would any committed Jew, I clearly favor certain Jewish acts and positions over others. But my evaluative stance applies to the acts, and never to the person. I oppose West Bank settlements, but not West Bank settlers; I criticize Jewish anti-Zionism, but not the anti-Zionists; and so forth. On a personal level, I live with and love the intermarried. I celebrate intermarriages in my family (and even have arranged for rabbi to perform the mixed marriage of a family member), and, the only person named after one of my parents is the child of a non-Jewish mother. I am gladdened by the minority of intermarried families who raise their children as Jews and by the regrettably even smaller minority that undertakes acts of significant Jewish engagement such as joining congregations and other Jewish communities.
In short and to be clear: I am not “biased against the intermarried community.” My overriding concern with intermarriage is entirely about policies, and not at all about people. In brief, my focus is clinical, not critical. I come to this issue not as a rabbi, teacher, or moralist, but as something akin to a public health official concerned, in this case, with the collective vitality of the Jewish People and its diverse component parts.
And, as a policy analyst and advocate, I seek to fashion a “third way,” a hybrid approach that draws upon the insights and impulses of two camps active in the intermarriage debate: the “intermarriage hawks,” and “intermarriage doves.” Here too, as with Israel, I see myself as a hawkish dove.
Along with the intermarriage hawks I believe that intermarriage, as a phenomenon, poses grave challenges to the number of non-Orthodox Jews in the next two generations and beyond. And along with the intermarriage doves, I believe that Jewish leaders and Jewish family members are morally obligated not only to welcome intermarried Jews, but to work assiduously to counteract feelings of exclusion, be they justified or not.
But, at the same time, I part company with both camps in terms of policy. The hawks are wrong when they believe that more articulate, repeated or forceful condemnation of intermarriage will work to raise inmarriage rates. The doves are wrong when they believe that welcoming the intermarried – as proper and worthy an act as that is – will do much to raise the participation of intermarried families in Jewish life.
Indeed, support for this latter view of the ineffectiveness of welcoming emerges in the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 that I wrote with Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller under the sponsorship of the UJA-Federation of New York. There we found only small numbers of people saying that they felt very uncomfortable attending most Jewish activities and events, with only small variations among the inmarried, intermarried and non-married. If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution. Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate. Moreover, costs of membership and participation may seem higher to the intermarried (and other engaged Jews) than to the already engaged; hence financial barriers may be more important for the intermarried than for others.
Certainly, over the years, I have emphasized the deleterious effects of intermarriage both upon the Jewish engagement of the intermarried and their children, as well as upon the Jewish population. The prime reason I have done so is the startling gap between the facts on the ground and the perceptions of Jewish leaders.
To wit: Only about a third of children of the intermarried are raised exclusively Jewish; in New York we found that 31% of the children are being raised as Jews, a rate in the middle of a wide range of figures, which can sometimes exceeds 60% (as it did in Hartford, Baltimore and Boston). However, overall, it seems that only a third of the children of the intermarried are raised as Jews and Jews alone. Not only does intermarriage affect the Jewish commitment of the next generation. By diminishing the number of people who are engaged in Jewish child-rearing, it diminishes the commitment and connection of parents in this generation.
Moreover, intermarriage has a dynamic of its own. The rates of intermarriage among the Jewish-raised children of the intermarried are MUCH higher than among the children of the inmarried. While a third of the children of the intermarried identify as Jews, we can expect that less than 10% of the grandchildren of the intermarried to identify as Jews.
Intermarriage, late marriage and non-marriage are severely depressing Jewish birthrates, and, more specifically, the average number of Jewish children per Jewish woman. In the New York study, among Hasidim, we estimated that women 35-44 had given birth to almost 6 children, on average. For the Modern Orthodox, the average we derived amounted to 2.5. For the non-Orthodox, the comparable figure reached as low as 1.3. Demographers set the ZPG figure at 2.1. If so, then Hasidim are experiencing EPG (Explosive Population Growth); the Modern Orthodox PPG (Positive Population Growth); and the rest of us, NPG (Negative Population Growth).
As a result of intermarriage, delayed marriage, non-marriage and low fertility, non-Orthodox Jewry in the US has entered a population meltdown. One vivid factoid: In the New York area, Orthodox represent 20% of my age cohort (55-64); and they constitute 63% of Jewish children age 6-12. For Conservative Jews and Reform Jews, the patterns are reversed (23%/13% and 25%/16% respectively). In other words, in moving from the middle-age to elementary school years, the Orthodox market share has tripled; but those of Conservative and Reform Jews have fallen by nearly half. The decline of Conservative, Reform and other streams of the Jewish population is already affecting a wide swath of Jewish organizations that draw upon the large center of the Jewish identity spectrum. Further decline will gravely restrict the Jewish community and Jewish choices available to our children and grandchildren, making for a less rich, diverse and interesting Jewish community in coming decades.
In the face of all the evidence of non-Orthodox population decline, much of the organized Jewish community and its leaders continue to believe that we have made huge progress in the battle against the ill effects of intermarriage. For example, we may read a report published a few years ago by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, co-authored by Barry Shrage, whom I cite precisely because of my huge admiration for him as one of the most imaginative and effective advocates of Jewish community building of our time. In this report, we read: intermarried families choosing to raise their children as Jews are deeply engaged in Jewish practice. In what are widely seen as traditional Jewish ritual practices, intermarried families with Jewish children are generally as observant as inmarried Jewish families
But, the findings a few pages later in the same report sharply contrast with that upbeat portrayal of the intermarried. The findings distinguish intermarried families raising Jewish children from in-married families raising Jewish children. We learn that after Bar Mitzvah, only 13% of the intermarried children are enrolled in Jewish education as compared with 61% of Conservative teenagers. Synagogue membership is twice as high among the Conservative in-married families as among the intermarried. Just 5% of the intermarried belong to a JCC as compared with 34% of the Conservative families. And while 24% of the Conservative kids have been to Israel, as have 15% of the Reform teenagers, among the intermarried the figure plummets to 1%. (The New York results point to the same pattern: Intermarried families score lower on all measures of Jewish engagement, encompassing not just what Jews do, but how they feel and with whom they associate.) In short, the findings in the study simply do not sustain the claim that intermarried families “are deeply engaged in Jewish practice.”
If the gaps in Jewish engagement between the in-married and the intermarried are so wide (as Jack Ukeles, Ron Miller and I found in the New York study – with its 5,993 respondents and very wide assortment of engagement indicators), then why do so many good and smart people feel otherwise? One reason is that engaged Jews get a statistically biased view of the intermarried. They meet those intermarried who, thankfully, are indeed involved in Jewish life, who engage with Israel, volunteer for social justice causes, belong to congregations, and become rabbis, educators, and Jewish communal professionals. However, only by calling thousands of Jews randomly – as we did in the New York study – do we encounter the vast majority of intermarried Jews with minimal connection with Jewish life. Of those with children, about two thirds are raising their children as Christians, non-Jews, or Jewish and something else – or haven’t made their minds. While 63% of inmarried non-Orthodox Jews regard being Jewish as very important, only 21% of the intermarried so believe. We who are involved in Jewish life meet the 21% (and a few others) … what about the 79%? Part of the reason I’ve been so insistent upon underscoring the intermarried families’ distance for Jewish life is that so many leaders and other good people seem to have been saying quite the opposite. And, insofar as they admit to a lag in Jewish engagement among the intermarried, they ascribe it to a failure on the part of Jewish communities to sufficiently welcome the intermarried, compounding a wrong diagnosis with a minimally effective response.
Rather, in addition to welcoming the intermarried, we need to do more to elevate the rate at which Jews marry Jews (or those who convert to Judaism). Rather than being a lost cause as some have suggested, much can be done to elevate the inmarriage rate. It turns out that all forms of intensive Jewish educational experience advance the in-marriage rate … Jewish pre-schools, day schools, youth groups, camps, Hillels, Jewish Studies, short-term trips to Israel, and then long-term trips to Israel. But social networks – Jews knowing Jews – are as vital to promoting inmarriage as is Jewish education. It may be that zip code is a better predictor of intermarriage than Jewish education.
Thus, we need to tend not only to Jewish education, but also Jewish association – more Jews meeting and knowing more Jews. Jews’ connection with other Jews is especially critical for boosting the in-marriage rate, and we have lots of ways of enhancing and enriching Jewish connections. We can do a much better job of supporting the wide variety of activities for and by Jewish young adults in the areas of independent minyanim, social justice, culture, Jewish learning, and new media. We can hire rabbis to work in Conservative and Reform congregations to tend to the hundreds of potential converts, largely non-members, who receive little attention from our already over-burdened congregational rabbis. We can build cafes in areas of new Jewish settlement, more Jewish film festivals, more Jewish music events, and more Jewish travel experiences.
We can do all this, but only if we have the will and the sense of urgency. But, believing and claiming that intermarried families are already deeply engaged in Jewish practice deprives us of that urgency. Telling Jewish leaders the truth is necessary not only as a matter of moral principle, it’s the only way we will begin to address the most critical challenge to the Jewish people of our time. (To re-emphasize, these are my own views and not necessarily those of Dr. Jack Ukeles and Dr. Ron Miller, the other co-authors of the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011; nor are they necessarily the views of the UJA-Federation of New York, which sponsored the study.)