Jewish Journal


The Rosner-Cohen Exchange Part V: Are you biased against intermarried Jews?

by Shmuel Rosner

July 30, 2012 | 9:16 am

Chelsea Clinton marrying Jewish banker Marc Mezvinsky at an interfaith ceremony at New York, July 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

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.

Dear Steven,‎

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. ‎

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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

Dear Shmuel,‎

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.)‎


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